A month short of turning 30, Chinese photographer Ren Hang has taken his own life, according to friends and colleagues.
Raised in China’s industrial Jilin province, the self-taught photographer had been likened to Ryan McGinley and Terry Richardson for his controversial images of young naked men and women in poses ranging from comical and cheeky to titillating, and sometimes even violent.
His work pushed the envelope—especially in conservative China—with explicit sexuality and queerness, including erect penises and semen. “I don’t want others having the impression that Chinese people are robots with no cocks or pussies,” he said. Pornography is illegal on the mainland and Ren was frequently detained by police and even arrested.
In recent years, though, Ren found an international audience and gallery representation in more liberal parts of the world, including New York’s Klein Sun Gallery. Last week saw the opening of a new solo exhibition at Stockholm’s Fotografiska Museum, while Amsterdam’s Foam is exhibiting Ren’s “Naked/Nude” through March 12.
While Ren demurred about his sexuality in the media, those close to the artist say he personally identified as a gay man. “He wouldn’t want it to be hidden or ambiguous as to his sexual preferences,” said Eli Klein of Klein Sun. “It would be doing him a disservice to not now be finally honest with how he identified himself.”
One of Ren’s images graced the cover of Aperture Magazine’s “Queer” issue in 2015, a watershed moment in his career. January saw the publication of a 312-page monograph from Taschen, the first for Ren.
Ren’s departure is already having reverberations both home and abroad, especially within China’s tight LGBT arts movement. “You probably never know how many people you saved with your photos,” Queer filmmaker and activist Popo Fan lamented on Facebook. “Our golden era in Beijing has gone.”