Obituary: Ren Hang (1987–2017)
By Ysabelle Cheung
Chinese photographer and poet Ren Hang, notorious within art and fashion circles for his provocative portraits, passed away in Beijing on February 24. He was 29 years old.
Ren Hang was born in Jilin, China, in 1987. He was propelled to the international stage after he began taking snapshots of friends and fellow students when he was a teenager. He often photographed his models naked, although his study of the female and male forms was less one of sexual objectification than they were aesthetic definitions of youth, freedom, or romantic and platonic loves. In his compositions of bodies among forestry, jungles and mountains, he intended to capture nothing more than the moment itself without attachment to political or sexual gestures. The process to create these moments, he once said, is both spontaneous and specific to the time and to the subject. His models trust him not solely as an artist or an aloof figure behind the camera, but also as a close friend, or even lover.
Early in his career, the artist was censored in China for the nudity in his work. This did not dampen his drive to create, and year upon year he produced dozens of catalogs, books and photograph works. In 2015, his photo works were selected for the seminal exhibition “Medium of Desire: An International Anthology of Photography and Video,” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York. The year after, he was awarded the 2016 Outset | Unseen Exhibition Fund in Amsterdam, Netherlands, the prize which included a solo exhibition in the city’s Foam Fotographiemuseum in 2017. He was also a celebrated photographer in the fashion world and has collaborated with the musician and singer Frank Ocean, Numéro magazine and sleek fashion labels Opening Ceremony and Maison Kitsuné.
Ren Hang’s former studio assistant confirmed the cause of death as suicide on February 26 to ArtAsiaPacific. The artist never shied from the topic of mental illness, and published a series of meditative blog posts on his personal website, under a section titled “My Depression.” In one short entry, he writes: “I am worried to go out and hear people, who care about me, saying, 'You look so happy, how can you be depressed?' Artist friends and colleagues have posted online tributes since news of his death began circulating on Chinese social media websites on February 24. “We had a happy collaboration and had many magical times together,” said Miwa Susuda, founder of New York-based publisher Session Press and who worked closely with Ren Hang on several of his catalogs, to AAP. “When we took photos for “New Love” (2015), it was an extremely cold day and Ren said that it would take only 30 minutes to finish, but the shooting went on for 5 hours. The naked models were of course very cold but we were inspired by his pure and spontaneous creative drive. Nobody complained. I’ll never forget how special and rare a figure he was in my life.”
Ren Hang was in the thick of a flurry of projects at the time of his death. Along with prepping for a collaboration with the French art and culture magazine Purple, he had just opened a major solo exhibition, “Human Love,” (2/17–4/2) at Stockholm’s Fotografiska, a center for contemporary photography. In memory of the artist, Fotografiska has added in the show a portrait of the artist and a white rose. A book by Taschen, released earlier this year, illustrates his full yet brief career in stunning multicolor.
Ysabelle Cheung is managing editor at ArtAsiaPacific.
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