On show now at newish photography gallery Modern Art Base (MAB) is a solo exhibition from Chinese photographer Ren Hang, entitled “Beauty Without Beards”. It’s the “first memorial solo exhibition since his death in February [of this year]” and exhibits 19 prints of his final works completed in Beijing and elsewhere in 2015. Printed by Ren Hang himself, according to the artist’s mother, herself a subject of his photography, these are the last editions of these images that will be ever be printed.
The 19 works on display encapsulate Ren Hang’s vision of the human body; his stated lack of agenda with gender in particular and the human form in general — admittedly this is the more PG version, it must be said. (The exhibition is in compliance with obscenity laws and although the subjects are nudes, lacking is the full-on, fully graphic nudity that surges through the majority of his photography.) In "Beauty Without Beards", Ren Hang presents his all-male photographic subjects as youthful, playful, dazed, erotic, natural, spontaneous, frivolous, exuberant, instinctual, idealized, apolitical — in the end just bodies.
It’s… a beautiful show. And an almost crushingly sad exhibition.
The Beijing artist took his own life a few months ago at the young age of just 29, and these images represent a portion of his final formal works. Ren Hang has been sufficiently eulogized elsewhere in more formal and qualified publications (as much as eulogies can be sufficient), but even for passing admirers of his views and style, it’s a difficult show to get through. The overwhelming heaviness of the circumstances surrounding the creation of these pieces competes and congeals with the lightness of their presentation.
“Body is body”, Ren Hang states. “It is turned into something else by any attachment.” Strolling the exhibition space, it’s impossible to curb ulterior and anterior meanings and implications of this argument away from the direct, euphoric celebration of natural form into darker, nihilistic terrain.
In the accompanying documentation, the curators state that the offering of the exhibition is with “the sincere wish to invite his friends to come together in memory of him and in honor of his contribution to photography.” That seems fitting. As always, the subjects of the 19 pieces are Ren Hang’s friends themselves, taken in Beijing and beyond in the last few years of his life. It was within that community of friends that his sudden death was felt with the most impact — the rolling, naked counterculture of young artists, iconoclasts, and outsiders that he represented and was a voice for.
Ren Hang’s “Beauty Without Beards” is on at Modern Art Base in Bridge 8 until August 26 before a selection of these prints will move on to be a part of 2017 PHOTOFAIRS in September. There is no entry fee.
Here's a look inside.