There's this photographer who just died, Ren Hang. You can see his work on his web site, but I warn you that it is profoundly not safe for work. Tons of nudity and sexually, well, not explicit, but fraught imagery. Lots of naked girls, some naked boys, many of them touching themselves or one another, ahem, intimately. Although not actually having sex.
He died a few days ago, I had never heard of him. Apparently he was somewhat broadly exhibited, and he may have been a protege of Ai Weiwei, so the fact that I've never heard of him is probably irrelevant. The internet has not exploded as such, but his death has spurred a lot of discussion, which mostly boils down to two camps: "Pervert with terrible lighting and no skill" vs. "You idiots don't understand Art, Ren was a mighty artist!"
I will state up front that I am a white male, citizen of the USA, monolingual english speaker. I will be writing about the work of a Chinese artist. There are likely to be cultural referents that I am missing, which referents are important. So it goes. Also, I'm going to refer to the artist as Mr. Hang, or simply Hang, and for all I know it ought to be Mr. Ren.
Let us clear away some underbrush. Hang's work enjoys a very clear vernacular aesthetic. It's straight out of social media, even more brutally snapshottish than the much reviled Terry Richardson. Hang was much more mannered and deliberately Arty than Richardson, who generally strives more for a paparazzi/naturalist feel. Hang almost always posed his models very carefully, and he had a really great eye for design and pattern. He was clearly fond of a good visual joke, my favorite being a pond filled with some sort of flowers and lily pads, which a model's face at the waterline, a plucked flower protruding from her mouth. Look! She's a lilypad! Ha ha ha!
So, to those who say Hang was not skilled, I simply laugh. His visual sense, and his ability to mould his models into the contortions and situations he wanted was nothing short of masterful. Making these pictures was not particularly easy, despite the vernacular aesthetic.
Further, one of the ways I think about and measure Art is to consider whether the work provides what I call an Art-like experience. Does it make you think? Does it evoke emotion? Does it engage you? On this front, Hang's work succeeds. It's puzzling, it's repetitive, it's rather titillating. It rather definitely digs up and forces you to examine any tendency toward the Puritan you might have as well as the more obvious what the hell am I looking at? Is this good? Terrible? What?! WHAT?!
The other major way I think about Art, though, is to try to discern what the Artist Is Saying, and on this front Hang's work falls short. To be blunt, he seems to be trangressing for the sake of transgression. While this is arguably a good thing to be doing under a repressive regime, to the western eye it is perhaps a lot less interesting. Artists in New York City have been covering this same ground for many decades now. In the USA this material doesn't even count as transgressive, it's somewhere between boring and witty.
While the official narrative is that Hang suffered under the harsh hand of the regime for his Art, we can also make some notes. He enjoyed some protection, surely, from Weiwei who while controversial and difficult for the desperate old men who run the country, has real pull. Hang also, interestingly, used film cameras. This is peculiar for a 29 year old, and puts the lie to the notion of a desperate fugitive, using the most limited tools for produce his Art in secret. While he apparently was arrested multiple times, looking over his pictures it strikes me that his arrests might well have been for trespassing, being in a public park after it is closed, for public nudity, all things that can get you arrested under virtually any extant regime.
All that said, I cannot know what Hang's situation relative to the PRC's governing regime was. For all I know his situation was pretty gruesome, and the (alleged) facts available to us can be explained in other ways. Certainly governments can be inconsistent, resulting in broad/general permission, punctuated with regular harassment by zealots.
The most salient observation I have seen raised with respect to Mr. Hang, and I think it's really very important and so I will expand on it a little, is that what Hang is showing us is almost entirely not about China. These pictures show us, if anything, the problems of being a bored little rich kid in China. The pictures hint at a great deal of sexual frustration which I find disingenuous. The only sexual problem these kids might have is that they're bored with constantly screwing one another.
If Hang's insistence on transgression is to speak truth to power, what kind of truth is he speaking? What is he exposing? What revolution is he throwing his power behind? His mission, if he had one (which I think he denied), seems at best to make sad old men feel uncomfortable. God knows the glorious leaders of most, if not all, nations could do with some more discomfort, but I'm not convinced that's really much of a goal.
In the end, these pictures strike me as basically Western. They seem like the sort of thing a mildly creative group of Hollywood kids might do as a protest to their parents.
The PRC has much bigger problems than this. No Artist is required to go after the Big Problems, of course, but what ideas do seem to be present in Hang's work appear to my western eye as particularly thin, particularly venal. Ultimately, the whole edifice seems to collapse into a collection of visual jokes, and a sort of trivial delight in twitting the Puritans.
Based on the light reading I've done, Hang seems never to have claimed to be doing anything else. I am inclined to take him at face value
... and as a consequence, to dismiss much of the Official Evaluation of Hang's work.