When Ren Hang died, it was a huge shock to many in the world of art and photography. At only the age of 29, his passing sadly curtailed what looked like a highly promising career. What makes the loss hard to bear is the considerable amount of talent Hang had. Any look at his photographs — usually of his friends — sees his unique way of framing the nude human body. His photos were highly explicit, yet also intimate and celebratory of the beauty of Asian bodies.
Additionally, coming from a highly conservative country when it comes to nudity, and especially when it comes to queer art, Hang’s photos were a much-needed revelation. Yet he said of his photography that it came from a very natural place: “I don’t really view my work as taboo, because I don’t think so much in cultural context, or political context. I don’t intentionally push boundaries, I just do what I do.” Nevertheless, any look at Ren Hang’s work sees him working in a highly provocative mode. In honour of the late great photographer, here is a rundown of his most boundary-pushing work.
This above photo sums up Ren Hang’s approach to gender perfectly. There may be a woman in the middle, but the bodies surrounding her seem quite androgynous. This reflects Hang’s gender inclusivity, the photographer famously saying: “Gender isn’t important when I’m taking pictures, it only matters to me when I’m having sex.”
Countless artists have linked flowers and nudity before. Few have done is so unabashedly as Ren Hang.
But it is not only women who are blessed with flowers by Ren Hang. The photographer also extends the same courtesy to men, the above picture granting naked men the same sensitivity as women.
Ren Hang always had a fascination for erect penises. As he told Vice: “I do think that erect penises are the most real and beautiful penises. People sometimes even forget they have a penis unless it’s erect, which I think is very powerful.”
Four pairs of buttocks, all rendered more or less genderless. For someone from such a patriarchal society as his native China — in which the binaries between men and women lead to a system of oppression — Hang’s rejection of the dichotomy was hailed as near-revolutionary.
This above photo sees one model dribbling a milky liquid on top of another. The very ambiguity is what it is gives this picture a very unsettling quality.
Here a woman is seen to unabashedly love her own vagina. This self-love is a much-needed counter to the male gaze. Additionally, with a full bush, this photo also celebrates natural body hair.
One-upping his own radical depiction of the nude form, Hang brought a snake into a mix for this photo. The snake creates a sense of danger here that comes with a certain erotic charge.
One of Hang’s favourite images was multiple hands on one sole body. Suggesting a highly generous view of sex and gender, the body on offer here is seen as not impartial to group action.
Depicting the act of urination in the midst of spiky surroundings this photo not only makes one fearful for the model, but acts as a challenge to the viewer by being as frank as possible.