By Tina Shan, Barnard College
Originally published in the 2018 print edition.
What is it about the surface of the body that excites us and disturbs us? When Ren Hang’s camera captures nude figures against stark and abstract backgrounds, the photographer presents the human body in an undefined state. While he is most famous for portraits of his friends, Ren is also a prolific poet and essayist. Born in 1987 on the outskirts of Changchun, Jilin province in northeast China, Ren moved to Beijing at the age of seventeen to study advertising, and began practicing photography. While existing Western criticism often sees the nudity in his work as a tool of resistance against the censorship in China and the conservative attitude on sexuality among the Chinese, such a view dilutes the works’ full force of resistance to the governance of the body. For the Western viewer, it is worthwhile to notice that the rich and illuminating discourse on gender and sexuality nonetheless pertains to a Eurocentric socio-historical context and is closely intertwined with neoliberal discourse. While this lens can be useful in understanding Ren’s work, its limitations are also exposed by his body of work produced on contemporary Chinese life. To imagine the Chinese state as oppressive and Chinese society as monolithically conservative contradicts the myriad of possibilities in inhabiting sexuality among the urban youths as witnessed by Ren’s camera. Engaging in such an approach diverts from the direct contact demanded of the viewer. Ren’s images rethink forms of love and life outside the limits of a single discourse.
This is not to say that Ren presents an apolitical body in his photos. Rather, the body is vitally political, for it conforms neither to any discourse on gender and sexuality nor political camps behind the discourse. Placing the body in strange, absurd, and unsettling compositions, Ren’s photographs provoke tension in all parties. His candid observations of his generation’s expressions of gender and sexuality point to the limits of current Western-dominated discourse on such topics. Ren’s complex body of work contains a matrix of ideas that confuse and challenge the gender binary, pointing to a pure state of being where bodies are no longer subject to labels of gender, sexuality, or even ethnic origin. The resistance in his work goes beyond challenging one single state. Rather, these images pose questions about possibilities of human existence, which, when fully recognized, will shake any viewer’s grip on reality no matter their identity or origin.
By tracing the figuration of the calla lily in a series of untitled images from 2016, we get a glimpse of how Ren plays with an existing visual metaphor, expands its gender association, and eventually transgresses the gender binary. The calla lily—a plant that was once used by photographer Imogen Cunningham as a symbol of female genitalia and fierce female sexuality—is reinterpreted by Ren. On a solid red background, a male figure sits with the soles of his feet touching and the knees fanned out. Three red calla lily flowers sit around the male genitalia to form a cross shape, the tips of their white spadices almost touching the tip of the erect penis. The voluptuous and sensual bud, iconic in Cunningham’s images, flattens in Ren’s rendition. The three red calla lilies are placed onto a red background, so that the spathes blend into the background, while the long and slender spadices stand out and become phallic to the eye. Placing the three flowers vertical to a penis, Ren inverts the symbolic euphemism of the female genitalia into a phallic one.
As Ren performs this inversion, he abandons the sensual quality that makes one’s eyes linger on a Cunningham image. His intention, however, is sometimes overlooked. Dian Hanson, editor of the Taschen monograph on Ren, dedicates half of her introduction to discussing the size of penises in the book and commends the photographer, “Ren, in his short life, did an admirable job of dismantling genital stereotypes and convincing us that Chinese private parts do indeed deserve more public exposure.”1 However, the genitals in question do not readily welcome the curious gaze of someone like Hanson. Unlike the soft and sensual calla lilies of Cunningham, each spathe in Ren’s flowers reflect the glare from a stark flash. The overexposed highlight area combined with the angular positioning of the four spadices (the penis being the fourth one), result in a portrait that is more confrontational than inviting. Hanson may be right that Ren brings “public exposure” to “Chinese private parts,” but he does so in a way that protects the body from contemplation or consumption. These are two coping mechanisms often used in Western art history to deal with nudity, both of which linger like ghosts behind Hanson’s enthusiastic commentary.
