Given everything currently being written and spoken about corporeality, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a concept which has only got us talking relatively recently.

In fact, though, everything – or almost everything – in contemporary art and culture art can be traced to fundamental themes and images. Philosophical categories, including corporeality, give today’s authors the opportunity to reflect on the eternal principles lying at the root of everything – while avoiding the assumption that any interpretation is the only true one. This gives us a broad range of interpretations of a single theme, none of which are correct or even very close to the truth. This is an awakward position, but we can pick out various forms of artistic statement and find in them that which arouses in us the strongest response. With regard to depiction of the human body, this may be: realistic depiction of the body or its idealization; breaking the bonds of censorship or compliance with the canons; explicit nakedness or poetic eroticism.

What of this is to be found in the photography of Ren Hang? Spoiler: everything you can manage to discover in his works.

But if we want to explain to ourselves why we have arrived at this reading in particular, we should go back to the beginning, to the history of corporeality… History which Ren Hang and his compact camera have mixed together with such skill and assurance.

When did art start talking about the human body?

As said above, the problem of how to understand the body has passed from age to age, from antiquity onwards. The issue has been rationalized and expressed in the format of a canon – a code of rules to be used by art to transmit understanding of this aspect of human existence.

Naked or semi-naked statues by the ancient Greek sculptors – Polykleitos, for instance – were the first answers to this question that were given material form. The answers involved idealizing the proportions of the human body.

This approach to the human body was exclusively idealistic (people today, used to an environment of universal tolerance, find it hard to imagine how this kind of thinking could be applied in practice. This may be why we are so inclined to admire this heritage). This has its roots in the ancient-classical perception of man as God, and God as the image of man.

Also important was the pursuit of physical fitness and sport, a cult which was oriented on preparing warriors who would be all-powerful and imposing defenders. Ancient Greek troops demonstrated the ideal physical condition, and this could not fail to make an impression on society as a whole. The patriotic admiration felt by the peaceful population developed into a cult of athleticism intent upon embodying the ideal image of the all-mighty defender.

There were entirely rational reasons for possessing supreme physical fitness, but the ancient Greeks also had a weakness for mystical cults of all kinds.

One such cult was Pythagoreanism – a philosophical concept which took mathematical structure and proportionality to be manifestations of the divine and, second, regarded the mathematical method as a means of harmonizing the surrounding world. The harmonious person was someone whose outline could be embodied – or literally calculated – using mathematical proportions. A person’s height, for instance, was regarded as ideal when seven lengths of the person’s head ‘fitted into’ it. A human being was an ‘instrument’ by which to measure surrounding space and create forms commensurate with that space. A person resembled the world, and the world resembled everything. Man and nature (the surrounding world, things, constructions) were inextricably connected, naturally fusing into an all-encompassing harmonious system.  

Once invented, an artistic method continues to live. It does not disappear completely – but metamorphoses and is manifested in other forms.

Thus ancient-classical corporeality, based on admiration for harmonious forms and idealism, did not end with the fall of Greek civilization.

References to this approach to the human body can be seen in the figurative art of the Renaissance (the Italian as opposed to the northern Renaissance). Renaissance masters drew extensively on beautiful forms taken from antiquity, seeing man as of supreme value. An example of this is Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man – there could be no better illustration of Protagoras’ ‘Man is the measure of all things’. Several centuries later, in the 17th century, ancient-classical models were again revived, in Neoclassicism.

Classical corporeality. What does Pictorialism have to do with it?

The first explorations of corporeality in photography were carried out during the epoch of Pictorialism (from the English word ‘picturesque’; the term was coined by Henry Peach Robinson). The Pictorialists set out to prove that photography is a separate genre of fine art.

The Pictorialists’ aim was to turn the practice of photography into a form of artistic self-expression by borrowing or copying techniques and, even more importantly, instruments of artistic expression from painting, whose artistic legacy was beyond question. A literal resemblance between the painted canvas and the photographic print was achieved through, among other things, choice of themes and subjects.

Photography of the end of the 19th century mastered painting’s stock of images and extracted from them the principle that easiest way to talk about corporeality is to depict living nature and the naked body. Photographs of naked people had existed even before Pictorialism but had served extremely pragmatic purposes: as objects of erotic pleasure, as a substitute for the preliminary studies usually made by artists, or as a documentary and scientific record for the purpose of further research into human physiology.

