Nicholas Gamso considers Ren Hang’s engagement with urban space and queer body politics
Chinese wealth is everywhere—land, bonds, productive power, contemporary art. Its financial and cultural influence defines much of what we call globalisation. As the curator Philip Tinari recently suggested, the concept of “Rushi,” or China’s “Entering the World” (a term used to describe the country’s admission into the World Trade Organization in 2001), may even stand as an allegory for the contemporary itself.1 Yet the nation’s future is uncertain. The children of the financialised middle class are expressing dissatisfaction with China’s conservative social climate and repressive state policies, even as they stand to benefit from its newfound status in the global marketplace.
The situation calls to mind debates around the emergence of China as an engine for cultural production in the 1980s. Chinese artists were met with an ecstatic reception in the emerging global art market, prompting critics Li Xianting and Fei Dawei to debate a way forward. Fei argued convincingly that artists should embrace the new horizons offered by globalisation: “When one shuts one’s eyes and closes one’s ears for a long time,” he wrote, “this becomes a self-destructive habit.”2 Many Chinese artists have gone on to produce work from an extraverted, worldly position. Some have gained legitimacy by criticising domestic politics,3 while others have pursued lucrative creative ventures like design, architecture, and new media, eschewing political matters altogether.
Still others have attempted to occupy a space between these positions by turning to participatory methods and discreet relational themes. Such practices appear uniquely equipped to raise questions that the dominant political sphere has preferred to ignore, turning attention to the ways that intimacy, alterity, affect, and the body structure national imaginaries in a changing world. By refusing to reproduce normative critique, furthermore, relational and participatory engagements offer to contest the terms of their own reception. They call for dialogical modes of interpretation, which account not only for the works themselves but the expansive social formations they generate.
Looking at the interplay between artist, public, and mediated environment may help us understand the pressures of global culture on an emerging generation of artists. Such an inquiry may, more pressingly, offer an aperture through which to consider the aspirations, resentments, and anxieties of young people—not only in China but elsewhere in the world—as they grapple with the hard work of politics.
The life and work of photographer Ren Hang is instructive. Ren—who committed suicide in 2017, at the age of twenty-nine—achieved widespread acclaim for his stylised portraits of naked Chinese young people. Taken in and around Beijing, the photographs have been exhibited internationally, featured on the covers of fashion magazines, and transmitted to a global consumer public through digital social media.
To some, Ren’s photographs reflect the depthless-ness of the new Chinese “gilded age.” According to Chen Shuxia (referencing, among other artifacts, a 300-page photobook published by Taschen), the artist’s visual signature—flash, high contrast—is continuous with the style of commercial fashion photography and marketing.4 The works seem to invite fetishistic ways of seeing, which structure western engagements with Chinese cultural production even in the contemporary.
But the images are not all sheen. Ren’s work discloses the themes of bodily subjection, mental illness, and queer intimacy. As a result, his photographs have been vandalised by gallery attendees and censored by state authorities. The artist was arrested at least once for violating obscenity laws.
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Despite the work’s controversial nature, Ren professes little interest in politics. “I don’t intentionally push boundaries,” the artist has said. He has argued, to the contrary, that his work is principally a form of social experimentation among friends. It depicts the pleasures of play and collaboration in the minor genre of private photography (si sheying), which was popularised by photographer Lin Zhipeng.5 Ren did not conduct his photo sessions in public, preferring to work in his Beijing apartment, on its roof, or in remote natural environments where he and his models felt comfortable.
In lieu of political commentary, Ren went about materialising the themes of commensality and radical togetherness—relational, affective formations that have become, during the course of the artist’s short life, widely popular conventions of global contemporary art and critical theory. Certainly, his group portraits evoke these themes: “One head vanishes behind another, extra limbs line up, or succulent flowers are joined to feelers and pouts.” From these bodily combines, as Chinnie Ding has written, “forms of idiosyncratic mutuality roundly win out over atomised individualism.”6 This is an appealing claim, but it warrants further scrutiny.
Many critics have argued that, in exalting relational forms, artists and curators have missed the point of modern, movement-based modes of self-determinism. By appealing to togetherness, in lieu of justice, art practitioners risk becoming complicit in the inefficacy of liberal culture. The kinds of collaborative practices that Ren employs in his photo sessions, for example, appear indistinguishable from the banal styles of workplace managerialism that already characterise the creative economy.
With such critiques in mind, we might be tempted to ask whether Ren’s work is an expression of transgressive social practice or merely a means of withdrawing from direct public engagement. If Ren’s works do express a measure of political intent, can it cut through the junk matter with which transnational visual culture is saturated?
Wolfgang Tillmans—the German photographer who, like Ren, depicts everyday life within queer subcultures—has been pushing the themes of mutuality and togetherness as far into the traditional political sphere as they can go, even proposing, with Rem Koolhaas, to rebrand the EU as a model of absolute belonging. Such enthusiasm raises a more pointed question: does state socialism render such modes of relational activism less, or more, redundant than they appear in liberal society?
