Ren Hang, China’s Rising Art Star, Dead at 29

The controversial photographer reportedly committed suicide
by Tom Paul Jones

Known for his provocative nudes, which were real-time risky for him to shoot in repressive China, Ren Hang has reportedly killed himself while in Europe to install a solo show at the FOAM gallery in Amsterdam. The 29-year old, just featured in the new issue of FourTwoNine, was a rising international art star who nonetheless is said to have fought life-long depression. 

Hang's art explored nudity and the human formSamuel Braslow | FourTwoNine

Hang’s art explored nudity and the human form

In a statement, Dian Hanson, the editor of the self-taught photographer’s just-published monograph from Taschen books, said, Ren fell into a crushing depression last October, intensified by global political instability. The months of pain finally proved too much.”

Ren’s photos have been compared to those of Ryan McGinley and Terry Richardson for their stark, casualness, but they are also reminiscent of the elegant and surreal games of the great 70’s fashion photographer Guy Bourdin, with body parts misplaced, multiplied and magnified. Ren was gay, and many of his photographs include erect penises in erotic and sometimes dead pan hilarious modes. The world was paying attention: Frank Ocean recently featured Ren’s work in his zine, Boys Don’t Cry,  his work has been featured in ads for Gucci, and he had collaborated with Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei. 

Ren Hang's Shanghai SkinnySamuel Braslow | FourTwoNine

Whether he intended his work to be political or not was somewhat out of his hands, since it was made in China, where public nudity is illegal, LGBT rights are scarce, and the depiction of even chaste homosexual relationships on TV are illegal. Even as he was celebrated around the world, he faced censorship at home, and had even had his guerilla-style naked photo shoots disrupted by the police.

In a 2013 interview, Ren 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.”

As Mirjam Kooiman, a curator at FOAM, told CNN’s Wilfred Chan just last week, “He makes the work in a context that isn’t free and open,” therefore making the work all about freedom. 

The outpouring of sadness on social media is huge, and is not coming  just from art world insiders. Though his work will be sometimes categorized as Queer and Asian, the honesty in his photos struck a nerve with people of all kinds. As Ren once said, “People come into this world naked and I consider naked bodies to be people’s original, authentic look.”

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