"My shoots are never planned out," photographer Ren Hang told VICE in 2013. "I get ideas on the spot, as we're shooting. My inspirations are derived from my life experiences up to that point… I use whatever flash of inspiration I get. I can't control my thoughts. They just come naturally. "
2013 may have been a turning point on Ren's journey to becoming the internationally-renowned photographer he is today; in that year, he published four monographs of his work and exhibited in 15 group shows around the world. Since then, he's become celebrated as an artist producing controversial work—his photos almost all focus on the nude body of friends and admirers—in communist China, where public vulgarity is verboten.
Ren has grown more reclusive in interviews since 2013. He's repeatedly insisted that his art is apolitical, and continues to do so, though his social media profiles and website are often shut down by the government and he's frequently compared to other censor-challenging Chinese artists like Ai Weiwei and Zhang Huan. When asked by editor Dian Hanson whether he identifies with those artists' work, he said "I don't know, I've never thought about this." But no matter how obliquely he may approach the idea that his work is an act of political and cultural resistance, it's driven a huge amount of interest in his art over the past decade, as China's cultural mores begin to meet the realities of a global world.
Hanson is the editor of a new collection of his work, Ren Hang, which sees its American release today from Taschen books. It's one of the most comprehensive retrospectives of his nearly decade-long career to date, and flipping through, it's easy to see why his work has captured the world's attention. His photos—of cherries in orifices and knives and forks poised above delicate areas, of nude women lying on vertiginous ledges, of genitalia placed into all manner of compromising situations—set our idea of the human body askew and celebrate the banality of sex. It's likely we talk about censorship when we talk about Ren because it distracts us from having to confront the deeper truths about human sexuality his work reveals. In this gallery of selections from Ren Hang, you can decide for yourself what those truths might be.
All photos copyright Ren Hang 2016, courtesy TASCHEN.