RUDE BOYS: Ren Hang
Though many things come to mind when one thinks of China, maybe none include Victorian attitudes towards sex. Guided by tenets of Confucianism for thousands of years, where upholding the pride of ancestors holds sway over all, nudity is simply not done there. Disgracing yourself is one thing, but disgracing your parents and their parents and their parents’ parents back to the origins of your family is another matter entirely. Porn is banned and any website considered “subversive” or potentially harmful to the country is censored (including YouTube, Facebook, and the New York Times). Though the Western world has long been acclimated to, if not bored by, nudity, it is still taboo in China’s sexually repressed landscape.
In spite of the hangups his culture may have toward the human body, Ren Hang plays out his sexualized impulses with the help of friends and international publishers. Knowing full well his shows could be shut down and his books destroyed, he continues to take nude pictures of his friends and lovers in public and private spaces. Ren’s casual disregard of traditional Chinese values in favor of artistic expression can be likened to a child’s curiosity about his origins; you can suppress a child’s questions about as easily as you can their entrance into puberty.
In the same vein as Valie Export and other body politics performers of the 70s, Ren’s photos feature warm bodies with their soft curves against cold, immobile objects or environments. Substitutions occur constantly, venturing into surrealism when an unexpected animal or fruit appears in lieu of a sexual organ. His figures might be skin to skin but they’re disconnected from one another, alone in nondescript rooms. Instead of finding a tenderness in one another, they remain independent. Youthful ennui is responsible for Ren’s prolific photography—it’s his antidote to boredom. “I like naked, I like the direct, frank way,” says Ren. Documenting people and environments around him without concerns for the ramification, he poses—and answers—a question that pervades Chinese culture: What is there to hide about our bodies? What is there to hide at all?