Remembering Ren Hang: How the Late Photographer Left His Mark on Art and Luxury in China

The recent passing of controversial Chinese photographer Ren Hang is a huge loss for not only the art world, but for China’s luxury and fashion circles, who, in recent years, turned to the rising talent for fashion spreads and campaign imagery. Ren worked with brands like Gucci, Opening Ceremony, and Loewe, linking the high-end sphere with a raw, artistic take on China’s underground youth.

Ren, who was well known in the international creative community for his erotic photos featuring mostly his friends, took his life on February 24 after suffering from years of depression. The 29-year-old created images featuring splayed bodies and intertwined limbs in both intimate and overtly sexual, “anything goes” ways, sometimes introducing animals, animal parts, and plants into the mix. While the content of his work meant it was often censored by the Chinese government, it didn’t stop high-end brands from translating his art into imagery that would speak to a new wave of China’s young consumer

In 2015, Ren helped Gucci shoot a series of photos for its Caleido collection, which was included in the brands’ digital gallery, #GucciGram. Ren’s photos were exhibited online with many other talented photographers and visual artists around the world, whose works were “united by a great freedom,” according to Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele. The brand said Ren’s photograph was successful in communicating the essence of the collection by combining human bodies, natural views and objects of desire “in the most deliciously confusing way.”

Ren Hang shot photos for brands such as Opening Ceremony (left) and Loewe (right).

Similarly, Ren collaborated with Opening Ceremony during their Year of China campaign last year, as well as Spanish luxury handbag brand Loewe. When he shot for these big names, Ren had always kept his personal style and used models he was familiar with. Late last year, he also released on his Weibo account images he took for famous luxury designers such as JW Anderson, Rick Owens, and Michele Lamy, which were published by several Chinese fashion magazines. This year, he shot the cover for L’Officiel Malaysia, featured in this month’s issue.

Ren was born in Jilin Province, China in 1987. His work has been shown in art museums and galleries in China, Australia, Germany, and the United States among other countries, and currently, people can still see his work at the Fotografiska Museum in Stockholm (until April 2) and the Foam Photography Museum in Amsterdam (until March 12). There is also a joint show between Ren and another Chinese artist, Li Xinjian, currently exhibiting at the KWM Artcenter in Beijing (until March 24).

Ai Weiwei, one of the most well-known Chinese contemporary artists and activists commented on Ren’s work in an interview with Time magazine on March 7. “Ren Hang represented a new generation of young Chinese artists,” he said. “Their works reflect the reality of China, today. The images are fresh, but also empty and superficial. They contain a deep sadness within.”

Ren Hang’s last Weibo post was on February 23, one day before he ended his life.

Ren Hang’s last Weibo post was on February 23, one day before he ended his life.

The controversial young artist’s death also had an influence on China’s online community. Before he passed away, Ren owned a Weibo account where he usually uploaded his photos and poetry. The day before his death, he posted the pictures he took for L’OFFICIEL Malaysia. When the unconfirmed information on his death first came out on Weibo, the hashtag “the death of Ren Hang” became one of the platform’s most talked about topics.

What has attracted the most attention from internet users so far was a post, written on Jan. 27 by Ren, which translates to, “Every year my wish is always the same: Die earlier.” He then followed up by saying: “Hopefully this year [I] can achieve it.” Under this post, more than 4,000 users commented, with some praising his artwork, some citing from his poetry, and others sending their blessings. For instance, one user wrote, “I know you were not happy when you were alive, but now I hope you are. Thanks for your amazing work.”

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