“Naked to the world, the world naked to us.”
Nudity does not always imply eroticism. That’s what Chinese photographer Ren Hang is trying to prove through his racy pictures that challenge a cultural system that tries to control almost every aspect of life. Through Hang’s lenses, we see how the imperfect naked body of the Chinese population is turned into something funny, ridiculous, and beautiful. However, this professional endeavor has caused confrontations between the artist and the government that bans nudity in public spaces, which is the essence of the photographer’s work.
According to Hang, the transcendence of nakedness in his work lies in how it represents human being’s starting condition, becoming the true sample of each soul: “We’re born naked, making it our true appearance.” The artist has stated during several interviews that his images are unplanned, spontaneous moments with his friends who pose as models. The interactions between the subjects and their environment are some of the moments that stand out.
The Chinese government has the authority to censure artistic works that include nudity. But it’s that ambiguous side to justice that allows the government to punish any of Hang’s pieces. Combined with the pressure from the government is Chinese society’s negative response to the photographer’s artistic sensibility. Several galleries have refused to show his pictures, and the few times he has been able to exhibit his work, the public has not shied away from its disapproval of his art. Hang recalls how a gallery assistant spat on the pictures as demonstration of her refusal. His images of something as natural as the human body represent an important culture clash inside Mandarin society that is under system with the capacity to dictate what is right and immoral.
The photographer separates from the sensual images other artists create by using naked bodies fused together, mirrors that distort the genital’s view, and backsides that could be confused with the country’s topography. His books have only been published in the Western hemisphere, and the artist faces police persecution each time he does a photographic shoot abroad.
The particular meaning of urine in his work is widely questioned. Hang responded by saying that this is just another aspect of spontaneity in his shoots, where the models have complete freedom of composition. There’s also no specific reasoning behind the constant featuring of the penis, since Hang declares that “People forget they have a penis when it’s not erect. This gives a glimpse into the human body’s sexuality.” The artist’s obsession with body parts does not stop at the penis, but also shows other organs in exciting, vivid, and fresh ways.
Despite governmental censorship and rejection from his own society, Hang affirms his love and loyalty towards China, as well as a deep connection to his people. He has even said that his photographs are not intended as criticism towards the communist government, they do not contain disruptive arguments, nor are they thought up as a mere law-breaking ploy. It is simply his artistic perspective on nudity, positioning of bodies, and the interaction of humans with their surroundings.
Hang has worked on several occasions with dissenting artist Ai Weiwei and maintains the drive to continue with his work. The restrictions and limitations he faces only strengthen the desire for his country to accept who he is, as well understand and appreciate his work.
His latest work, titled 2014, explores the optical camouflage created by having naked bodies dissolving behind multiple natural backdrops. It includes heads popping up in the middle of a lake surrounded by lily pads, horizontal silhouettes emerging from the water, or the Burmese python moving across a woman’s face.
The body’s sexuality disappears and melds with the environment or the remains of a vanishing nature. The exterior can also be urban, where the discolored model’s skin dissolves against concrete walls or stands out from structures that embellish the roofs of Chinese cities. The bodies communicate with each other, giving off a shiver of sensuality and an understanding of their true natural and imperfect beauty.
You can see the rest of Ren Hangs photographic series on his website, which include several of his fashion-themed publications.
Translated by María Suárez