The Pictorialists’ use of nude photography had no practical purpose; its objective was to create an aesthetically attractive artistic image. Stylistically, Pictorialist photography imitated academic painting and printed graphic art. An especially important reference point for the Pictorialists was the visual legacy of the Pre-Raphaelites. There was a good reason for this: the Pre-Raphaelites treated the ancient-classical world as a source of ideas.  Thus subjects taken from poetry and mythology, the creation of a distinctive atmosphere, and – crucially from our point of view – the approach to depicting the human body all pointed to the ancient-classical age.

One of the most lasting figurative tendencies that illustrated the embodiment of ancient-classical corporeality in the art of subsequent periods was the Flandrin pose. First used by Hippolyte Flandrin in his study of a sitting young man with his knee pressed to his forehead, this pose was repeated with striking frequency in photography. In this way a specific position of the body deriving from a historical classical study became a way of invoking the classical perception of corporeality – a device for talking about corporeality while depicting a modern subject.

An example is Beatrice Hatch, a picture by the Pictorialist Lewis Carroll (yes, the same Lewis Carroll who wrote Alice in Wonderland). Works by the German photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden, who photographed German male nudes in the manner of ancient-classical depictions of ephebes, also allude to the ‘F pose’; see, for instance, his Cain of 1902.

Classical corporeality referring to the Flandrin formula is also to be found in the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. Ajitto (1981) shows the erasure of any visible dividing line between the ideal forms of ancient-classical sculpture and the depiction of living nature.

In addition to literal imitation of classical forms, photography has worked with the ancient-classical understanding of corporeality at a conceptual level.

The American photographer Anne Brigman was one of the best-known exponents of Pictorialism. Her work explored the ancient-classical idea of human beings as an integral part of nature.

Brigman worked with female nudes or semi-nudes, which she depicted against a background of wild landscapes. Examples include The Lone Pine and Soul of the Blasted Pine. In her works the human figure does not look or feel like an object which has been artificially introduced into or staged in the surrounding setting. On the contrary, the poetic forms of female bodies merge aesthetically with the silhouettes of trees, streams of water, and boulders; they embody the idea of man living harmoniously in unity with nature.

In today’s reality man’s separation from his ‘natural habitat’ is felt particularly keenly.

Noting this deficiency, which derives from technological progress, contemporary photographers continue to realize ideas that pick up on Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s thought that man must return to nature. This is the subject of works by the Finnish photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen.

For more than 40 years Minkkinen has been photographing the naked body in the midst of nature in an attempt to discover that same intimate link with it. His photographs show the human body in the process of merging with the natural setting and undergoing transformations that border on the limits of what is possible for the human physique. The aim is to demonstrate the closest possible – even hyperbolized – unity with nature.

Man’s elusive but ever-present connection with nature can be depicted without even having to go outside into ‘fresh air’. Bodyscapes, a series of photographs by the conceptual photographer Carl Warner, recreates landscapes that imitate natural forms and landscapes by working with the human body.

Warner takes spontaneously made photos of the body of a single model and stitches them together during post-processing to form a single, nature-like structure. Some will say that in so doing he completely strips the body of any kind of idealism and focusses attention only on specific sections and curves of the human physique.

Is there really, however, be no higher association or way to idealize the forms of the human body than association with the primordial beauty of a natural landscape?

Imitation of classical antiquity

Pictorialism reached its heyday in the US in the first decade of the 20th century and faded out entirely after 1914 under pressure from the then ubiquitous Modernist and Avant-garde movements. Glossy magazines were on the lookout for photographers who could create a picture that was aesthetically attractive and radiated glamour. The 1920s brought new standards for commercial and fashion photography. Part of the credit for this must go to the photographer George Hoyningen-Huene, whose first shoot using sharp focus in 1929 revolutionized the look of fashion magazines.

In addition to technological innovations, George Hoyningen-Huene created a new artistic language whose images alluded to ancient-classical sculptures and reliefs. Additionally, direct allusions to classical depiction of the body (the aristocratic beauty of the models; the strict poses reinforcing the idealized demonstration of beautiful forms; the numerous folds, drapery, and formal stage props) often went hand in hand with a preference for luxury and chic.

