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You Must Forget Ren Hang

Words:

Edd Norval
October 12, 2018

Ren Hang is dead. He died in 2017. It was suicide that drew the full-stop after his last poem, his last photograph, his last challenge to China's heavily censored society. Hang portrayed sexuality and gender in his photographs, usually featuring his friends. The Chinese government wants us to forget he ever existed.

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In 2007, to relinquish the increasing boredom that he felt whilst studying advertising, Hang bought himself a point-and-shoot camera and began documenting his and his friends private lives. Seeking excitement to break from the mundanity of their highly restricted routines, his friends would often pose nude. This isn't something embraced, nor accepted, by Chinese society. It was their own bedroom rebellion.


Still a teenager, Hang's photographs were intimate portraits into an aspect of life that was barely recognised in their society. The portrayal of sexuality had been largely quelled by the China's communist leadership. It is, after all, a form of self-expression in a time and place that demanded a homogenous population - one that will keep themselves in line, that are easy to control. Anyone who shows signs of breaking this mould is a danger.


Given his relative youth, Hang was maybe acting out a personal revolt, but was unaware of the scale of impact his images would create. We can all relate to opposing the rules set-forth by our parents or previous generations, but Hang upped the scale to an entire country's preconceptions of behaviour. The questions he brought to the fore are still troubling the people of China to this day.

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Hang's initial naivety was in part responsible for the jarring response his work got. He began shooting outdoors in public places and soon fell victim to unwanted probings into his work. If he saw what he was doing as innocent, intriguing and just a bit of fun - why couldn't everyone else?


It's enviable to hear such a refreshing perspective and, given our hyper-connected world, equally difficult to relate to. Hang was able to identify and creatively capture beauty in the oddly contorted bodies of his naked friends and the environs in which they were shot. He said, "I don’t really view my work as taboo, because I don’t think so much in cultural context, or political context. I don’t intentionally push boundaries, I just do what I do."


It was only when he began garnering attention from the international artistic press that he started to acknowledge the deeper connotations of his work and as a result of the newfound fame and notoriety, he started to ponder the deeper significance that his work had in his home country.

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It must be understood that China has very limited access to works outside of their own country, certainly in pre-Internet days. Hang's work was largely created in isolation. His influences were limited and as such, his seminal works developed in an incubative context. His photograph's carry the same impact as the earliest movements, motions and words of a child. Unsullied by the confines of adulthood, their chasteness and contradictory ability to shock, stemmed from their appearance of arising 'naturally'. This idea of being natural is poison in a society that impose such unnatural pressures and systems onto their people.


The photographs gave people back their ability to be seen as individuals when they were expected to be robots. Hang, having developed his mission, was now at a pacifistic war against his country's political and social structures.


The value and worth of men and women in Chinese society isn't equal. So prevalent is this gap that people would abort and abandon their children if they were female. When a family finally got a boy, they'd be spoiled, giving way to the 'Little Emperor Effect' - a generation of entitlement.


In his photographs, Hang would make the genders seem indeterminate. The bodies of men and women would be crushed together, forming one unified entity. Stocking and lipstick would clothe the men whilst woman adopted poses widely associated with the masculine. Hang's images persistently and seemingly accidentally undermined the values held by the Chinese people, passed on from government to government, from emperor to emperor.

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At a certain point, the fame provoked numerous arrests by the authorities. What had freed him had now ensnared him. There are simply some wars than cannot be won - Hang found himself fighting one of them and with nowhere to hide. Depression began to creep into his life which he documented on his blog 'My Depression', that captured the private battles the young man came up against. Unfortunately, overwhelmed, on February 24, 2017, Hang ended his life one month before his 30th birthday.


A was the unwitting hero in a battle that he was blissfully unaware of. He had no intention to do anything other than shoot photos. He stated that, "I don't try to get a message across, I don't give my works names, I don't date them. I don’t want to instil them with any vocabulary. I don't like to explain my photos or work as a whole."


Alongside his images, he left words and poems. In Gift he compounds the idea of his hopelessness in the face of life's struggles. His hands are tied behind his back, everything has been thrust onto him:


"Life indeed is a

precious gift

but I often think

it seems sent to a wrong person."

Hang's work has been featured in GQ, Vice and in Frank Ocean's 'Boys Don't Cry Magazine'. He also worked with Gucci and Rick Owens. Hang did not exist in a bubble unaware of his impact, rather he seems to have longed for it to not be true. He was changing perceptions for the good, but was subsequently exasperating his distance between the life he was living and the life he wanted to life. Although his work wouldn't have carried the same weight emerging from another society, we can only wonder what else he would have been capable of had he made it beyond his 29 years.
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One of his last blog entries (17.09.2016) finished with these words:

"For so many years I have been trying to treat my own illness. One person splitting dual roles of doctor and patient. Sometimes the doctor sees the patient, other times the patient sees the doctor, too. I have thoroughly remade my life into a hospital, hanging around the many different wards each day. The people on the outside cannot enter, but I can’t walk out, either."

Ren Hang was trapped and now he is free. The Chinese government wants you to forget all about him. You must never.

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