I have never seen anything quite like this before was my first reaction to Ren Hang's photographs. A jumble of limbs, naked bodies hanging from trees, odd juxtapositions and conglomerations. It reminded me of the first time I saw full frontal male nudity in a popular film. It was not unknown to me but sitting in a theater surrounded by other people... it was an experience I had never had before. It opened up my eyes to seeing in a new way. It changed my opinion. Ren Hang's work does the same thing maybe far more dramatically.
The opening scene of the movie was of a group of completely naked men running all out down a country road. Entirely unexpected and completely outside of anything I had experienced. It made me think about how nudity is portrayed and defined in our culture. Male nudity is often portrayed as a joke or an act of aggression. Female nudity is often geared towards the male gaze, ownership and control. I am of course generalizing here but, there is something about Ren Hang's compositions that defy these stereotypical classifications. An originality in point of view and joy in seeing that I find endlessly intriguing.
He usually takes pictures of his friends and this intimacy comes through in his images. There is a level of trust between model and photographer and maybe even collaboration of a sort. They are staged but not forced. There is an immediacy to them, they feel natural even in their unnaturalness, or maybe a better term would be newness. There is nothing inherently unnatural about them. They are beautiful but other, playful and provocative. His images are often commented on as desexualized. The human body seen as grotesque sculptures. But are they? Or is this just a new way of looking?
Looking without societal control, without the media enforced ideals of beauty. I am extremely curious how much of the freedom in these images is directly related to the amount of control experienced in living in China. In his own words, “China doesn’t allow outdoor nudity. I’m very careful about taking pictures outside. If I see police, I’ll run. But I’m not hiding as I’m taking pictures”. Despite heavy censorship in China, his images are oddly nonpolitical. These are not protest pictures. They are images of what he sees as natural, as beauty. Pure joy in the oddity of the human form... but why do I use the term oddity? His images raise many questions about our concepts of beauty, nudity and of sex.
The thing I find most fascinating about his work is that sometimes the most interesting things are right in front of us. We just have to open our eyes, our minds, to see them.
All images by Ren Hang