What We Do Is Secret: An Interview With Controversial and Provocative Chinese Photographer Ren Hang

Left: muse Huang Jiaq Right: Ren Hang, photograph by Oliver Maxwell Kupper

Ren Hang’s photographs rake a dagger across the main artery of sociosexual norms and leave a glittering crime scene of bodies splayed across the frame in ecstatic and erotic forms. As a Chinese artist, this makes his work even more incendiary and provocative – even in the face of his home country’s strict censorship laws. We got a chance to interview Hang (pronounced ‘hong’) back in 2011, when his work was just gaining international recognition. Over the years, he has had solo exhibitions in almost every major city. With his current show on view now at MAMA gallery, he can put Los Angeles on that list. In a back office at the gallery, before the opening of his show, we were able to conduct a second interview and ask the controversial Beijing-based artist about his work, his explosive career and his place in the current photographic and artistic zeitgeist. Hang is notoriously media shy, because he wants the work to speak for itself. Work that is unplanned, unchoreographed and not scripted in any way. A good example is his famous “fish tank” photograph – he brought an entire glass tank full of fish into a hotel room and placed it on the bed and let his closest friends jump in; water splashing everywhere; fish scrambling for safe haven. In his images, genitals are often painted red with lipstick, peacocks meddle with sumptuous human forms and a sea of behinds form a rippling, illuminatingly sensual wave – a wave that floods your unconscious with revelrous desires. Despite his timidness in interviews, Hang has a lot of future plans. Next December will see the release of a major career monograph from Taschen – a book that he didn’t want to release knowledge of yet publicly, but is currently available for preorder on Amazon. The monograph is a collection of work that derived from numerous self-published books that Hang has released over the last eight or so years – but many of the images are from the artist’s personal archive. Hang also has plans to release a feature length film, which will be his first foray into filmmaking. In the following conversation, with his muse and lover sitting next to us, Huang Jiaq, we chat about the spontaneity of his work, his previous life studying advertising, and his rebellious attitude towards the authorities. 

OLIVER KUPPER: Is this your first time in LA? And your first solo show?

HANG: Mhmm. My first solo show. I’ve done group shows.

KUPPER: How do you like LA?

HANG: Hmm, I don’t know. Because I didn’t go out at all. I just arrived two days ago. 

KUPPER: You’ve been taking photographs for a while now. How long?

HANG: Since 2007.

KUPPER: Is that outside of school? When did you first start to pick up the camera and take pictures of friends?

HANG: It was really boring in college. That’s when I first started playing with the camera. I was around 17 or 18.

KUPPER: So you were young. What was boring about college? Was it that there was nothing creative?

HANG: In college, I was studying advertising. I found that boring.

KUPPER: You wanted to be in more fine art photography instead of corporate [photography]?

HANG: At the time, I didn’t know what I would do later. Then I built a camaraderie with my friends.

KUPPER: Over the years, what’s sort of the biggest development you’ve seen in your work?

HANG: I’m the photographer. I’m taking photos literally everyday. I can’t examine things. To me, it’s the same. But I think it has definitely [developed]. I can’t be the outsider looking at my own work.

KUPPER: Have you discovered anything about yourself as an artist through the process?

HANG: Of course. Anyone would in this position.

KUPPER: You’ve traveled a lot too because of the attention your work has gotten. You must have discovered things about the rest of the world and the way people appreciate your work. Anything you’ve learned there that you can discuss?

HANG: I didn’t think about it like this. I just kept going. Now, I feel nothing. In the beginning, I felt half-happy and half-sad. Some people say really wonderful things about it, and other people say really bad things.

KUPPER: You use a lot of friends and lovers in your work. Also, your mom has been in a lot of your photographs. Does she support your work? Do you talk about your work with her? Did she support your work in the beginning?

HANG: Sometimes, I show my work to her. We didn’t talk about my work though.

KUPPER: What do your parents do?

HANG: My mom worked in a cream factory. My father worked at the train station.

KUPPER: Growing up, who were some artists you were attracted to?

HANG: My favorite artist is Shūji Terayama. He was a sculptor, filmmaker, poet, dramatist. He did multiple things. That was inspiring.

KUPPER: Was it just photography? Was it painting, or was it art in general that inspired you?

HANG: Everything.

KUPPER: People talk a lot about censorship in your work, especially in China. But it’s really a global issue. We have it here, too. Do you see that other places? Do you see your work being censored? Do you hear people talking about your work in a way that suppresses your creative ideas outside of China, or justin China?

HANG: Yes, but I don’t care. If the police don’t catch me. Whatever you say, you say. It’s your mouth.

KUPPER: But there is no fear. You still keep taking pictures. You still keep working.

HANG: I’m not afraid. Why be afraid?

