Beijing-based, self-taught photographer Ren Hang, known for his brazen and provocative nude portraits, has died at the age of twenty-nine, the British Journal of Photography reports. His photo assistant confirmed that the cause of death was suicide. While his works were internationally acclaimed, they were repeatedly censored in China. “I don’t really view my work as taboo, because I don’t think so much in cultural context, or political context,” Ren said. “I don’t intentionally push boundaries, I just do what I do.”
Over the course of the young artist’s five-year career, he exhibited works in more than twenty solo shows and seventy group shows in cities such as Antwerp, Athens, Beijing, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, New York, Paris, Tokyo, and Vienna. Ren also self-published seven monographs, including Ren Hang, Nude, Republic, and Son And Bitch, before the publishing company Taschen released a retrospective photobook of his compelling images earlier this year.
Born in Nong’ An—a suburb of Changchun, the capital of the northeastern province of Jilin—in 1987, Ren left for Beijing to study advertising when he was seventeen. Shortly afterward, he became interested in photography as a way to “relieve boredom.” The artist began by using a point-and-shoot camera to capture his friends, who became his models. Ren’s surreal images frequently depict nude men and women in sensual poses in urban and natural environments. In a 2013 interview with Vice, Ren discussed how he didn’t take photos with any particular plan in mind and was only inspired while holding his camera and looking at the models. “I feel the real existence of people through their naked bodies,” he said. “I like to portray every organ in a fresh, vivid, and emotional way.”
Despite being widely celebrated, Ren had a turbulent relationship with his native country, where he was jailed several times. Chinese galleries were forbidden from showing his work, which was considered pornographic—pornography has been illegal in China since the Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Despite the censorship of his work, the removal of his website, and other difficulties posed by working in China, such as getting turned down by publishers and detained for shooting photos outside, Ren said, “True, I’m restricted here, but the more I’m limited by my country, the more I want my country to take me in and accept me for who I am and what I do.”
In March 2015, Ren had his first solo exhibition in New York at Capricious 88 (now Company Gallery), which was featured in a Critics’ Pick by Chinnie Ding. She wrote, “Ren’s willful though vulnerable subjects seem to prosper in their found places, warding off the solitude in the gap between their bodies and the frame. In other images too, where one head vanishes behind another, extra limbs line up, or succulent flowers are joined to human feelers and spouts, forms of idiosyncratic mutuality roundly win out over atomized individualism.”
Coinciding with the opening of “2014” at Company Gallery, Aperture featured Ren’s work on the cover of its Queer issue. In December 2015, his works were selected for the seminal exhibition “Medium of Desire: An International Anthology of Photography and Video,” at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York. The following year he was awarded the Outset | Unseen Exhibition Fund, a prize that recognizes emerging artists who have never had a museum show in the Netherlands by spotlighting their work in a solo exhibition at the city’s Foam Fotographiemuseum Amsterdam. Ren’s work will be on display at the institution until March 12.
Mirjam Kooiman, a curator at Foam Fotographiemuseum Amsterdam, said, “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. It’s visual poetry. It’s without limits.”