“LOVE, Ren Hang”, the first ever institutional exhibition in France of the work of the photographer Ren Hang, honours the memory of one of the most influential Chinese artists of his generation, who died tragically at the age of 29.
Ren Hang’s work has been exhibited in many galleries around the world and regularly published in fashion magazines including Purple and Numero. After his suicide in 2017, he left behind a wide-ranging body of work that is presented in the exhibition “LOVE, REN HANG”, which deals with all aspects of his artistic practice, from photography to books and self-published texts. Presented for the first time in a French institution – in Paris, a city he loved – 150 photographs selected by the MEP from European and Chinese collections allow us to assess the scope of his outstanding corpus.
Ren Hang’s audacious work explores the relationship between identity and sexuality, and because it was produced in China, its subversive tone had an all the more destabilising effect. His work, which has often been censored or deemed pornographic by the Chinese authorities – even though Ren Hang often stated that it did not set out to challenge the political establishment – remains, with respect to a repressive context, the expression of a yearning for creative freedom, freshness and impulsiveness. His unique vision is clearly influenced by “cynical realism”, a Chinese artistic movement rooted in the events that took place in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Ren Hang’s instantly recognisable work is mainly composed of portraits and landscapes often within the naked bodies of his male and female models. He worked with people close to him – his friends and his mother – and with young Chinese people he reached out to online. He produced his emblematic images in the confined space of his apartment or in the outdoor spaces of the city. Although his photographs appear staged, they are the result of a spontaneous and instinctive process, and their candidness imbues them with poetry and humour.
The exhibition occupies the second-floor gallery of the MEP. The layout does not present the artist’s work series by series, but instead places the different facets of his work side by side, as he did during his lifetime. Adopting a partly chromatic approach, it takes the visitor through the artist’s worlds: in one area red predominates, while elswhere other acid colours prevail; one room is devoted to his mother, while another, darker space presents his night photography. The last room features a selection of more “daring” works focusing on the body, creating a powerful, organic connection between eroticism and nature.
The show is also a chance to discover a less well-known facet of Ren Hang’s art, namely the editorial and poetic works that he produced in parallel with his photography. He posted his poems on a regularly updated website (now defunct); most of them are presented in this exhibition. They are chiefly meditations on his struggle with depression. “If life is a bottomless chasm, when I jump the endless fall will also be a way of flying”, he wrote.
There is a strong connection between the works of Ren Hang and those of Coco Capitán, who felt a powerful kinship with the Chinese artist. Although they never met, they wrote to one another. The fact that their work is being presented simultaneously at the MEP is thus no mere coincidence: together they provide an alternative view of the intersecting trajectories of fashion, performance, text, and highly original approaches to the photographic image.Ren Hang, Untitled, 2016. 100 x 67 cm © Courtesy of Estate of Ren Hang and stieglitz19