When an artist passes away, especially after a heart-wrenching event like suicide, how should a posthumous retrospective represent their work? Should their death be relevant? What does the gesture of elaborating on issues related to the artist’s premature death reveal about the exhibition, in particular its stance in relation to mental health and wellness? C/O Berlin has answered these questions in ‘Love, Ren Hang,’ an exhibition of the work of the eponymous late artist.
The exhibition opens with photographs of various subjects, many of whom were likely his friends, posing with plants. In one of them, a person’s head bobs amid water lilies, the rest of their body submerged underwater and unseen. The fiery red of the lips eclipses the green around the face. Nearby, a photo of an ostensibly female back amid deep green lotus pads: the subject’s face is out of sight, while the pale, slightly overexposed back contrasts with the surrounding deep green. The photographs exude playful and sensual energies, but the cropping and framing of bodies by plants also hint at a kind of pictorial violence.
Plants obstructing the view of bodies or formally separating bodies into parts pave way for more acrobatic positions in Ren’s compositions. These works are as exciting, if not more so than those with vegetation, but according to the exhibition, they have also exchanged some of their allure for confrontations that break down the confines of conservative morals. Particularly striking are eight large compositions consisting of mostly duos, with faces seen next to feet, genitalia and buttocks. Vinyl lettering above the group reads: “I don’t want others/having the impression/that Chinese people are robots/with no cocks or pussies/ren hang.” On the right, there are many smaller photographs showing duos posing like conjoined twins, couples or trios engaged in sex and other intimacies, naked bodies aligned in the same pose, and so on. Often, faces are seen covered, cropped or in profile; their absence contrasts with occasional eyes that look sharply into Ren’s Minolta point-and-shoot camera. On the left, a television plays a documentary titled ‘I’ve Got a Little Problem’ (2017). Made by filmmaker Ximing Zhang and completed after Ren’s passing, this documentary explores Ren’s depression in relation to his China-based career.
A sexless China recedes as Ren shatters the image and fills the void with young, daring bodies—this dramatic narrative makes up the scene here. Nonetheless, from watching the documentary, one would discover that Ren was not the political dissident artist one might expect with these photographs: he was distressed at potential imprisonment resulting from his art and he was satisfied with living in China instead of seeking more freedom of expression by moving abroad. At the same time, as the director foregrounds Ren’s suicidal depression with this information, his mention of Ren’s anxiety becomes synonymous with casting criticisms toward the authority. By making public Ren’s intention to stay in China despite his depression, the director hints at a kind of fearlessness unwavering in the face of mortality. Watching the documentary in an exhibition where China surfaces as a land filled with sexual taboos, one could not help but imagine the photographer of experimental nudes as existing firmly on the opposing side.
While Ren might be politically “Westernized,” culturally speaking, the artist represents both the East and the West in the eye of the curator. This trope is invoked in the exhibition text: Ren is at ease with using “well-known motifs and traditions from Western art”; meanwhile, his “artistic understanding… is influenced by East Asian philosophy,” which allegedly cares less about originality than Western understandings of art do.
This impression of Asian artists being apolitically culturally adept is familiar. In the 1980s, artist Tseng Kwong Chi discarded his legal name Joseph Tseng to become an “ambiguous ambassador” clothed in a Mao suit and sunglasses, taking self-portraits in front of Western monuments. These photographs became the “East Meets West” series—the titular catchphrase satirizes scenes that mix the stereotypical East with the iconic West. Despite Tseng’s parody of staged cross-cultural communication, many viewers take the photographs at their surface meaning. On the one hand, they overlay the ambassador-like role onto Tseng, believing Tseng’s use of Communist Chinese visual idioms is not out of character for the New York-based, Canadian artist but authentic/justified. On the other hand, Tseng’s manoeuvring of what are considered non-Chinese—such as his English and French—skills, is to them a pleasant surprise.
The other side to Tseng’s seeming cultural fluidity is the interpretation of some of his other parodying works, such as the ‘Moral Majority’ and ‘It’s a Reagan World!’ series, as opposing U.S. political conservatives. Comparably, the work of Ren is also framed politically as against an authoritarian China. “His spontaneity and freedom for tone… and the way he flouted convention place him at the forefront of the struggle of Chinese artists to defend their creative freedom,” states the curator. One could see a clear trajectory prepared for Ren that connects his depression all the way to his rhetorical insurgency against Chinese censorship. Yet, as if having a double life, the artist also swiftly switches between being a political activist and being a medium for cultural exchanges.
The two evaluations are scarcely congruent but, more significantly, they hinge on cultural and political circumstances that are more relevant to the country and cultures showing Ren’s work, resulting in the work being over-determined and the artist’s mental health condition being exploited. If Ren Hang were not Chinese and had no suicidal depression, what would the exhibition look like? What about if his work were verbally or visually compared to those of Terry Richardson or Nobuyoshi Araki—Ren acknowledged their influence on his work—as well as those of Nan Goldin, Guy Bourdin, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Wolfgang Tillmans, Robert Mapplethorpe, Ryan McGinley, Zanele Muholi and others? Like Ren, some of these artists use flash photography, while some mobilize plants as props and/or examine issues of (queer) intimacy in sensuous manners. Heeding to these unifying nodes of convergence would have allowed the exhibition to venture beyond framing Ren and his work in a China-versus-the-West logic that is reminiscent of Cold War Orientalism.
The exhibition makes an inward turn, showing documentation of Ren photographing in a forest. There, Ren is seen working, talking and even smiling to someone, appearing vastly different to the poker-faced subjects in his own photographs. In a photograph nearby, a nude figure jumps into the air, appearing to float. The barrenness of the landscape features a heap of soil so large that the figure looks diminutive. It reminds one of the cinematography of the film ‘The Elephant Sitting Still’ (2018). The film is lauded for capturing the states of mind of people failed by social institutions in a northern Chinese county-level city. It is also well-known because the screenwriter and director of the film, Hu Bo, committed suicide in 2017.
Ren also ended his life in 2017. The solitude and solemnity of the aforementioned photographs are touching and they, once again, remind us of Ren’s untimely passing. Pitted against the premature death, the will to remember Ren seems almost capable of justifying the cultural and ideological significance attributed to his work. But, by binding Ren’s work to his death, one somehow darkens the vividness and dampens the coolness of his photography.