KUPPER: When you’re shooting, how much is planned, and how much is spontaneous?

HANG: I never plan at all. I only know what I’m going to photograph after everyone gets together. It’s not a huge process.

KUPPER: Where are some of your favorite places to shoot?

HANG: Anywhere. Anywhere is beautiful.

KUPPER: The sexuality in your work, has that come naturally?

HANG: It comes naturally. I never really think too much about it.

KUPPER: You’ve also published a number of books over the past couple of years. Is there an experience people can get looking at your photography in books rather than looking at your photography on the wall?

HANG: I don’t really care if they have a different experience seeing it in the book or on the wall.

KUPPER: Do you plan on shooting in Los Angeles?

HANG: I would love to. We’re trying to find models.

KUPPER: Do you have any place where you want to shoot, or just anywhere?

HANG: Nature, in a park. I’ve only been here for two days, so I don’t know LA very well.

KUPPER: In the past, you’ve had problems with galleries selling your work without your permission. Has that been resolved?

HANG: It was just one gallery. It has not been resolved. We’re still in a lawsuit.

KUPPER: How did you find out about that?

HANG: One of the buyers from that gallery found my email online and contacted me. He asked me a question about the photograph. That’s how I found out.

Ren Hang Inspiration: Shūji Terayama's Film "Butterfly Dress Pledge" (1964)

KUPPER: Can you talk about this show, and the pictures that were chosen for the show? This is a new body of work?

HANG: MAMA Gallery chose the pictures. It’s a mixture of new and old.

KUPPER: Do you try to shoot everyday?

HANG: The majority of the time, it’s everyday. The camera is always in my pocket. But it also depends on my mood, if I’m happy.

KUPPER: You probably feel really jet lagged now.

HANG: Mhmm.

KUPPER: Where do you see yourself as an artist in ten years?

HANG: I don’t know.

KUPPER: You don’t want to have those restraints thinking about where you’re going to be.

HANG: Well, even if you think where you want to be, it doesn’t really matter. Even if you think where you’re going to be, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get there or be there.

KUPPER: What do you want people to know about your work?

HANG: I don’t have a message. Everyone is going to have their own thought about something. Even if I say, “Oh, this is the message of this particular photo,” it really doesn’t matter. People are going to think what they want to think.

KUPPER: You collaborate with your Huang a lot too. You’ve worked together on a lot of stuff.

HANG: I shoot him a lot.

KUPPER: He’s sort of your muse. How do you feel about that [Huang]?

HUANG JIAQ: I don’t know.

KUPPER: That’s exciting. You guys get to make art all the time.

JIAQ: No. We don’t think we are making art. It’s just shooting.

KUPPER: Yeah, it’s just part of life. Magazines want to turn artists into artists. They won’t let them do their own thing. But you two travel a lot together. How did you meet?

JIAQ: On the Internet.

KUPPER: Were you a fan of his work beforehand?

JIAQ: No, he was not famous at that time.

KUPPER: Is it interesting to see his work develop over time?

JIAQ: Yes.

KUPPER: What are some things you’ve noticed about his work that have changed?

JIAQ: I don’t know.

KUPPER: It’s a little weird to talk about, right?

JIAQ: Yeah.

KUPPER: Because it’s also really intimate work. A lot of friends are naked, having fun. It’s difficult to talk about, because it is just your life.

HANG: That’s my idea. But a lot of people don’t agree with me. It’s expensive. [For example] why you want a big fishtank? They are hard to clean, the water. But if you want me to shoot with you, you must have this. Do you have another idea?

KUPPER: So the hotel actually used it for advertisement?

HANG: Yeah, but they almost said no to me.

KUPPER: It’s messy but exciting. That’s one of my favorite photos. Do you have a favorite photograph?

HANG: I love all of them. But after I shoot, I start anew.

KUPPER: Do you ever think about making movies?

HANG: Yeah, I would make a movie. Next year, a real movie.

KUPPER: Like a long one, a feature length?

HANG: Yeah. Maybe show it here.

KUPPER: That’d be great. It would be fun to see your images come to life in that way.

HANG: It will be very different than my photos. It’s a story of love and la la la. It’s real life. It’s not like this.

KUPPER: Even if this is sort of real life?

HANG: Kind of.

KUPPER: You wrote the screenplay? It’s a big movie, and you want to premiere it here in the US?

HANG: I think because the producers are in France it will premiere in France first.

KUPPER: That’s exciting.

HANG: You will see the movie in the cinemas all over the world, but not China.

Click here to see images from Ren Hang's exhibition, What We Do Is Secret. The exhibition will be on view at MAMA Gallery until July 23, 2016. Click here to read our previous interview with Ren Hang. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE