Chinese people don’t talk about things like that, said my mother to me years ago. Her voice was gentle, apologetic even, but it was the tight set of her mouth and the way she refused to even utter the word that made unease unfurl in my stomach. I was first introduced to myself as light gyrating across a cracked iPod Touch screen, as childish high pitched squeaks and moans, and as always being overpowered by another looming figure. It has always been hard to think of my body as my own. I have come to terms with the fact that it will always exist as an extension of someone else’s desires and disgust, never fully able to escape expectation. I have tried and failed to “liberate” myself, but the presence of what I should be and what I should feel ashamed to be scatters me in so many directions at once that I no longer know what part of how I present is real and what exists merely as reaction.
What is a Chinese body? Is there beauty to be found in glasses that slide down an oily nose, skin that looks greenish in the receding light, nipples that refuse to be pink? There is no one way that a Chinese body looks or feels, but it is so loaded with connotation (as with Asian bodies in general), that much of the time artists no longer know what to do with them when they are not using them to shock, repulse, or marinate in orientalist eroticism. Asian genitalia in particular is a bruise that is repeatedly pressed on - sideways pussies and small dicks are shameful stereotypes that even young children know about.
The history of the perception of Chinese people in the West has been tumultuous, to say the least, swinging to and from polar opposites. During the height of Yellow Peril, the Chinese man was seen as a subhuman rapist, and the Chinese woman’s evil manifested in the form of the “Dragon Lady” - a cold, heartless seductress. Simultaneously the Chinese body was, and still is feminized without its permission, with Chinese men being perceived as meek and un-masculine (due to a history of low-paying labour in traditionally “feminine” work such as in restaurants and laundromats) and Chinese women as submissive and shy. Familiar and aged as they are, these images alter the dynamics of our daily interactions and our closest relationships.
I first saw Ren Hang’s work in an editorial for Hong Kong brand Yat Pit. My interest was piqued immediately; his pictures were funny, charismatic, daring. I recognized at once the provocation many others speak of, but I also saw the warmth that lay just underneath the surface. In a rush, I realized I felt seen in a way I hadn’t before - under the flash of his 35mm point-and-shoot Chinese bodies were reassembled and twisted in gloriously confusing ways. Equal parts tender and brash, it is a raw and rapturous eroticism that envelops us, and the weight of history is alleviated, even if for just a second. I was struck by the purity of his photographs. Each part of the body is treated equally with curiosity and humour; penises are no more unexpected than feet reaching into the frame, and no more than wild black hair suspended in mid-air.
There is bravery in being able to take our bodies apart; the language of suppression is a familiar one. As I perused Ren Hang’s photographs I realized they represented ideas of myself never afforded to me: Here the body shifts in ways it is not allowed to. Flesh presses together, unabashed. Limbs are no longer tethered to expectation. Vulnerability is without submission. Queer love and desire does not carry with it the pregnant weight of guilt and scandal. Ren Hang did not see his photos as political, but perhaps that is their greatest strength. They exist not as reactions to taboos and dehumanizing caricatures, but as an unquestionable celebration of what it means to be touched and fucked and played with. Even his recurring use of flowers and animals as props is refreshing since they do not drag with them the connotation of fetish and exoticism in their interactions with our bodies.
The visceral quality of Ren’s photographs recall the work of Chinese-Malaysian, Taiwan-based director Tsai Ming Liang, whose pensive films are a study of the body as a container in which water and desires are merely passing through. I cannot help but be reminded of Lee Kang-Sheng’s disembodied leg dangling from the hole in Yang Kuei Mei’s ceiling, the curious watermelon scenes in both Vive L’amour and The Wayward Cloud, the hesitant kiss in What Time is it There?. Tsai too takes the body apart and lends it new strength in its autonomy and fervent need for intimacy and sensory overload. There is power to be had in the act of wanting rather than being wanted, to know that the pursuit of our satisfaction is still worth something in this life.
Both Tsai and Ren are gay, and the homoerotic subtext of their respective works has been well noted, as well as regarded as controversial. Ren especially has faced the wrath of the Chinese government because of the sexually explicit nature of his photographs portraying same-gender relations. Homosexuality in an East Asian context is near synonymous with repression, and although Tsai and Ren both have peeled back the layers to reveal an existence that is still considered heavily taboo, Ren’s photographs are not crafted to comment on this repression, rather to reject it completely. Ultimately, the greatest similarity between the two is their intimate collaborations with friends and the absolute empathy they have for their subjects. The love and concern Tsai has for both Lee Kang Sheng and the characters he portrays in Tsai’s films mirrors the loose, intimate quality of Ren’s shoots with his friends. This mutual respect and trust between artist and subject gives their works undeniable force and sensitivity.
Ren Hang has passed away right before his 30th birthday. His depression has been cited as the reason of his passing, but I suppose mental health is yet another thing Chinese people don’t talk about enough. His success has always been shadowed by the constant disrespect and ridicule his work has faced, especially from the Chinese government as aforementioned, with their countless, fruitless attempts to censure him. During his career he had been arrested, his shows cancelled, and his website shut down. He had even had work returned to him after a show with dried spit on it, as he shared in a Vice interview. Obscenity laws have deemed his work pornographic, and the strength of the backlash Ren’s work has sparked speaks to the decades-old fear of sexuality pervading Chinese society that is being unhinged ever slowly and incontrovertibly. Ren was relentless, each new series more fearless and rapturous than the next. Though I did not know him well or for long, I feel the gaping absence of his voice. In his brief life he has given Chinese bodies, our bodies immeasurable power in his depictions of desire without consequence, and for that we owe him a great debt.