(Left) REN HANG, Edited by Dian Hanson. Published by Taschen, Cologne, 2016. Softcover with color illustrations, 311 pages. 

(Right) RED FLOWER: THE WOMEN OF OKINAWA, By Mao Ishikawa. Published by Session Press, New York, 2017. Softcover with black-and-white illustrations, 112 pages. 

Stripped Bare

China Japan
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

The 29-year-old Chinese photographer Ren Hang enjoyed a busy, successful career with a full exhibition calendar before he committed suicide in Beijing in February 2017. Ren’s penchant for producing straightforward, self-consciously posed color portraits of nude women and men engaging in a wide variety of sexual permutations raised hackles among Chinese authorities but has garnered him an international, cult-like following. His notoriety was derived from his unabashed, naive shots of straight and gay individuals, the figures often absurdly accompanied by octopi, snakes, lizards, cigarette smoke, fish, plastic bags and pastoral settings.

Thumbing through Taschen’s 312-page retrospective volume, published in January before Ren’s untimely passing, I was embarrassed and delighted in turn by the explicitness of erect penises arrayed like an armorial crest, an octopus worn like a balaclava, vignettes of sex-show antics, and the like. Welcome to the serene, surreal, laugh-out-loud world of straight and LGBT sex, exposed in an extensive full-color photo book referencing Beijing’s underground culture scene. The artist’s avowedly apolitical photos are the outcome of an obsession with nudity, cosplay and mundane scenarios blown up into avant-garde dance stills. The images were summarily shot during improvised meetups among friends comfortable with subverting the hypocrisy of prim Chinese morality with socialist characteristics.

Ren’s photos are not so much beautiful, polished and professional as they are clever and shrewd. The photographer’s imagination was constrained only by the limits of yogic contortion, trompe-l’oeil posturing (such as five buttocks forming a mountain range) and the wan monotony of nude bodies. Ren also drew from the tradition of erotic portraiture on scrolls and in books that thrived in Ming- and Qing-era China, a tradition that blossomed into Shunga in Edo Japan in which exaggeration and sexual humor were ever-present. Sadly, his compositions also seem too contrived to be truly free and modern. In this current age of online photo-sharing platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat—and their accessibility to online flirting and sexting—Ren’s printed photos already seem dated, rooted in nostalgia. There is a yearning behind the figures’ expressions and poses that speak of youth’s desire for the next big thing.

Behind Ren’s in-your-face pics of friends and lovers—pornographic by the laws of China and most other jurisdictions—lay a sharp intelligence that was aggravated by the photographer’s depression, the crushing tides of which he documented in diary entries that remain online posthumously. Here one can read Ren’s sentimental, coy poems, perfect foils for the untitled stills, and the confessional narratives of his depression. These jottings reach beyond individual suffering to describe a turbulent Kafkaesque universe. For example, in one of his blog posts, dated September 17, 2016, he stated: “For years, I have been treating my own illness. I play two roles, doctor and patient. Sometimes the doctor treats the patient; at other times, the patient treats the doctor. In this manner, life is reduced to a hospital setting, and I am forever stuck in one hospital room or another. No one else is allowed to enter, nor am I allowed to leave.”

Once privy to these thoughts, it becomes easier to see how a young man who wrote this could produce a series of photos that provoke giddy delight and provide serious pleasure while dwelling on the human condition. Ren’s portraits embody an empowered generation: the trope of the oversexualization of youths is diminished by the gamut of photos showing, sometimes, post-adolescent men and women compliant with, and complicit in, a fertile, pleasantly perverse play of the imagination. These are amateur actors in a charade, baring their genitals in postures that sometimes just toe the S&M line. In the multiple hands meticulously arrayed around genitals, like molded decor on the ceiling of a prewar residence, these very human cupids, putti, mermaids and mermen reminded this former hippie of the acid-infused group gropes of the 1960s. Indeed, these nubile Chinese have spectacularly caught up with the West.

In Okinawa, Japan, where the frisson of foreignness is never too far from the surface, the men and women illustrated in Mao Ishikawa’s Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa are more—if not better—dressed than the subjects in Ren Hang’s retrospective, and much wiser. And yet fun and sex, of a more serious and commercial nature, is depicted. Topics of gender, race and conflict, including the American defeat in the American-led Vietnam War, are also present in the backgrounds of these portraits.

The largely underestimated Ishikawa was born in 1953 in Okinawa, an island chain that was formerly separated from Japan following the end of World War II, and controlled by United States military forces from 1945 to 1972. The female artist studied photography briefly in Tokyo, before returning home to Okinawa in the mid-1970s, determined to take pictures of American military personnel based on the island. Upon the recommendation of a friend, she took a job undercover at a bar that happened to be frequented by African-American soldiers. As Ishikawa revealed in a recent interview with i-D magazine, at that time Okinawa “was like a U.S. colony, where troops could do whatever they wanted.” Although American soldiers of color fought on the same battlefields as the white soldiers, the two groups segregated themselves when drinking, socializing and whoring at night, in a not-so-distant reflection of the identity politics currently fragmenting the US. Ishikawa, then a 20-something bargirl among 20-something GIs, fell in love over and over and moved in with a black soldier, and her female colleagues became her best friends.

Black-and-white and uncaptioned, the 80 photos in this silkscreen-printed book, designed by New York-based Studio Lin and published by Session Press, show soldiers and their female companions at “work” and at “play.” The tall, lanky black men are contrasted with their diminutive consorts. The young offspring of these liaisons show up in Ishikawa’s images of family and other photo-album-like settings.

The artist takes a strong feminist, egalitarian view of these relationships, reflecting how, she says, many Okinawan women felt at the time. Mao recounted to i-D magazine their collective questions: “What’s wrong with loving black people? What’s wrong with working at a bar? What’s wrong with enjoying sex?” stating that neither the soldiers, “cheerful and self-assured sometimes to the point of arrogance” nor the young women who served them, cared “about how others saw them.”

These are nostalgic snapshots, catching subjects off guard on the beach, in bars, in bedrooms and playgrounds, posing and primping and showing sass. The girls proudly bare their breasts; one holds up a marriage certificate, as if to encourage disbelief, while interracial children, facing the camera close up, provoke questions about their futures of encountering racial discrimination, about which they are still too young to understand.

You can almost smell the smoke, the beer, the sweat and the makeup on a subtropical night on trashy streets located on the small Pacific island. Flicking through the pages, I wondered if maybe the notes of a blues tune could serve as appropriate captions. Red Flower is a historical memoir, on the surface a portrait of a moment of peaceful respite from the battles being fought around the world. Scratch the surface and you’ll see how these images also reveal how international encounters, no matter how random or remote, cannot be free of the political undercurrents that determine each person’s role in society, whether dominant or subservient. Despite the universality of these situations, the young Ishikawa’s own participation and absolute immersion—blurring life and work—lends the pictures a special poignancy, even four decades after they were taken.

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