The translator at Klein Sun Gallery in New York, Willem Molesworth, asks if everyone present speaks Chinese. Except for me, everybody nods. My hand goes up, and I mention the only words I know in Mandarin: “I speak Cantonese. And not very much.”
I join the other guests who are also previewing Beijing-based photographer Ren Hang’s solo show. We file inside and gather around a portrait of one of Ren’s friends—only her head is visible, disembodied by the rock and waterfall that fill the entire frame. Her gaze is on the camera, and by extension, the viewer. The setting is unknowable when not contextualized by the title of this show: Athens Love.
Ren makes it a point that the place is less important to him than the people in the pictures: “It’s really about capturing the subject—the person, as opposed to where I am.”
Ren made the Athens Love photographs during a residency offered to him in Greece. Two of his friends, who are the subjects in the images surrounding us in Klein Sun, happened to be studying in Europe—one in Italy and one in Paris. Ren clarifies they weren’t with him the entire time in Athens—they weren’t hired to accompany him, they traveled to visit him.
“I had exhibitions going on throughout Europe last year,” he says, “when I looked at my calendar, ‘Oh, I could just fly back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, or I can do this residency, and then make it just like one long extended stay. And I rather do that. So that’s what I did.”
Before photography, Ren studied advertising at the Communication University of China in Beijing.
“College was really boring,” says Ren, casual and insouciant. “I had a camera, and I just started taking photos.” The artist’s tone is refreshing, if not a trifle incongruous, standing as we are in the middle of Klein Sun, surrounded by pictures of erections, nipples, breasts. The nude is not foreign terrain for Ren, neither is the controversy that follows it.
“But I can’t really take photos, my camera is only this big,” Ren jokes. He shows us his 35 mm camera—a modest-sized Contax that he keeps in a fanny pack.
Ren and I introduce ourselves. We’re both Chinese, both photographers, but the similarities end there. Our translator searches for the word “Memphis” to explain where I’m from.
“Try Elvis,” I say, “most people know where Elvis is from.”
To this, Ren points at my hair, a sort of Elvis-cum-Andy Kaufman pompadour. Thus, common ground is established.
You were born in 1987. Mao had died in ’76, opening up economic market in China during the ’80s, and resulting in more publications of Western Art than before. What was your relationship to art and photography before college?
When I was a kid, photographs were just like memories: family photos, little memorabilia pieces, things like that. It wasn’t something I played with. Once I got to college, I started playing with photography, essentially the same way I’m playing with it today. Just with a small camera, taking photos with my friends and having fun.
One day, it just happens. You decide to collaborate and photograph your friend. What was it like when you made your first photograph?
I don’t remember. But it really was like that—it didn’t seem sudden, like Oh, today I’m going to start taking photos. It was kind of like it’s always been there.
I remember reading in this article, two years ago I think, that your family is unaware or hasn’t seen your photography. Is that still the case?
So yeah, yeah, they know now. Not because I did the series with my mother—when I gave that interview you were referencing, when I said my family wasn’t aware of my photography, I think that was just me—I thought they weren’t aware, when it seemed like they were already aware. Because when I asked my mom, “Mom, can I take your photo?”
Her first response was, “Do I have to take off my clothing?” That means she knew. She knew I was taking photos, and the kind of photos I was taking. It was just in my head that they didn’t know.
Do you plan to photograph your mom again?
I’m constantly photographing my mother.
When photographing in China, there are a lot of limitations. The police either threaten your arrest or your constant censorship. Your pictures are made out in the open, or in the privacy of interiors, the bedroom. Was it freeing for you to be in Athens, in Greece? Any funny stories?
Yeah, you think it would be! When I first left China, I was, Oh my gosh, this is going to be so much easier. The cops won’t be so [all] over me. Then, when I went to Greece, the cops still chased me! I still had to run away from the cops for these photos. It’s always the same. As freeing as I thought it would be, but it’s still the same.
There’re no fun stories about it. Not very fun to have happen. But it’s okay, I’m used to it.
I see the power of your images—why people respond to your work, especially when these photos are mostly made within an ultra-conservative country. There’s this idea of taboo, that people are drawn to what they’re not supposed to look at. As a result, there’s this sort of romanticism. Do you think your work is taboo?
I don’t really view my work as taboo… I don’t really think about it in a cultural context, or anything I do in a cultural context, or political context, with the cops or anything. It’s really just an individual basis. Each situation, each individual is just an individual.
As far as taboo goes, and as far as where I’m taking these photos, in relationship to why people are interested in my photography is you don’t know these photos are in Athens unless I tell you, unless somebody tells you they’re in Athens.
They very well could be in Beijing—unless you been to Athens before, you know it. It could just be a far place outside of Beijing, in some countryside. It doesn’t really matter to me.
It’s not like I’m intentionally pushing boundaries, whether it’s taboos or cultural norms, I’m not—because I can’t do it doesn’t make me want to do it more. It’s just what I’ve been doing.
I hear you usually stay in your house, only leaving when you’re going to photograph your friends. Do you interact with other Chinese photographers?
I don’t really have any kind of special, or strange, or deliberate relationship with any other photographers. I have a lot of friends who are photographers but they just happen to be photographers. It’s not like we became friends because both of us are photographers, it’s just a matter of going out, having fun, dancing together, things like that.
In response to me staying in, in that I only go out to take photos, I take photos at home too.
What was something that really surprised you, in response to people seeing your work?
Five, six years ago, when I first started taking photos, I did feel the negative responses a lot, when people would be like, Oh, this is trash! What is this stuff? I was subjected to that, it kind of affected me a little bit. But I don’t mind it now, or give too much thought to it at all. There are tons of people that spit on my photos still, literally. In China, people will spit on something they’re disgusted by, it still happens all the time. There’s just too much of it to be concerned.
But there are also good responses.
Where do you want to go next? Are there particular places you want to photograph?
Yeah, yeah, wherever, I’m open to where my photographs take me.
See Ren Hang: Athens Love on view at Klein Sun Gallery through April 30th.
*Special thanks to Willem Molesworth of Klein Sun Gallery
Feature image: courtesy Klein Sun Gallery, © Ren Hang.