Love for classical corporeality continued to spread in fashion photography throughout the 20th century.

Herb Ritts, one of the leading photographers of the 1980s, exploited the traditions of classical corporeality. His eye was drawn to precise, clean lines and strong, understated forms that emphasized balance and alluded to the strict orderliness of classical Greek sculpture. Exploration of the idealized human figure and its embodiment in the canons of ancient-classical sculpture were constant themes in his works. And not his alone.

In fine art and photography the quest for ideal forms of the human body and the desire to acquire these forms remain in force to the present day. You can see these strivings in bodybuilding, for instance, or current trends for ‘podium’ proportions of beauty. For all today’s freedom of expression and recognition of all kinds of human forms as essentially equal, there are, it seems, certain patterns of perception of the human body that we have learnt and internalized and can never unlearn.

The new corporeality preserves these features of the classical approach while expanding to encompass acceptance of all forms of this approach without exception.

Real corporeality and the new materiality

What might be called the ‘second’ type of corporeality in photography emerged from the legacy of Pictorialism – or, to be more precise, from late works by Alfred Stieglitz.

It is impossible to speak of the history of photography in the 20th century without mentioning Stieglitz. He was a technological innovator who experimented with printing techniques, but he was also a conceptual bridge between Pictorialism and mature modernist photography. The American community of photographers f/64 (a term that designates the size of the minimal diaphragm available on a large-format camera), of which Stieglitz was a member in the 1910s, and the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) movement, which emerged in Germany, were two forces that shaped the new methods in photography.

The new approach involved a shift from high artistry and emotionality to precise subjects and detailed reproduction of objects. From idealized corporeality that fused with nature to real, perceptible, unvarnished form. From Renaissance Venuses to the breaking of stereotypes concerning the human body.

A good example of the new corporeality is the work of the American photographer Edward Weston. After starting out in the Pictorialist style, Weston progressed to using realist direct images. The series of nudes he created in 1936 is an extreme concentration of sensuality that has been achieved by the ascetic composition of the close-ups.

Dramatically lit and closely framed parts of the human body make the subjects more tangible while focussing attention on form. The body becomes an object, a fragmented section of photographed form whose beauty and perfection are conveyed not through how this body looks in itself but through how hypnotically it has been photographed.

Although no longer idealized, the body does not cease to be an object that serves the contemplation of beauty. The methods of transmitting this corporeal beauty have changed. Idealization gives way to the concept of ‘the body as it is’, and perception shifts to ‘real-ness’, to the aesthetic qualities of the real body.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s reinforced this tendency and drew people’s attention to the absolute naturalness of the human body: these bodies have scars, creases, stretch marks, hair or a lack of hair, and traces of age, wounds, operations, or use of psycho-active substances. In a sense photography during this period became tougher; its assertive explicitness shocked viewers by exposing each person’s particularities.

Important figures in the photography of the second half of the 20th century such as Larry Clark and Nan Goldin categorically rejected all idealization of the human body. Instead, they focussed unashamedly on what is most intimate, and sometimes on things we would possibly prefer not to see: semi-naked bodies of teenage lovers, bed scenes, backstage travesty cultures, motels, bars, and exhibitions and events held in private apartments. Intrusive use of the flash, the rejection of staging and retouching, the combination of a documentary approach and subject-matter that was deeply private: all this created a feeling of crude voyeurism, literal sexuality, and total emancipation of corporeality.  

This radical acceptance of the body and all its particularities always borders on obsession. Works by Nan Goldin, for instance, repeatedly treat women as vulnerable and dependent objects of photography.

The opposite of Goldin is Terry Richardson, known for his hyperfetishization of the naked female body, served up as glamourous images of soft eroticism. The overcoming of taboos concerning perception of the human body now went to a new extreme: objectivation, exploitation, and ‘porno chic’, masked as photography of fashionable, audacious glamour. The new ethics and social openness invariably correctly identified such extreme manifestations of the free treatment of the human body. Frank eroticization pushed photo art back to ‘primordial’ times, when depiction of the naked body had exclusively served the giving of pleasure.