Had Ren’s reinterpretation of the calla lily stopped at the replacement of the sensual representation of the vagina with that of the penis, Hanson would be right to identify the main merit of Ren’s work as showing that Chinese penises are “impressive” and “surprisingly assertive.”2 However, contrary to Hanson’s impression, one does not to have to look hard in Ren’s work to find images of female genitalia. Made in 2016, the same year as the first image, a photo of two women posing with red calla lilies puts Hanson’s narrow focus on male genitals into question. Here, two women stare straight into the camera, lifting the bottom of their red turtlenecks to reveal a stem of calla lily held over each of their pubic areas. The effect of this image is not to simply revert the calla lily back to a symbol of female sexuality. Rather, the additional image poses a question on the validity of the gender binary. The inability to pin down the flower as a “female”/“male” symbol instills frustration in the viewer—a productive type of frustration. The contradiction illuminates the absurdity of characterizing the calla lily as “female” or “male.” As a result, the artificiality of gendering objects or people emerges. In a conversation with Hanson, Ren says, “Gender… only matters to me when I’m having sex.”3 The translation of this sentence lacks a central nuance: the Chinese word Ren uses for gender is “性别,” the first character meaning “sex” or “gender,” and the second character meaning “differentiation” or “othering.” While the subject of his images makes it hard to convince the viewer that gender is not a topic of interest to the artist, the images deal with gender as a means of categorization.
Mirjam Kooiman, a curator based in Amsterdam, observes the undifferentiated attitude toward gender in Ren’s images, “There’s no hierarchy between the female and the male model in his work. It’s very telling about these tendencies of sexuality and queerness in Chinese society and how his generation is dealing with it.”4 If one takes this absence of gender hierarchy seriously, one begins to wonder if it is lazy, even disrespectful, to assimilate Ren’s images into the global discourse on gender and sexuality. While critics often applaud Ren for putting the presence of the gay community in China on the international stage despite state censorship, the label of “gay man” relies heavily on a rigid understanding of gender binaries, whereas Ren’s images undermine the validity of such polarizations. For example, in a third image containing the calla lily, a man appears to have his mouth behind the flower. If one were to approach this image with Ren’s queerness in mind, one would be tempted to decipher what message the image contains: Is he gay? Straight? The question of the gender of the calla lily returns. The image in question both generates and leaves unsatiated the viewer’s appetite for definitive clarity, for it refuses to delineate what “gay” or “straight” may mean. The discomfort raised by ambiguity makes the reader aware of their own tendency to categorize, understand, and control a sexuality that remains fluid in Ren’s work.
Only when the desire to categorize the body, by nation or by gender, fades away, can the taboo around nudity finally dissipate. The impossibility of making sense of Ren’s photographic world in terms of gender binary brings the viewer to a point of recognizing the bodies in their primal state: pure expressions of life. The artist himself has implied that such an attitude disentangles the body from any institutionalized political discourse. “I do not think nudity is challenging—nudity is common, everybody has it,” says Ren, “I like people naked and I like sex; I use nudity so that I can feel more realism and sense of presence.”5 Before dismissing these words as a typically elusive statement made by an artist, we might first try to understand the full weight of such an attitude. In the accolades showered on Ren for breaking the taboo of nudity, the body is abstracted into a tool of resistance against the institution (be it governmental, moral, or legal). His tendency to abstract the body into a sign of liberation and revolution carries no less violence than an inclination to censor the body, for they both ignore the body’s reality and substance. Seeing the body as a symbol of liberation conceals the deep unease in confronting a nude body, and Ren seems insistent that we should see the body without turning it into a representation of anything other than itself. In fact, a fourth image, in which two white calla lilies are placed over the figure’s eyes, suggests that we are blinded by symbolisms of sex. Do we not project an internalized mindset that deems nudity challenging? Such a projection protrudes out of our eye sockets, so that we can only see the world through the phallic/yonic symbols, and are unable to face the human body in its pure form.
