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Undressing China: The Photography of Ren Hang

written by Emma Roche August 3, 2016

Ren Hang is a 28-year-old self-taught photographer and poet living in Beijing, China. Born in Changchun, Jilin Province, China in 1987, Hang went on to study marketing in a university in Beijing. He became interested in photography but seemed to be skeptical at first but continued to shoot until he realised that photography was his true passion. Hangs work became known through the Internet and quickly gained the attention it deserved. Although many of his websites were shut down due to their content, a new website will quickly turn up.

His photography mostly consists of nude portraits of both women and men. Hang mainly shoots them in his Beijing apartment, using close friends as his models. He has said that the reason he tends to use his companions as models is because it makes the shoot more comfortable for the both of them. Hang insists that all shoots must have an element of fun to them or else why bother? His type of work closely relates to the work of Ryan McGinley, a photographer who also uses friends as models in different settings that are familiar to them. McGinley is an American photographer who also creates nude portraits often in dramatic landscapes often outside in natural environments. Similar to Hang McGinley’s work also displays themes of sexuality and the body.

Because Hang creates these nude works in Beijing he has run into many problems with the authorities over the years. In China, sex is a very taboo subject. Sex is never talked about openly nor displayed in public. The authorities in China are doing their very best to censor Ren Hangs work because of the nude images. Hang has had many exhibitions shut down by police due to the fact that nude work would be displayed. Hang has also been arrested on different occasions purely for shooting nude images outside of his apartment. Even with these restrictions in place, Hang states that he feels most relaxed shooting in China as it is where he was born and bred.

Hangs work is very focused on the body, both its shape and form. Hang likes to explore the different boundaries of the body by shooting with numerous models in a range of different poses. This work is usually shot using a 35mm film camera. A lot of the poses in Hangs photographs are very confrontational. These images force the viewer to look at these naked bodies, often giving full eye contact to the spectator. Although themes of innocence and vulnerability can be seen throughout Hangs work there is also a strong presence of sexuality. This seems to relate back to Chinas photo restrictions. These images are showing that even with these restrictions in place, the people of China do and will continue to talk and be open about their sexuality. Hang agrees that bodies are to be explored not hidden, and these photographs testify to that.

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Despite Chinas distaste with these images, Hangs work has been recognised on a global level. Having taken part in over 50 solo and group exhibitions, he is now a well-respected Photographer. This work was also featured in an exhibition curated by Ai Weiwei, called ‘’Fuck Off 2’’ which opened in the Netherlands in 2013. Ai Weiwei is probably the most well known Chinese artist. Most famous for his sculptures and installations, his work attempts to bring attention to the human rights problems facing the globe.

Hangs second solo exhibition ‘’In addition to sleep’’ which was showcased from April to May in 2014 in the Vasli Souza gallery in Malmo, Sweden was a huge success. This exhibition features some of Hangs best work. This particular body of work shows its freethinking models desire to be released from traditional Chinese values. This can be seen by the attitudes of the models, which are very matter of fact, rather than being coy. Although every image in this exhibition contains different parts of the body they don’t in any way resemble pornographic images. Hangs photographs almost de-eroticise the body rather than eroticise the body, which is the sole purpose of pornography. This is very comforting to witness in todays age where both women and men are constantly being over sexualised in the media.

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Ren Hang successfully uses different kinds of animals to draw our attention to our animalistic nature. Showing the viewer that we have many things in common with animals and are in fact animals ourselves. By also incorporating nature and natural elements such as plants into these nude portraits this hints at the viewer to mainly focus on the body. By bringing our attention to the body in this way it is as if we are only really viewing the body being photographed for the first time. Juxtaposed to this, often when we view traditional nude photographs we do not really take much notice of the body whereas in Hangs work this is not the case. The body now becomes more fascinating due to the use of setting and objects.

The artistic images in this exhibition are also shot and curated in such a way that these photographs almost feel like an invitation to look. The viewer does not feel ashamed or uncomfortable as one might while looking at traditional nudes because it feels forbidden.

Hangs work is mostly interiors shot in his apartment in Beijing but he does shoot exteriors often in public places from time to time. Some of these images are in such amazing places in nature that they seem to be superimposed. Because of the unbelievable settings that Hang chooses often times the nude aspect of the image can seem to be using special effects. But Hang never uses any tools such as Photoshop to edit backgrounds. All of his astonishing images are authentic. Interestingly enough, Hang has mentioned in interviews that at one point he did shoot landscape photographs but his fans didn’t really appreciate them and that is part of the reason why his work mainly consists of nude portraits.

Ren Hangs nude photographic works are at the forefront of Chinese as well as modern photography. In this new age of Feminist body positivity these images make an important contribution to how we view our bodies. These images are easy to access and can be found at http://renhang.org/

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