Combatting Conservatism with Photographer Ren Hang

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© Ren Hang, Courtesy of TASCHEN

“I don't intentionally push boundaries, I just do what I do…” A new book from Taschen documents the accidental provocateur who has made a career of photographing his friends in the nude

Artist Ren Hang, today’s posterboy for nominative determinism, has made a career of photographing phalluses. The most private parts of the human body can be strange and funny things, but this is multiplied times a thousand in Hang’s work, which places them at the centre of strange and surreal settings. At least, that’s how it first appears, so overwhelmed is the viewer with an array of penises. Many are impressively large; many gloriously erect. But it’s not all about provocation and cheery phallocentricity: indeed, as the cover of a beautiful new Taschen book of Hang’s work, Ren Hang, suggests, it’s about intimacy and detachment in all their strange and multifarious forms.

The book is his first career-spanning international collection and is bound in bright red. That cover image shows a boy playfully licking his own sparsely hairy armpit. He seems half aware of the camera and half not, his corporeality tempered by the Hollywood Technicolour hues of the bright blue sky behind him. The image is framed as a star, backdropped by red: is it simply a play on China’s Communist flag? Or is it saying that this odd yet simple act is enough to make you the star of your very own show, if it’s someone as visionary as Hang directing it? Probably it’s both, and something else, too.

Beijing-based Hang was born in China’s Changchun, Jilin Province, and has built up an impressive body of work and following for his age (he’s not yet 30). As well as having a rabid online following, in the past five years he’s exhibited work across the world in Tokyo, Athens, Paris, New York, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Vienna, and his native Beijing. He has self-published eight limited-edition monographs, that now sell for up to $600.

As Taschen’s “sexy books editor” Dian Hanson puts it in the foreword to the book, he’s “an unlikely rebel. Shy, lanky, prone to depression.” The photographer is seemingly against the odds, “at the forefront of Chinese artists’ battle for creative freedom”. This stance has unsurprisingly won him the adoration of fellow freedom-fighter Ai Weiwei, uniting them as artists maligned in their homeland but celebrated in the rest of the world for a fearless portrayal of what it means to be a sexual person, an incarcerated person, a person with their expressive liberty curtailed.

However, the artist is keen to state that his work isn’t deliberately out to shock. “I don’t really view my work as taboo, because I don’t think so much in cultural context, or political context,” he says in the book’s foreword. “I don’t intentionally push boundaries, I just do what I do… I don’t want others having the impression that Chinese people are robots with no cocks or pussies… or they do have sexual genitals but always keep them as some secret treasures. I want to say that our cocks and pussies are not embarrassing at all.”

These many organs of his subjects often belong to Hang’s friends, and also fans who’ve requested he turn his lens to their usually private bits. The way he shoots them instantly makes the private unapologetically public, reinforced by often setting his images outdoors and in the street, and occasionally on what seem to be terrifyingly high precipices. In some cases, the absurdity of the poses and scenes somehow normalises them; yet in others, such as a penis about to be skewered by a sharp fork as a dessert, they’re so ludicrous that we’re forced to see the humour in the human body. Perhaps this humour is an antidote to the depressive periods Hang is so open about. As Hanson highlights, he often writes about his crushing lows online, and has said that the act of taking photographs is a source of pleasure.

The bold red of the cover and of the Chinese flag is carried as a motif throughout the book’s photographs. It appears as a backdrop; as roses placed across an aroused body’s slender waist; a toy aeroplane veering towards a cock; Communist posters; a dress; the lips of a naked woman, legs akimbo against the city skyline; varnished fingernails.

This intermingling of the political and the personal, rendered in such an honest and stark photographic style makes Hang’s work playful and erotic, yet also somehow poignant. It shows that for all our progressive viewpoints and the liberal minds that will buy the book, there’s an angry flip side that’s terrified and railing against all of the things the artist stands for. Homophobia and prudishness aren’t just born of conservatism, they’re born of fear and hatred. The colour red is one of passion but also one of fury – a dangerous combination indeed – and behind the cute faces and surreal juxtapositions in the work there’s something far darker to be taken from Hang’s work. Yet what makes this work so wonderful is that the artist makes us see beyond that darkness by celebrating what it is to be alive and to be a sexual person, symbolised by unabashed massive erections and pussies presented as a symbol of power and joy.

Ren Hang is out December 8, 2016, published by Taschen.