Ren Hang (1987–2017)

Sandro E. E. Zanzinger, Ren Hang, date unknown. Courtesy: Klein Sun Gallery

REN HANG, WHOSE PICTURES PROMISED a now that felt like it would last forever, whose personal presence mirrored the undying present he created for his work, is gone. Flipping through his photobooks now feels not like an act of memorial so much as the reliving of a recent memory of something that may yet come to pass again. Ren will be consigned to history only with great difficulty, as his pictures fight to remain in the moment. The brilliance of his practice lay in the way he could persist in doing variations on one thing over and over again—photographing the nude bodies of young people in composed or natural positions—while keeping a high level of energy and producing images that always feel fresh. Everyone who has worked with him describes him in the same terms that circulate around his work: young, innocent, pure, free.

I can’t help but feel that Ren Hang is better appreciated by the art world now in death than he was in life. His photography is naturally appealing for followers of popular and youth culture, but there is also a depth and lightness to it that resides in the playful aesthetic touch he brought into an otherwise mundane creative world. When the “serious” art world had trouble digesting the work, which was written off as fashion photography for a time, they forgot that his focus on nudity meant that his shoots always transcended any efforts to turn them into advertising. Half embraced and half rejected by both the fashion system and the art system for this reason, he cultivated his own unique garden in the middle ground.

In the torrent of remembrances that have been published since Ren’s untimely death, far too many friends, colleagues, and fans have insisted on romanticizing the association between genius and depression. From the outside, Ren may have seemed to lead the perfect life: He had a keen eye, a beautiful social milieu, critical and commercial acclaim. Depression, as we know, can touch anyone, even those touched also by grace. His blog, My Depression, was a tool for coping, not an attempt to romanticize his own struggles. There is no romance in this struggle. I hope that we can remember him not only as an emerging aesthetic talent committed to a language of his own, but also as someone whose attempts at self-care were even pioneering at times, in a culture that fetishizes the opposite.

Robin Peckham is a Shanghai-based curator and editor in chief of LEAP magazine.