Contrary to Ren’s nonchalant and unapologetic view on nudity, some of his publishers insist that his interest in nudity makes him a hero against censorship. The following words from French publisher Éditions du Lic represent a popular vision of Ren as a David-against-Goliath figure fighting against the Chinese government. “Ren Hang’s images challenge conventional codes of morality in a still highly conservative society,” states Éditions du Lic in an interview with the British Journal of Photography, before continuing to claim that “Hang is part of a new breed of 21st century Chinese artists, ‘riding the wave of modernisation and cultural reawakening in China.’”6 Labeling Ren as a force of “modernisation” and purposefully creating a disjunction between the photographer and the country is a maladroit attempt to gloss over the leftover problems of 20th century colonization and modernization. As Hanson states, the ban on pornographic images in China only came into law in 1949, at the birth of the People’s Republic of China.7 The kind of censorship imposed on Ren’s work today is in fact a product of China’s modernization and an import of Western political organization. The danger of constantly painting China as a backwards and conservative state, other than doing a disservice to history, is that Ren’s work on the current international discussion on gender and sexuality is lost. As Western critics and publishers pride themselves in being the heralds of sexual freedom, they lose sight of the limit of their own ideas of gender and sexuality, against which Ren constantly pushes.
One way for Ren to poke at such limits is to preserve an openness in his work, as well as its presentation. When introducing his second photo book, ROOM, Ren writes, “This is my second book. It’s about some boys and some protuberant organs.”8 There is an intentional vagueness in this statement that goes beyond dodging censorship, but is a rather poignant demand on the viewer—to resist labeling and see the photographed bodies as they are, as original beings. In 2016, Ren launched a year-long publication plan, about which he said, “each month, I’ll publish a photobook—on all existences and love.”9 Here, Ren positions himself as an observer and recorder of life as it enacts myriad forms of existence and love in front of his camera. Beijing-based writer Josh Feola reaffirms the artist’s wish to be an observer; in contrast to critics quoted earlier, he recognizes the dynamism of Chinese society as the essential source to Ren’s work:
As the old, parochial China of this generation’s parents has receded with astonishing speed, there has been nothing to replace it, and artists like Ren Hang have been fascinated with the complexity and chaos of the reality with which they’re left. They are busy enough simply trying to represent it; drawing conclusions seemed superfluous. 10
Drawing conclusions is not only superfluous, but simply impossible. As Ren’s images show, the abundance of possibilities of life exceeds our arsenal of constructing arguments and making conclusions. To see such a complex society as “highly conservative” means to erase the very traces that Ren attempts to preserve: the lives of his friends, his parents (Ren’s mother models for a series titled “My Mum”), and himself. In other words, to see Chinese society as monolithic means blinding oneself to forms of existences captured by Ren’s camera. By extension, such a bias continues to deprive the bodies present in his work of a space to live and love.
The inconclusiveness of existence suggested by Ren’s work is difficult to absorb for an audience familiar with the logic that life moves towards an end that gives it purpose. This teleological view of life lies not only in religious doctrines aimed at salvation, but also within the linear structure of every sentence, the historical view of time, and the way we bundle being with purpose in a phrase like raison d’être, without which one knows not how to live. In a review of the Taschen monograph, Matthew McLean writes,
Though perhaps overdetermined by the postscript of his suicide, to my eyes these images suggest someone who has lost his sense of what anything is for, of how things—bodies and objects, individuals and their worlds—fit together.11
McLean is correct that Ren’s images show a process of losing grip on the world. However, implied by his interpretation of Ren’s suicide is McLean’s assumption that losing a sense of purpose makes living life impossible. Do Ren’s photos provide a possibility of suspending life in inconclusiveness, without falling into nihilism? McLean keenly observes that the images show the artist as someone “who has lost his sense of what anything is for,” as someone, in other words, who has lost his raison d’être. Yet, Ren’s images, quietly yet defiantly displaying a senselessness, challenge the notion that being must be supported by a reason or purpose. While McLean links, not without some hesitation, the loss of sense in Ren’s work to the artist’s suicide, I suggest that the viewer look at the images outside of the shadow of the artist’s death for a moment. As Ren’s images provide the viewer with an opportunity to see life in untamed chaos, they also show that the loss of reason and order can become a condition for creation. Confronted with Ren’s images, the viewer loses their grip on the familiar logic of being. The stark and abstract background, the use of flash at point-blank, and body parts disfigured by composition and framing—these signature devices of Ren’s prevent the viewer from narrating and analyzing the image using conventional logic. The futility of familiar language and coherent narrative inspires a new language of interpretation, one that perhaps communicates through emotions and sensations rather than reason. By nature, such a language is ephemeral, and requires constant renewal at each moment of beholding.