Conscious of this reverse side of openness, contemporary photography began looking for new ways to address the problem of corporeality, using the human body to create artistic images of immediate relevance.

The new corporeality

The turn of the millennium brought an active quest for new ways of working with the human body – whether naked or clothed. After passing through idealization, radical acceptance, and objectification, the horizons of perception of corporeality now expanded further, beyond the boundaries of the body.

It was during this period that Ren Hang made his entrance into photographic history. His works contain the aggregated evolution of perception of the body and at the same time constitute the newest, most relevant corporeality. Corporeality divorced from reality.

Ren Hang was born in 1987 in a suburb of Changchun in the province of Jilin in north-east China. We know almost nothing of his childhood, family, or close friends. We know what his mother looks like – she was a model in several of his portraits, and he dedicated one of his photobooks to her (For my mother).

We know that Ren Hang entered college to study marketing and advertising. And we know that several years later, he became fed up with his studies. In 2007 he bought the cheapest Minolta non-digital camera he could find and began photographing his friends and neighbours in the hostel where he was living.

He created all his works using this compact and simple-to-use analogue camera. He claimed he wanted to be free with respect to technology and to take photographs by simply pressing a button. This detached indifference to the mechanisms of photography had the effect of making his shots more alive: having no lighting assistants, stylists, or producers, he created pictures that show a particular moment, a fragment of life, during each second of which all participants in the picture are natural and at the same time are captured by the camera in a manner which is abnormal. He shot only on film since he regarded digital images as too flat and incapable of spatial effects. From the practical point of view, using a point-and-shoot camera simply made it possible to work a whole lot quicker.

Like Goldin and Richardson, Ren Hang used active flash. This increased the tonal contrast between white and black dots in the shot, while the rare chromatic elements produced literal flares of intense colour. The combination of visual effects characteristic of film with the use of direct flash created a distinctive, three-dimensional look and a feeling of the spontaneity and transience of the moment recorded on film.

Ren Hang kept a diary in which he set down poetic sketches and emotional experiences. His first online comment dates to 12 June 2007.

My depression is several abstract letters describing Ren Hang’s fight with depression. He tried to cope with his painful feelings and experiences by shaping them into words, which he collated in image-rich poetry. Often these are short lyrical statements that are both frank and abstract at the same time – like works of traditional Chinese poetry.

Feeling frequent and exhausting anxiety and experiencing sleeplessness, apathy, terror, weakness, and emotional crises, Ren Hang was for much of the time scarcely able to function. This seems scarcely credible when you look solely at the quantity of material he shot or watch a recording of one of the rare interviews he gave. It may partly explain his persistent desire to take photographs, a desire that persisted over the course of many years. Photography was ‘what filled the emptiness of my heart’, a life-saving instrument, one of a few sources of hope and pleasure, a place to which he could escape or run away after merely picking up a camera and inviting several friends to his small studio/room.

‘Usually, I shoot my friends because people I don’t know make me nervous.’

This simple, even somewhat naïve approach to the photographic craft made it possible for Ren Hang to open himself to creative freedom – to photograph as the desire arose, work on forming and perfecting his visual language, and create the most resonant images possible. To ‘create’ in the broad sense of this word and get pleasure from this process is a rare privilege.

Surprisingly, in order to be true to himself and his creative process, Ren Hang did not have to spend his precious creative resource on senseless, barren projects or long years of practice before being accepted by the art community. Nor did he possess an ‘artistic pedigree’ – privileges that would give him access to the art scene. He was a true natural; the unique style and conceptual content of his works came together almost ‘en passant’. Everything he knew about photography and fine art he picked up after looking long and hard at works by a few select contemporaries.

It is common knowledge that Ren Hang was inspired by the work of the Japanese photographer, poet, and director Shūji Terayama. This may be not so obvious when we compare their visual language, but the experimental format of Ren Hang’s poetry clearly borrowed from Shūji Terayama’s original works.

Born in a mountainous area near Mount Osore, from his early years Shūji Terayama absorbed numerous legends and myths, which he subsequently embodied in uncanny films and whimsical photo collages. His works are slightly reminiscent of remembered dreams – like fictive worlds in which strange but at the same time realistic characters are involved in absurd and disturbing stories that emanate a covert eroticism.