Claire Bishop, writing on these kinds of art practices in Soviet Eastern Europe, notes that “most artists wanted nothing to do with politics—and indeed even rejected the dissident position—by choosing to operate, instead, on an existential plane: making assertions of individual freedom, even in the slightest or most silent of forms.”7
And in China? Under the banner of Maoist social doctrine, all artworks serve as adjuncts to revolutionary consciousness. But could this also mean that the state’s bald insistence on didacticism and probations on performance give relational practice illicit power? Is Ren’s work political by virtue of its apparent autonomy from politics? And, given China’s dramatic entry to global capitalism, can such a position retain some measure of its social value?
Queer Body Politics
An emphasis in Ren’s photography on intimacy as a stage for social interaction has indeed challenged the tenets of didactic social realism by excavating those parts of life that authoritarianism seeks to suppress. The nude body, prohibited by the government in public space, stands as the referential centerpiece in Ren’s oeuvre. An object of subjugation and control (Ren a victim of police harassment), the body offers a measure of authenticity. “I feel the real existence of people through their naked bodies,” the artist has said,8 implicitly questioning the state’s prohibition on nudity.
Ren suggests that misunderstandings about the body, sustained by such prohibitions, structure transnational conversations about sex. The fetishisation of Asian bodies as a condition of western visuality has proven an appallingly durable feature of these conversations. So, too, has the related myth of inscrutability. (“I don’t want others having the impression that Chinese people are robots with no cocks or pussies,” Ren has said.)
Such persistent clichés are, of course, among the reasons Ren’s photographs have attained such notoriety beyond China. Representations like those produced by Ren have come to operate as currency in what critic Laura Kang has termed the “economy of white male desire.”9 As a result, the images serve to “displace other scenes of racist, sexist domination, expulsion, exploitation, and harassment,” even if they were intended, nominally, to challenge such practices.
Ren’s photographs, in other words, must be understood both on their own terms and as encoded visual commodities. Images that are distributed through the channels of social media and digital marketing, because they modulate across a vast transnational field, and are shaped by comparative structures of misrecognition, negation, and disavowal, with all their gendered and racialised attachments. They become inflected with worldly semantics they had not, at first, contained, and overcome by the latencies for which they had never fully accounted.
Queer life features obliquely in these relational and comparative formations. Especially as it is transmitted into the visual logics of western consumption, queerness is instrumentalised as a well of restorative affect. Sometimes it is called upon as grist for institutional claims of diversity, sometimes (as in Tillman’s recent efforts) to ameliorate fears of rising authoritarianism. And sometimes queerness is evoked as an organising referent for young people who are disenfranchised by traditional politics but committed nevertheless to the idea of a just world.
Ren’s photographs have succeeded in conveying this desire. They do not depict normative relationships but complex engagements at the limit of friendship, sex, and solitude. Through the artist’s practice of recruiting volunteer models, and due to his reach across social media, he was able to forge a transnational queer counter-public to which he was loosely yet meaningfully connected.
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It is worth noting, however, that despite achieving a measure of global acclaim, and despite having travelled in person to gallery shows in Japan, the US, and Europe, Ren managed to carry on his career in secret from his parents. “There is no way to know whether my family would support me,” Ren said in 2016. This transference between celebrity and anonymity reflects the ambivalent status of queer life in an increasingly porous but still conservative society. It is a measure of what the artist Chen Zhen has called “trans-experience” (rong chao jing yan), a form of “impure experiential” artistic practice that arises from life between multiple places and times “adapting itself to changing circumstances.” 10
The basic narrative of Ren’s short life—born in a province, left for school, became an artist—comprises an extended metaphor for national aspiration while remaining uncannily resonant with the themes of global queer youth culture. Yet as his work suggests, the terms of sexuality and national politics remain practically incommensurable. They necessitate aesthetic gestures—“queer performances of the everyday that, in their very acts, destabilize and expand the limited understandings of their respective cosmopolitan and national imaginaries.”11
The facts of the artist’s life and death suggest, thus, that his work cannot be understood through the limited comprehension of a state, party, or personal commitment, but must be interpreted in relation to a number of contravening social and environmental determinants.
Turning from normative political frameworks to relational and embodied practices, Ren’s work invites us to consider how spaces themselves engender the social. Urban space demands particular attention. As principal sites of Chinese modernity, cities exhibit the effects of development, migrancy, and privation, in addition to serving as reservoirs of conflicting and interweaving histories and signs. Urban space is taken as a reactive terrain for participatory interventions in many overt social practice projects—such as Chen Yun’s collaborative documentary work in Shanghai or Jiang Zhi’s photographs (censored by authorities) of endangered properties in rapidly developing Shenzhen. Although it is an infrequent referent in Ren’s oeuvre, Beijing provides a dynamic environment for the kinds of shifting social interfaces that the artist’s work so frequently performs.
Consider a series of untitled photographs showing naked models posed on a corrugated rooftop above Beijing. The images draw the viewer close through an emphasis on sensuous bodies and, in various pictures, their intimacy or remove from others. The scene in every case is calm, austere. The models wear plain expressions. In one image, a single model sits in naturalistic repose. In another, a model lies at the edge of the roof, his legs suspended beyond the precipice. In another, two models cling to each other, facing away. In another—scored by the contrasts of afternoon light—two are counter-posed, in symmetry, their arms and legs turned inward, their bodies supine, pointed to the sky.