The demand for such a language of interpretation contained in Ren’s work reveals his view on life. Not surprisingly, Ren’s written work shows a similar urge to create a new language that defies the logic of conventional language which also governs our being. Among Ren’s published diaries on his depression is a passage on the creation and forgetting of language. On May 4th, 2016, Ren writes,
In fact, there are no accurate words suitable for expression, I even began to create new language, but I often forget the language newly created by myself, because there is no logic to it. Every day, I struggle in forgetting and creating, but struggling required energy as well. Later I gave up struggling as well. I got used to accepting whatever comes. […]
I just throw a pebble into the darkness every day, never hearing back an echo. If life is an endless abyss, when I jump into it, falling infinitely, it will be a kind of flight.12
I am not sure what kind of conclusion to offer in light of these words. Just as Ren feels the need to be an observer, rather than a commentator, of the world that he finds himself in, I find it necessary to simply hold these words, and see them as Ren invites us to see his images: approach them with no judgement, no intention to turn them into a spectacle. If Ren is “provocative,” as described in many of his obituaries, it is not only for challenging an oppressive state, but more for challenging the logic of conventional language, the very medium through which humans think about, communicate with, and understand the world. In creating new forms of visual and textual expression, Ren demands that his audience imagine unconventional ways of living, loving, and being.
Faced with Ren’s photographs, the viewer’s tools of analyzing an image prove futile. Who does the image empower? What social commentary does the image make on the power dynamic between genders? How can the photographer create a visual representation that liberates the body from the spectator’s gaze? Much of the energy in his images come from wrestling with these questions. But each picture calls for an original response at every moment of perception, each image keeping the others in check so that the photographer’s legacy will never be subsumed into a single strand of discourse. The bodies in Ren’s images are saved from becoming hostage to any political or ideological discourse, evoking instead a fluid state of being, and dissolving boundaries of gender and sexuality.
1. Dian Hanson, Ren Hang, (Köln: Taschen, 2016), 9.
3. Ren Hang quoted by Editor Dian Hanson, Ibid.
4. Mirjam Kooiman quoted in Tom Seymour, “Controversial and Renowned Chinese Photographer Ren Hang Dies Aged 29,” British Journal of Photography, last modified February 24, 2017, http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/02/ren-hang-leading-chinese-photographer-has-died-aged-29/.
5. Ren Hang quoted in “An Interview with Ren Hang,” British Journal of Photography, February 27, 2017, http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/02/an-interview-with-ren-hang/.
6. Éditions du Lic, Ibid.
7. Hanson, 9.
8. Ren Hang, “Website Section: Book,” translation from Chinese by author, http://renhang.org/Book.
10. Josh Feola, “Photographer Ren Hang Filled Chinese Culture Void for Urban Youth,” The New York Observer, New York, NY, March 30, 2017, https://search.proquest.com/docview/1882083662/abstract/598223AE33B476CPQ/1.
11. Matthew McLean, “Books: Ren Hang,” Art Review, April 01, 2017, https://artreview.com/ magazine/2017-2006/artreview_april_2017.
12. Ren Hang, “My Depression,” translation from Chinese by author, accessed October 28, 2017, http://renhang.org/My-Depression.
“An Interview with Ren Hang.” British Journal of Photography. February 27, 2017. http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/02/an-interview-with-ren-hang/.
Feola, Josh. “Photographer Ren Hang Filled Chinese Culture Void for Urban Youth.” The New York Observer, New York, NY. March 30, 2017. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1882083662/abstract/598223AE33B476CPQ/1.
McLean, Matthew. “Books: Ren Hang.” Art Review. April 01, 2017. https://artreview.com/ magazine/2017-2006/artreview_april_2017/.
Ren, Hang. Ren Hang. Edited by Dian Hanson. Köln: TASCHEN, 2016.
Ren, Hang. “Book.” Translation from Chinese by author. http://renhang.org/Book. Accessed 10/28/2017.
Ren, Hang. “My Depression.” Translation from Chinese by author. Accessed October 28, 2017. http://renhang.org/My-Depression.
Seymour, Tom. “Controversial and Renowned Chinese Photographer Ren Hang Dies Aged 29.” British Journal of Photography. February 24, 2017. http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/02/ren-hang-leading-chinese-photographer-has-died-aged-29/.