"With intense clarity of colour and an uncompromising curiosity about the physical realm of both men and women, Ren Hang's increasingly expansive body of work captures the edgy perspective of contemporary Chinese youth." – Ren Hang was presented with these carefully chosen words on the website of UCCA, one of the most famous galleries in the 798 area. They were written for an exhibition curated by the famous photographer Rong Rong.
Ren Hang's work is bold, but he himself is a very simple person, even slightly shy. Once you have got to know him better, he doesn't mind sharing his life and experiences, but he doesn't like talking about his work. "When the photo is done, it's done; what others think about it is their business." But he likes to write bizarre poems of his own that he publishes on his blog, which has many followers. He publishes his photos on a special website, but whenever he starts a new site it is quite quickly shut down. The reason is that the photos show too many naked bodies. But once one has been shut down, he immediately starts a new one; it is a game of cat and mouse.
"To me, the most important of the web is that it gives me the opportunity to publish my photos, and it's also helpful for finding models." Ren gave me a newly-published photo book of his work, the first and only to be printed. The book only contains photos, no text at all. "A friend on the net helped me publish this book. He had seen my photos and liked them. He asked me if I'd published a book or catalogue. I said I hadn't. He asked me why not. I have no money! So he said, I can give you money to publish the book. Of course I thought he was joking, but after a while he actually sent money. And we've never met." The money didn't solve all the problems; now he had to find a printer that was willing to print the book. No-one in Beijing dared print his photos. The fear was that it would be considered as "spreading pornographic material", a criminal offense in China. Finally, he found a private printer in a small town in Hebei province owned – yet again – by an internet friend. The printer printed the book himself, at night when the workers weren't there, but was roundly scolded by his wife, who said it was much too dangerous!
Those who came to his aid did not see his photos as "pornography", and of course neither does Ren Hang. I asked him why sexuality and nudity are such central themes for him. He replied: "I've also shot landscapes, actually, but nobody likes that. I suppose people don't need landscapes, they care more about nudity. I used to be very curious about sex; there was something mysterious about it, and I took some pictures for fun. Now I see sexuality as the most natural thing in the world." I sum up his thoughts: people choose to dress in the most varied ways, so one should be free to choose in which various ways one wishes to be unclothed. Ren Hang agrees, adding: "What others see as tradition, I don't see as my tradition."
With regard to Ren's own homosexuality, all his friends know about it, but not his parents, who live far from Beijing. I asked him about his thoughts on appearing in the Secret Love exhibition, with its theme of diversity in sexuality and gender. He replied that he understands and supports it, and also respected the fact that I hadn't chosen his most provocative images. These questions must be raised and discussed openly, says Ren Hang. But he hopes that future exhibitions will not be linked to sexual orientation. For this new, freshly-qualified university student, the hope is that in future, the labels "heterosexual" and "homosexual" will not be used to distinguish people.
Si Han, Curator
Ren Hang 任航
1987: born in Jilin
2010: graduated from the Advertising Dept., Communication University of China, Beijing
Lives and works in Beijing