Being a radical artist in China is a pretty tricky prospect. Considering censors banned paradigm of inoffensive banality Katy Perry from the country's airwaves for supposedly being too vulgar (and not forgetting that time authorities made Ai Weiwei disappear for posting seminude photos of himself online), you would have thought that Chinese photographer Ren Hang would lay off filling his portfolio with gaping buttholes and models pissing on each other, or sustaining his unparalleled level of dedication to photographing erect penises.
But he hasn't, which is a good thing, because his photos are great—somehow managing to desexualize naked bodies and turn them into sometimes funny, sometimes beautiful, sometimes gnarled, hairy, human-shaped sculptures that make you want to get naked with all your friends, paint your dick red, and hang out on a roof in Beijing. Which is basically the end game all photographers are going for, right? I wanted to talk to Ren about his work, so I did. Here's that conversation.
VICE: First off, why is everyone naked in basically every single one of your photos?
Ren Hang: Well, people come into this world naked and I consider naked bodies to be people's original, authentic look. So I feel the real existence of people through their naked bodies.
Is that why the bodies aren't presented in a kind of conventionally "sexy" way, even if the photos are sexual?
No, I don't take photos with any particular purpose or plan—I just grasp whatever comes into my mind, arrange that in front of me and take a photo of it. I don't pay too much attention to whether a scene is sexy or not when I'm taking photos.
Yeah, a lot of the bodies end up looking more like kind of grotesque sculptures.
That's not really intentional, although I do consider bodies as sculptural—or, as you say, grotesque sculptures—so I suppose the sculptures exist because the bodies exist.
Yep. What's with all the pee in your photos, too?
Again, I don't use urine on purpose. The models urinate, I shoot.
OK, I can already guess the answer to this considering nothing you do seems to have a purpose, but the dicks—there are a lot of dicks. Is that a statement about patriarchy, or something, or do you just like dicks?
No, taking pictures of penises is meaningless. But I do think that erect penises are the most real and beautiful penises. People sometimes even forget they have a penis unless it's erect, which I think is very powerful. But it's not just dicks I'm interested in, I like to portray every organ in a fresh, vivid, and emotional way.
What do you think is more beautiful—the male body or the female body?
Gender isn't important when I'm taking pictures, it only matters to me when I'm having sex.
What's your opinion on sex? Do you think it's a big deal?
Yeah, I do think sex is important, but I don't emphasize its importance all the time. After all, sex is a part of a normal, healthy life, just like eating and sleeping.
True. Who are all the models? Your friends?
Yeah, most of the models are my friends. I like shooting my friends because they trust me, which makes me feel more relaxed. I can only take my best work when I'm in that state; being with total strangers makes me nervous.
How choreographed is each photo?
I don’t plan before shooting. Inspiration usually comes to me while I'm holding the camera and looking at the models. I don't take pre-planned, previously realized photographs, I just shoot, you know? Although most of the time models follow my ideas instead of acting stuff out themselves, so I suppose that is choreographing to an extent.
How have your photos gone down in China?
My photos, especially the ones of naked bodies, are forbidden to be shown in Chinese galleries. Only occasionally can the ones that aren't explicit be shown, but I still face many difficulties even with them. For example, one of my shows was canceled by the Chinese government on "suspicion of sex" and, another time, a visitor spat at one of my photos. And those are just a couple of examples of the problems I've had. None of China's press will publish my books and I've been arrested while shooting photos outside before.
Doesn't that get frustrating?
Well, I'm used to those kinds of situations now. And I love China and I like shooting Chinese people. I was born here and I feel a big connection with my hometown. 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.
Interview by Jamie Clifton.
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Previously — The Art of Taboo - Nobuyuki Oura
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