The Chinese art world was rocked over the weekend by news that famed erotic photographer Ren Hang had died at the age of 29.
Known for his provocative pictures and poetry, Ren’s often explicit work had been exhibited in galleries all over the world. He shot for major fashion brands and magazines such as Gucci and GQ China.
Details of his death on Friday are still emerging, but he is believed to have taken his own life.
Dian Hanson, editor at German publisher Taschen, said Ren had fallen into a “crushing depression” in October which was “intensified by global political instability. The months of pain finally proved too much”.
Born in Changchun in north-east Jilin province, Ren first picked up photography in college in Beijing where he was studying advertising. He began shooting pictures of his friends out of boredom.
Over time he gained fame for his striking photographs, often featuring young naked Chinese models in unusual and sculptural poses. He roped in friends and acquaintances for many of these pictures, even his own mother for one series.
A true child of the social media generation, he freely shared his works on his website and his Facebook, Instagram and Flickr accounts, accruing thousands of devoted young fans, some of whom would apply to model for him.
Many have seen his works as a commentary on evolving sexual mores and the struggle for creative and sexual freedom in a conservative, tightly controlled society.
The British Journal of Photography quoted him as once saying: “I don’t want others having the impression that Chinese people are robots…. Or they do have sexual genitals but always keep them as some secret treasures.”
But his explicit works inevitably provoked a strong response from authorities in China, where pornography is illegal and where artists have often fought against censorship and state interference. He was arrested several times, his work confiscated.
He consistently denied that his photography had a political message. “My pictures’ politics have nothing to do with China. It’s Chinese politics that wants to interfere with my art,” he told digital magazine Dazed in 2015.
‘All turn into snakes’
Along with his photography, Ren Hang frequently posted emotional erotic poetry on his social media accounts. Here is an extract from a 2016 poem called Love:
My kisses can be finely linked into a line, just like
a snake slithers across every rugged reef rock on
your trembling body, afterwards you turn
into a snake, I turn into a rock, still afterwards we
all turn into snakes, intertwined together, we
all turn into rocks, hitting each other.
Ren Hang exhibited prolifically, staging more than 20 solo and 70 group art shows, and publishing several monographs of his work. At the time of his death he had just released a new book with Taschen, and launched an exhibition at an Amsterdam gallery.
Ren Hang long struggled with depression, which he talked about openly. On his website, he wrote candid entries about his struggle with the illness, which included frequent hallucinations and hearing voices.
Among his latest entries on his Weibo microblogging account, posted at the end of January, was a stark one-liner: “Every year I always have the same wish: to die an early death.” It was followed up with another line: “Hope that it comes true this year.”
Since his death, grieving fans have been posting tributes online. One commenter on Weibo wrote: “I am not sad, because you weren’t happy here.”