Stark, erotic images of Chinese youth stir controversy

Story highlights

  • Beijing-based photographer Ren Hang has won international fame for his erotic art
  • But in China Ren has been arrested multiple times and his work is regularly censored

Ren Hang passed away on February 24, 2017, according to Foam Photography Museum. What follows is a story about the artist published before his death.

(CNN)When you look at the photographs, the first thing you notice are the naked, pale, Chinese youths -- wearing nothing but blasé expressions.

Suddenly, you're not sure what you're seeing.
Men wedged midair between trees. A disembodied face framed by the waists of two women. A hundred flowery fingers blossoming between a pair of bowed legs.
You've entered the world of Ren Hang: a young, Beijing-based artist whose controversial compositions have won him international fame but censorship at home, despite his claims that his work has no meaning.
"I don't have a motivation," he tells CNN. "I don't know about others, but I'm sure I don't look at art that way."

No inhibitions

The self-taught photographer, who turns 30 this year, first began shooting nude images of his friends as a way to relieve boredom while he was studying advertising in college.
What began as a pastime soon developed into an expressive, erotic style of art that makes him distinct among Chinese artists today.
Ren pares away the background in his photographs, leaving few distractions.
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Following his own stream of consciousness, he arranges his models into mesmerizing poses, sometimes stacking or submerging them to create abstract sculptures of lips and limbs.
There are apparently no rules.
Sex organs, disco balls, and animals become interchangeable objects in the artist's low-budget, color-blasted fantasies. Even plants and pools of water are charged with lust.
In Ren Hang's imagination, everything is an uninhibited metaphor for desire.

A political statement?

The trouble is, not everyone's a fan.

Happy Chinese New Year

A photo posted by RenHang (@renhangrenhang) on

Ren has been arrested multiple times in China and his photos have been defaced at exhibitions or confiscated by officials. Even his websites have been pulled offline.
It explains why many critics interpret his art as socially charged -- either a bold stance against censorship or a middle finger in the face of Chinese conservatism -- despite Ren's claims that he has never thought of art as having a political message.
Mirjam Kooiman, a curator at Amsterdam photography museum Foam which is debuting an exhibition of Ren Hang's work, said she believes the photographs carry significant meaning, even if the artist doesn't articulate a specific agenda.
"He makes the work in a context that isn't free and open," Kooiman says.
"So even though it's not his intention to work against the grain, he cannot go around it completely. It is telling us something about not only him as an artist but also the generation he's from."
To her, Ren's work represents freedom.
"There's no hierarchy between the female and the male model in his work. It's very telling about these tendencies of sexuality and queerness in Chinese society and how his generation is dealing with it," Kooiman says.
"It's visual poetry. It's without limits."

Art world star

If Ren faces challenges at home, he's found an appreciative audience abroad.
In the last few years the photographer has become a star of the international art world, securing solo shows at high-end galleries and commissions to shoot for Gucci, GQ, and top fashion magazines.
Untitled, 2013 © Ren Hang / courtesy Stieglitz19
His early self-published photo books are already collector's items and earlier this year, Ren's work was published globally, in an all-new retrospective monograph by Taschen.
It's a major turning point in the young artist's career.
"I'm curious how he'll cope with it because I don't think he plans ahead that much," says Kooiman. "It makes it hard to predict where he'll be in a few years."
For his part, Ren appears unfazed, and maintains the same approach to his work. He still uses his old point and shoot film camera. He still photographs his friends.
"I'm doing this because I still get a feeling of novelty from it," he tells me. "And it fills the emptiness of my heart."
"Ren Hang - Naked/Nude" is on view from January 27 to March 12, 2017 at Foam Photography Museum in Amsterdam.