All these tableaux appear before the sprawling Beijing cityscape, which is engulfed by the white sky as it recedes on the horizon. The city seems, in a contrast to the soft and limited relationality of the bodies, to signify a functional kind of togetherness—the collective enshrined by state socialism and given form by an endless grid of modernist buildings. The allure of the works comes from the ambiguity of the city’s signifying power, the ways urban space allegorises the globalising nation while remaining a stage for encounters and relationships.
Ren’s engagement with urban space may be compared with the use of Beijing’s bucolic Mentougou District by artist Zhan Huan and a group of volunteers who, in 1995, lay calmly atop one another in an effort (and the title of the work) “To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain.” The landscape held a symbolic value associated with natural resources and agriculture. To the southwest of Beijing’s urban core, Mentougou offered a counterpoint to the developing city. It is a site of natural majesty that, in Zhan’s work, merged with the discomforting beauty of the bodies amassed there. The queer painter and performance artist Ma Liuming, who participated in Zhan’s 1995 work, offered more explicit performances throughout the decade, including, in 1998, walking the Great Wall in the nude.
The subversive tranquility performed by prohibited bodies in sites of national signification marks a continuity across varied landscapes and multiple generations of Chinese artists. Yet when transmitted to a global art public, the objects change considerably, their semantic appeal reduced to a mere recognition of China/East Asia/the Orient. So too the new national landscape of Chinese urbanisation.
Mimetic urban space is so prevalent in the global design imaginary that, given the wide circulation of Ren’s works, the city will undoubtedly cease its functional significance and become a mere graphic environment for the illumination of specific (Asian) bodies. The city’s reduction to abstraction parallels the reduction of Ren’s work to mere style. Its context falls away and the images, demanding something of a new and untrained public, are quickly charged with other (usually preconceived and often naïve) associations. It all depends upon where, when, and under what conditions the city and its representations are examined.12
This terminal incoherence is characteristic of the urban environment itself, as Ren implies through a series of modular engagements with the rooftop. He exhibits the body alone, the body in two, the body among a multitude of others, the body among its institutional precedents, the body as a stylistic signification. The effect is a sense of being “beside oneself,” a distortion of individuated viewpoint that finds form among the sensory stimuli, shifting grounds, and spaces of appearance that comprise globalised urban space.13
To What End?
Ren’s works offer something like what Tina Chen has advocated in her writings on global epistemology: “relationally non-aligned approaches” that bring to light the “non-achievability” of knowable regional identities.14 Seeing what’s there in its disorganised complexity means taking stock of what our discussions do not yet allow. Ren’s work highlights this not yet, defying the limited ways by which we conceive of mutuality, identity, and difference.
By setting the body in various kinds of environments—some absurd and some banal—Ren has staged photography’s worldly itineracy. Along its way, the work rehearses and revises a history of comparative aesthetic investments, from the oriental fantasies that consolidated western subjectivity to the seductions of the global city. If we are to speak here of a relational aesthetic, it is not as a positive engagement, but a neutral ontic network with no promised returns. Only then can we understand why, in Ren’s work, the youthful optimism is mirrored by a gaping sense of lack. While some may take this as a measure of nihilism, depression, or simply a Buddhist outlook, it seems also to convey a recognition of shared futureless-ness. This is not the kind of speculation Ren’s work compels us to perform. But perhaps we should do so anyway, since so much depends upon it.
Nicholas Gamso is a fellow at the Stanford University Arts Institute.
1. Philip Tinari, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World. New York: Guggenheim Publications, 2017.
2. Fei Dawei, “Does a Culture in Exile Necessarily Wither? A Letter to Li Xianting,” Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents, edited by Museum of Modern Art, 1991/2003.
3. See Marie Leduc, Dissidence: The Rise of Contemporary Chinese Art in the West, MIT Press, 2018.
4. Chen Shuxia, “Ren Hang: Bodies Without Redemption,” Gilded Age, edited by Ivan Franceschini and Nicholas Loubere. ANP, 2017. See also Ren Hang, edited by Dian Hansen. Taschen, 2017.
6. Chinnie Ding, “Ren Hang at Company,” Artforum, 2017.
7. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells (London: Verso, 2013).
8. Interview with Jamie Clifton, 2013.
9. Laura Kang, The Desiring of Asian Female Bodies, Screening Asian America, edited by Peter X. Feng. Routledge, 2002.
10. Interview with Zhu Xian, 2016.
11. Robert G. Diaz, “Queer Histories and the Global City.” GLQ 18, nos. 2-3: 387-405.
12. My Depression, a cryptic online diary Ren published between 2007 and 2016, includes multiple allusions to relational nature of urban space. On 23 May 2010, he wrote, “I feel sad that we, everyday, are only talking about boys, love, the city.”
13. John Paul Ricco, Logic of the Lure. University of Chicago Press, 2007.
14. Tina Chen, “Always Virging on the (Im)possible,” Social Text Online, 2018.
- Thu, 24 Jan 2019