Ren Hang’s Provocative Photographs Show a China We Rarely See

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PARIS — When Ren Hang’s nude photographs were first exhibited in China barely a decade ago, it is immediately identified as an artistic phenomenon and quickly swept away by Western art galleries. His images were playful and provocative, visually stunning with an underlying sense of vulnerability, sometimes bordering on pornography, but never vulgar. They offered a glimpse of a Outsiders to the Chinese youth subculture rarely got to see.

Mr. RenThe career of was meteoric and tragically brief. He committed suicide in 2017 at the age of 29, leaving behind a very personal work: there is no doubt that it is a photograph of Ren Hang.

A retrospective of At Mr. Ren’s job is exhibited at the European House of Photography in Paris until May 26. It is one of the first exhibitions curated by the museum’s new director, Simon Baker, who was previously curator of photography at Tate Galleries in Britain.

Mr. Baker picked out a few highlights from the show. Here are edited excerpts of his explanations.


Ren Han’s work can be seen as performance art or physical sculpture, but for me it is freedom of expression, provocation without offense. He is not radical in the sense of Ai Wei Wei’s work, but resolutely anti-conformist.

These people play to be themselves instead of the stereotypical Chinese citizen. It’s really quite naughty disobedience, and to get the picture before the police arrive. Who knows if they would have been arrested or simply reprimanded and sent home?

I read this image as quite sexual, quite provocative. I like the cross and the red nails. Her models just have a little bit of red nail polish, a little lipstick, and then it’s just the color of their skin and their hair.

There is a tendencythere to see contemporary Chinese art strongly influenced by the West. But Ren Hang represents the influence of a Chinese artist on young Westerners photographers. He was very interested to Araki, the Japanese artist, and you might see Guy Bourdin in his work. But what you see in his photos is mostly Chinese.


Ren Hang was gay. Being “out there” in China is complicated, and neither his family nor the people in China really understood what he was doing.

He did much of his work in his apartment and in the parks of Beijing. He was shooting friends, but also making online calls on WeChat [a Chinese social media platform]and people would show up, take off their clothes and he would start putting them down.

Everything is very simple, very homemade, improvised and natural. His influence is immense on young artists interested in performance photography and on sexuality.


One can only imagine how they made this photo, with models leaning on chairs or ladders, or held upside down.

I think it will be a very joyful sight. We called it “Love, Ren Hang”. Two of his books with photos he took in Europe are called “Athens Love” and “Vienna Love”.

This is clearly a very fleeting moment. Someone probably threw the butterflies at the model, who managed to remain completely calm and maintain her vibe.

Ren Hang is often portrayed as some sort of pornographic artist – and in truth, there are images in his work that are quite harsh. But there are also many strikingly beautiful, elegant and carefully composed images.


This image is amazing, but such a simple idea. The beautiful blue sky is probably just the white wall of his apartment, flared by the flash. And that was almost certainly shot on the double bed of minimum possible size: in a small room, in a small apartment without light. It’s the mark of a truly incredible artist, when you can transform the everyday into something very beautiful. It’s alchemy.


It’s easy to project onto Ren Hang that he was some kind of freedom fighter, but his work is more about personal freedom, like surrealism, where you find freedom by stepping within and not conforming not, rather than protesting in a militant way..


When Ren Hang has passed away, causing a huge outpouring of emotion online. He wrote many poems, some very explicit, and many about depression and death. They are amazing, very short, like haikus, each a picture done very perfectly and economically.

The show will also include a very nice series of photos of her mother. She is still very grieving.


This will be our poster outside the museum. It’s a stunning image: really amazing, very simple and haunting because the sense of color is so incredible. It became like a sort of cult image, and a lot of people tattooed it on it.

Ren Hang has shot advertisements for magazines. Barriers have fallen between fashion photography, contemporary art and fine art photography. He had something the fashion world is always looking for: a look, a signature.

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