In Pictures: The Beautiful (And Controversial) Nudes of Ren Hang

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Ren Hang, 3 backs, 2015. Courtesy Stieglitz19 and
3 backs, 2015Courtesy Stieglitz19 and Ren Hang Estate

A new exhibition of the late photographer’s nudes and poems has opened in Italy

When Ren Hang died at the age of 29 in 2017, he left behind a wealth of celebrated, and controversial, images. The Beijing-based photographer became known during his fleeting career for an unflinching, defiant approach to the medium; his work was often censored in his home country because of its nudity, pornography being illegal in China. “I do not think nudity is challenging – nudity is common, everybody has it,” Hang said in 2014. “I like people naked and I like sex; I use nudity so that I can feel more realism and sense of presence.” A new exhibition of 90 photographs, Ren Hang: Nudes, has opened at Italy’s Centro Picci gallery.

Ren made several photo books throughout his career, and the international publisher Taschen released a book on his career, edited by Dian Hanson. Ren Hang: Nudes features a display of several rare books about the photographer’s incendiary work. Though he did not seek out controversy with his images, they attracted attention from the Chinese authorities and saw Ren arrested several times for shooting nude photographs outside. “My pictures’ politics have nothing to do with China. It’s Chinese politics that wants to interfere with my art,” he told Dazed as an exhibition of his work opened in New York in 2015.

Ren’s photography was exhibited in over 90 shows internationally, some solo and some group, in the eight years he was working, having started shooting in 2009 while at studying advertising at university in Beijing. Often interacting with nature – plants, flowers, fruits, animals – Ren’s subjects were mostly his friends. For him, nudity was a matter of nature, and his photographs questioned why taboos exist around the naked body and how it is eroticised. There is a playful, and provocative, tension to the many photographs set outside, knowing that he risked being – and may well have been – arrested for such a shoot.

A selection of Ren’s poetry is also on show in Ren Hang: Nudes. He wrote throughout his life and published his writing, via poems and journal entries, online. With searing honesty, Ren’s subjects included love, the minutiae of life, art, family, death and his own experiences with depression; following his suicide, his poems are even more poignant. “Life is really one, precious gift,” reads one, “but sometimes I feel that, it has been given to the wrong person.” 

Ren Hang: Nudes is at Centro per l’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci, Prato until August 23, 2020.