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

The Future Relic: An Interview of Artist and Fictional Archeologist Daniel Arsham

Daniel Arsham makes art.  His studio is nestled away on a quiet street in the Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn.  You could pass his studio door a hundred times and not even notice it, were you not looking for it. The front of the building almost looks to be an extension of his art.  And, behind the unassuming door is a vast treasure of ash, crystal, obsidian and other substances that make up the various forms of his sculptures.  Sharing a moment with Arsham back in May, he talked a little about some of the newer projects he is working on.

Eric Morales: Can we get a summary of what you’ve been doing the last few months and what you have coming up?

Daniel Arsham: One is a film project.  I did the premiere at TriBeCa film festival last month and this is a film called Future Relic that takes place in the future.  I divided the film into nine sections that I’ve made independently.  The sections, while vignettes of certain times in the future, they link together to become a Future Film. Number 3 of that series, which stars Juliette Lewis, was premiered at TriBeCa and we are doing a screening in Cannes and the following weekend in Istanbul. 

I also recently opened a large scale exhibition at the contemporary art center in Cincinnati. This includes a lot of the cast works in geological materials, ash and crystal.  I recreated a work that had been shown in Miami, which was made to look like an excavation.  Underneath the floor it looks like an archeological site.  There’s nowhere to dig [in Cincinatti] so I just made it into this massive pile.  It’s twelve feet tall.

I also included work that manipulates the surface of the architecture. I’ve made these works for a number of years that sort of disrupt the architecture. Like the piece back there with the drip, in Cincinnati I showed for the first time a new technique or a formal way of disrupting the architecture that looks like a drop of water that’s into the wall. So the wall has these ripples as if the whole wall was made out of liquid. 

EM: Defying not only the sense of solid matter, but of gravity. Right. Gravity goes this way [motioning horizontally], against the wall.

DA: I also having a large solo exhibition here in New York, in the fall. And I’ve lived here for 15 years. I’ve only shown in Europe and Asia and other places in the U.S. This will be my first real project in New York. It will be in November.

EM: Does it feel like a homecoming?

DA: Yes, most people that I tell are very surprised because people know my work here. It’s just that the main gallery I’ve worked with since 2003 is in Paris, and they have a gallery in Hong Kong. And, I work with a gallery in LA. So, people know my work here, but they’ve only seen it elsewhere. 

EM: You’ve ventured into things in which you had no background. Is that your philosophy? Try it out and see what happens? 

DA: It has certainly become that.  When I was asked to make that first stage design, Merce was telling me, “I want you to do this,” and him saying that he believed I could do it.  He gave me the confidence to pursue that.  It was definitely a large scale project, the largest I had done up to that point.  But, it wasn’t as impossible as it seemed initially. 

A lot of other things I’ve worked on, the creation of the films, working with architecture, all of these things, they seem difficult from the outside…and, they are [laughter].  But, often, the things I’ve pursued outside of my own practice are in collaboration with other people. In dance, stage and film, I’ve been able to find people who really know what they’re doing, and they have allowed me to make these things.

EM: Are there any other experiences where you draw your confidence from? 

DA: I just did it. I worked hard to study and learn the skills and tools. But, I’ve been very fortunate since I started school, to have all these things line up for me. I had won a grant at the end of school that allowed me to live for that first year. Because things lined up, I went from living off this grant for a year to the start of selling my work. Then I got hired by Merce and worked for him for a number of years, and one thing led to another. Then we built the architecture practice (Snarkitecture), and here we are.  …A lot of hard work.

EM: Is there a specific purpose in dividing the films?

DA: The film spans about 500 years in time. Each segment takes place in a different time period. There is a lot of attention to detail in the film in terms of scenography, the costuming and props. I’ve used things that exist, that I’ve already made, to fill out that world. I’ve chosen amazing architectural locations to help fill out that world. So, it made sense to make [each film] as these distinct vignettes.

