To mark the opening of his largest solo show in Europe, Chinese photographer Ren Hang opens up to us about his racy and suggestive photographic work. Recounting shooting with his Mahjong playing mother and of dinners-turned-photo-shoots, the daring and fearless Hang lays out risking jail time to capture his oft piquant and poetic images. Living at dizzying speeds, this restless youth, like Hang, manifests a unique sense of creativity, ravenously searching to channel ‘the feeling’ as Hang calls it.
So the question is how I do it, and why I make it? I never plan before shooting; I just have ideas when I am shooting. So I don’t know why the idea will come to me, it’s like playing with my friends. When we are happy I will open my mind and every idea will come to me. It’s not my idea to say ‘oh I want to shoot that photo, like that. No. Never.’ I don’t think about it, I just do it. When I am shooting and the models take off their clothes, I feel that we are closer. There is no meaning to it, it’s just because I felt it. Sometimes before I sleep I will have a lot of ideas, but while I shoot I have already forgotten them. I don’t know why, when I finish shooting I say ‘oh my god I didn’t shoot the idea I had planned.’
The girls, I don’t know why the girls I choose as my models already have the red lipstick. Not all of them, but a lot of them have red lipstick. Maybe I also think red is stronger for me. I did not ask the people what they think of my pictures. I don’t care, I think. I don’t care, because I can’t change it. I can’t change if you like or you love it. I can’t change your mind.
It’s funny: before shooting with my mom a long time ago, I didn’t think my parents knew I photographed mostly friends without clothes. I thought they didn’t know I photographed the body. Then I had the idea of shooting with my mom. That morning when I woke up, I thought: ‘I am shooting with my mom because my mother is getting older and older, so I must shoot right now.’ So I called my mom and asked: ‘Do you want to be my model?’ And my mother’s first answer was: ‘You want me to take off all my clothes?” Then I thought: ‘Oh my god, she knows, she knows!’ I said ‘no no no, I am not ready, maybe you can with a bra and underwear.’ But my mother said: ‘Why not? You are my son, I can take all of my clothes for you, no worries.” I said: ‘ I am not ready for that.’ Then it just happened, I went to my hometown and shot with my mom. I had the idea of shooting with my mom and some animals. I asked my dad: ‘Do you think we can find some animals?’ And my father said: ‘Maybe I can buy a pig head for you,’ and he bought it.
After I put the photos on my website a lot of Chinese people sent bad words to me: like ‘your mom is a bitch and you are a bad son.’ Some wrote me long letters with a lot of bad words. I think Chinese people thought: ‘You are a son and you can’t do that with your mom.’ But my mom is very happy. She plays Mahjoing, a Chinese game, everyday. Then of course after shooting, she came home and cooked for me, like a very normal day. When I go back to my hometown, I will shoot with my mom again, in May. I found a place where they have a lot of peacocks, low priced, so maybe I will rent ten peacocks and shoot with my mom. I just plan how to rent the peacock, but don’t know what will happen later. Maybe I want to shoot with my father. It’s just an idea because I think my father is not very open like my mom. I need to ask him. Maybe he’ll say yes, maybe no…because my father is more serious. If I can, it would be interesting. But I am afraid to ask for now. But, I will ask him in May I am sure.
My friends? They never say no to me, they can do everything for me. I don’t have a lot of friends who are artists. I think there are some artists but not a lot. Some are students, some are in some agency or company, and some I don’t know. When we have dinner I am always shooting; we never talk about jobs, we just talk life. Sometimes when we finish the shooting they are naked and we just sit on the floor and we eat. They don’t care, I don’t care. They are nips, just nips, pussy, just pussy. I took photos with all of my friends. But for now a lot of strangers send emails saying ‘I want to be your model,’ and I will choose some.
My camera is a very cheap camera. It’s very easy, you don’t need to do anything. You just hit the flash. It’s easier then painting, but I also do paintings. With painting you need to spend more time: one or two months for one painting. I think it’s too long for me, but a photo is easy. I don’t like Photoshop. I don’t like digital. I’ve tried different cameras, but you need to think about how to use these cameras. I don’t have time to think about how to shoot. The best way is just to use a very simple camera. I use my mind to think about how to shoot with my models, not about the light, the flash, or anything about the camera.
Sometimes when I am in a taxi or a bus, I think, ‘oh this is really nice” I must shoot here. Then I go back to the location. I don’t think about needing a tree or a mountain. I just see it, then I go back with my models. I don’t mind the inside or outside. I just think, ‘today I want be inside or go outside, so I go outside. Today I want to stay in my home, so just stay home.’ I just follow my heart.
For money? Well, for now, I’m interested in shooting for fashion, before I did not like it. But now I can because it’s also like playing with my friends, or with models. Sometimes, the fashion models, they don’t understand what I mean. Sometimes I ask them to put their hair in their mouth, and they fuss, but I just tell them to do it.
I’ve never signed a contract with any gallery or person. There is no: ‘I am your artist, I am your photographer.’ We can work together for a project, for an exhibition, but I am free. I cannot work with all the galleries, because now a lot of galleries contact me to make exhibitions. One or two galleries is ok. Not more.
Maybe this year I will have four new books out, but it’s not a plan. Sometimes the publisher will choose for me, and sometimes I can chose. Sometimes the design is very ugly, and I will say no. Just for the last book I was fighting with the publisher a lot because it is not me who wants to publish a book, it is the gallery. I said no after they sent me a lot of designs for the cover, and of the pages inside, in the end I said: ‘I am really sorry but I really do not like the design, so can we make the book later, maybe next year?’ But the gallery said ‘please, we need a book.’ So my friend helped me find a way to make the design. The book is now out, selling around the world. This one [his first book], I printed myself. No printer in China can print it for me because it’s dick and pussy inside. So I need to pay more and be very careful because of the Chinese police.
The poems are, for me, nothing, it’s just the past. I think half of my poems are about dick, pussy, erection, semen, etc., and half about my life and just bad words. When I write I never think I need to take a picture. No. When I take pictures I never want to write a poem. They are two separate things in my life. It’s not different, but not the same. It’s like, how can I say? When you watch TV you cannot go to the toilet. Maybe you can, but I can’t. I don’t think they can go together.Ren Hang – New works Until 16th May 2015 Stieglitz 19, Antwerp renhang.org stieglitz19.be