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How to Unhear and Unsee: reflections on Ren Hang’s photography

Ren Hang decided to end his life, just at its blossoming, this February. He was a renowned photographer, with a remarkable style of his own.

After his departure, the Chinese filmmaker and LGBT activist Fan Popo posted on WeChat and Facebook: “Our golden age of Beijing has ended”. What did he mean? Ren Hang belonged to a Beijing that was hedonistic and free. This Beijing, with its affordable housing, burgeoning youth cultures and relatively liberal attitudes towards sex, is fast disappearing within the rapid process of gentrification that cleans the “dirty” undersides of the city.

But Ren, in the first years of the 2000s – during Beijing’s rapid transitional period before and after the Olympics – enjoyed the poetic strangeness of the capital, and brilliantly captured it in his photography. These ‘surreally real’ shots of his friends, lovers and even his own mother, through his signature use of flash, resonate like a long, melancholic yet playful farewell by himself to himself, and perhaps also, by Beijing to Beijing.

These days, Beijing has become like any other big metropolis. Its alternative culture has been replaced by a consumer hipsterism. The autochthonous subculture of “artistic-youth” (wenyi qingnian), distinct from the globalising hipster bourgeoisie, was particularly lively in university circles, where Ren Hang and his friends used to hang out.

The backstreets of Ren’s alma mater, which has since changed its name from the old-fashioned and communist-sounding Beijing Broadcasting Institute to the more fashionable Communication University of China, is aptly called “dirty street” (zangjie). There one finds tasty and cheap street food, fruit vendors whom the students tenderly call “aunty”, pirate books in English ranging from Orwell’s oeuvre to Jung’s psychoanalysis (prices of original copies are too expensive for undergraduates) and not to mention the connoisseur’s selection of art-house films in pirated DVDs. Every university has (or had) a “dirty street” that resembles the one Ren Hang frequented. They are moving feasts for the empty stomachs and thirsty souls. It’s idyllic, sleazy, dirty and free.

Ren Hang’s photography captures the free spirit of his generation right before the storm of gentrification struck Beijing, turning it into an unaffordable global capital. It is an organic world that Ren Hang used his intrusive flash to illuminate. Ren’s strange worlds of juxtapositions feel like a midnight party, populated by the people close to him. They take off their clothes, strangle their legs, and expose their genitals. No one is shy. None of these queer subjects look repressed, perhaps against the expectations of many unfamiliar with that context. They do not hide in the darkness. They choose to have fun in the poorly lit “dirty backstreets”.

Ren Hang’s photos are poetic and erotic conversations with his beloved. They comfortably and playfully flirt with the ‘photographic gaze’, if we have to use this heavy phrase. Above all, they are products of this lost “Golden Age of Beijing”.

I didn’t know Ren Hang personally. But his world in Beijing and his suicide in Berlin shared an unexpected affinity with my own life trajectory. Maybe that’s why some friends in Berlin asked me for my opinion when his suicide was widely reported in the west. I am in no position to comment on it. It is shocking and saddening that such a creative, talented and sensitive poet would have decided to end his life. What is even more shocking and utterly unsettling, on the occasion of his departure, is to read the recycled language through which his work is reported and understood by western media.

The first, or perhaps only thing, one gets from reading such reports is a sense of excitement: “Censored in China!”; “Championed by Ai Weiwei!”, accompanied by a self-celebrating satisfaction that “we are in the liberal part of the world”. Besides Ai Weiwei, now you can talk about yet another Chinese contemporary artist and how they are both repressed by the barbaric communist state of China, but most importantly how the west, the “liberal part of the world” (a direct quotation from one report) was able to discover their work, exhibit them and ultimate protect them from China’s state censorship.

Talking about censorship in China has become perhaps the only thing one can write and read about China in western media these days. No one would deny the evils of censorship, Chinese or otherwise. Not even the Chinese state does that. It repeatedly tries to justify its censorship through different word-play, such as protection of children, or ‘information management’. The censoring of this or that film, of this or that book, for heaven knows what reason, are often taken by people as, ultimately, a useless gesture, a bad joke, occasionally – if at all – provoking indignation.

This light reaction is not because of depoliticization, brainwashing, or civil obedience. It is simply because the “dirty streets” often find a way to bypass the censorship without even giving a shit about what has been censored and what has not. Ren Hang’s generation and my own grew up watching pirate films. The original copies, even before the state stepped in to censor them, already performed the work of censorship through sheer expense.

However, every single artist from the ‘unfree world’ such as China, has to be talked about either as a victim of the unenlightened axis of evil, or as a martyr who dares to speak against state tyranny. Turning artists into political dissidents bears the typical saviour mentality of the west towards the ‘rest’. It involves less a genuine care for the ‘repressed other’ than a narcissistic looking at oneself. This self-celebration of the “liberal part of the world” is dispersed through a stunning incapacity of seeing and listening. How to unsee the context from which the artist’s work emerges and how to unhear what the artist has to say about that context and his/her work are tellingly shown in a large number of reports about Ren Hang’s suicide.

Ren Hang has hosted exhibitions all over the world since 2009. Each year, at least one exhibition was hosted in China. Sometimes exhibitions were interfered with by the police, and sometimes photos were allegedly spat upon by visitors, just as might happen to other provocative pieces of art across the world. Of course, one particular provocation within Ren Hang’s photography in China is his exposure of nudity. Nudity in Chinese modern art history has an extremely short history that can be traced back to 1988 when the national gallery hosted the first exhibition dedicated to nude paintings.

And yet, consider how the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art censored its own 2015 exhibition “La Bestia y el soberano” due to an artwork featuring the former King Juan Carlos having anal sex with Bolivian Labour leader Domitila Chüngara and a dog. Or perhaps Luxembourgian artist Deborah de Robertis who posed naked in front of the impressionist painting L’Origine du monde in Musée d’Orsay, before being arrested by the police.

In interviews, Ren Hang sensed the danger of reducing his own work to a cheap political dissidence that would be simplistically received and celebrated out of context. When asked about working with nudity in public space, he always added, “like everywhere else”, after critiquing China’s censorship or conservatism. He did not feel completely free to shoot nude models in New York’s Central Park, capital of the ‘free world’. He said – which has been repeatedly quoted and unheard – that through his photos, “I don’t want others having the impression that Chinese people are robots with no cocks or pussies”. Ren addressed a long-running colonial stereotype about the sterile Chinese, the asexual workers who are hardworking machines who do not know how to enjoy life, not to mention sex.

The flying cocks and peacocks, snakes and pussies in Ren Hang’s photography have been reduced to yet another piece of evidence of the despite-censorship-in-China. The joyous, playful and “queer” appearances and Ren Hang’s own, quite straightforward statements have been unseen and unheard.

Ren is reduced to a fighter against censorship despite his words and works, despite the fact that he has repeatedly stated that he does not intend to be political in his work; despite the fact that his work shows the liberty, not repression, of contemporary Chinese queerness. The looming buzzword “Chinese censorship” has overshadowed, alas, censored his work. And in doing so, it forces the nude subjects in his photos, who emerge in their most exuberant theatricality, back into the repressive darkness, waiting to be saved. 

Firs published on openDemocracy on 5th May 2017

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