And, there’s only one character who moves through them. She is in it as a young girl and then as an adult, and then as an entity, or memory. And in practicality, it was much easier to shoot it that way because all the actors and talent are friends and are donating their time. I’m working around their schedules. Having the films made in short bursts is easier than dedicating months to work on it.

EM: Interesting how that shapes the final product

DA: Yes. Film, more than anything, is the most difficult thing I have ever tried to accomplish. If I show work in a gallery or museum I can easily control everything from the light, the way people enter, and obviously what the work looks like. In film, you have to control everything, every last detail. Everything that you place on the screen means something.

For example, the organization of creating or building light. I contend to allow that to be as much of a character as the actual characters are characters. But, trying to organize all those aspects…There’s a scene where the characters are in an airplane cockpit. We built the entire cockpit.  Lighting was placed on their faces as if they were moving through clouds. Shadows are cast differently, like they’re moving. That’s amazing. I know that I need that. 

"There’s a lot of failure in what I do.  I try stuff.  It doesn’t work.  I just keep going.  I’m very adept at moving past things."

EM: That’s living sculpture. You’re working with light, shape/form and time all at once.

DA: It’s similar to dance in some ways. The fourth dimension is time, and film does that in a way, but it’s infinitely more complex because you can watch it over and over again. You can pick things apart. 

EM: Are there more films in your future?

DA: Yes. I’m making a push toward the film stuff. I have to complete Future Relic, but there’s a couple of other shorter projects I’ve been working on. I directed a dance film recently that was just 3 minutes. But I’ve been working on Future Relic for two years already, and with another year to go. But, that’s what it takes.

EM: Are you looking toward more traditional narratives?

DA: People often think that if an artist is making a film that it’s going to be some sort of art film with no story or very abstract. There are elements of Future Relic that are like that, but there is a story that is closer to a Hollywood style thing.

EM: When it comes to process and tools that you are using, what has evolved for you? With the 3D art? 

DA: Everything is hand made. All of the molds are hand made. The technology, our ability to make very complex forms is growing, we are getting much better at it. There is one mold that 5 years ago I could never have made.  It’s a multi part mold that has an interior and exterior. In order to do that, you have to be able to pull the object apart in your mind. It’s like reverse engineering. I had to start with very simple forms to get to that place. 

EM: You seem like a very gracious person

DA: I just want to exist in a world that is easy. And, when I say easy I mean that there aren’t people yelling and there’s no stress. There’s issues and things that happen but you just deal with them as they come.

EM: Music?

DA: A lot of hip hop. Looking forward to Rocky’s album. Drake.

EM: Film?

DA: Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas and I really love Chris Nolan. A lot of sci-fi stuff. I saw Ex Machina, which I thought was good. The films that are most successful in depicting the future for me contain aspects of the present. There’s aspects that feel true and real. Like HER. It was a totally believable scenario and environment. 

EM: Greatest lessons learned in life?

DA: There’s a lot of failure in what I do. I try stuff. It doesn’t work. I just keep going. I’m very adept at moving past things. It’s very easy to dwell and spend time ruminating over something, but there’s nothing to be done about it. It’s better and more efficient to move.   

EM: You manage multiple social media outlets. It’s important to know how to navigate that world today. Where do you see the benefit in all of that?

DA: I see it as an extension of my practice. I make things so that people can see them. I’m not sharing my life, I’m sharing my work. It’s another format for people to see the work. It’s particularly useful for people who don’t live in the big city, or don’t have access to museums and galleries. Every time I show work on [social media], more people will see that image than will walk through the exhibition, by ten times probably. I think that’s the benefit. A lot of people have become familiar with my work through that.

EM: What do you think about during your downtime?

DA: Downtime? Do I have any downtime [laughter]? My work is my life. I don’t distinguish. I’m super happy to come to the studio every day and to travel for things. It’s all one thing.

Daniel Arsham "Fictional Archeology" opens today in Hong Kong and runs until October 11 at Galerie Perrotin Galerie Perrotin Hong Kong.You can watch Arsham's short film Future Relic here. Text, interview and photography by Eric Morales. follow Autre on Instagram: @autremagazine