Terayama used a collage technique. He mixed parts of postcards bought from Japanese antiques shops, imitation stamps, and clever frames with monograms or experimented with deconstruction of old prints. In his photographs Ren Hang set out to recreate a similar surrealistic atmosphere, combining in a single shot real naked bodies with the most fantastical and unusual props – in the subjects’ hands, on their heads, or between their legs – against a background consisting of the most ordinary wall.

Birds, snakes, lizards, roses, chrysanthemums, green leaves, branches, red apples, cherries, plaster-cast horse heads, a plastic Godzilla, laundry clips, dumbbells, and knives and forks are just some of the objects interacting with the bodies in Ren Hang’s photos. The special use of each thing in a picture may be taken as a symbolic sign; the chemistry of its reaction with a body may generate new meanings, which Ren Hang has deliberately stitched into the composition of his shots. The great variety of the props he uses serves to reinforce the visual imagery of the shapes into which he twists human flesh.               

The objects around (and sometimes inside) the human body are a way of taking nakedness to the limit of sensuality and perceptibility. Ren Hang foregrounds corporeality itself – corporeality which is extremely material, perceptible, carnal, sexual, undisguised, erotic, but not pornographic, and at the same time: poetic, vulnerable, morbidly artistic, surrealistic, and so rich in imagery that its energy can be physically difficult to assimilate.

Bodies are not people. Ren Hang does not photograph people; he works with their bodies. Most of the participants in his photos are his friends. Their names, ages, weights, and social status are irrelevant and have no impact on the photograph’s content or meaning. The subjects often look straight at the camera; they always draw upon themselves the viewer’s attention. But, from the conceptual point of view, they are stripped of personality.

Their naked bodies are the main and only elements from which form emerges. Here the body is literally an instrument for creating a visual image. Just as it is in the work of the artist Yves Klein, who covered his models in a blue paint of a shade of his own devising and then printed traces of their silhouettes on paper as the public watched.

The body is an object behind which we subconsciously make out a story. Natural curiosity strives to decipher this story or to think up its own interpretation of the events that are occurring. Mystic events and instants that are then recorded in photos. The body is both pliant material and an abstract nakedness formed from this material, an abstraction which is so phantasmagorical that it emanates neither vulgarity nor sexuality.

Ren Hang’s photographic works seem to have been executed in a primitive, everyday, even home-made kind of way. The simplicity of the artistic language, a simplicity which we register immediately, is the result of deliberate minimization of the forms and instruments used by the photographer. The painstaking staging and stimulating mysticism which we discern in works by Ren are reminiscent of the visual language of photographs by the French photographer Guy Bourdin.

Objective corporeality, theatrical ‘made-ness’, a static quality, intricate posing: Guy Bourdin took inspiration from the intensity of Hitchcockian suspense, David Lynch’s mises-en-scene, post-war pop culture, and the picturesqueness of the Hyper-Realists and Surrealists. He also created the famous photograph of the model Louise Despointes published in French Vogue in 1970.

In this photo the model’s eyes are covered with numerous female fingers manicured in a rich red which matches the model’s lips in colour and gloss. Bourdin’s reference here was Man Ray’s Glass Tears.

The glowing accents of the red nails, the repetitive elements, the silhouettes that create optical illusions and come together to form patterns of human bodies in Ren Hang’s photographs may also have been inherited from the methods of expression used by the Surrealists. Consider, for instance, Ren Hang’s sensational interpretation of Gustave Courbet’s no less sensational The Origin of the World: the completely naked female genitalia are tightly inscribed in one another. Or take his more border-line version of this tribute, where two naked female bodies cover their private parts with interlocked fingers with bright-red varnish on their nails.

In spite of the sense of their having been staged and the intricate configurations of the bodies, Ren Hang’s photographs do not seem painfully contrived or excessively cinematographic. On the contrary, they emanate a feeling of total emancipation, transience, spontaneity, and corporeal and spiritual freedom coincidentally revealed during the staging of ‘wacky scenes’ involving close friends. This is private, personal photography with an everyday, unconstrained narrative combined with well-thought-out shot composition of the kind that is also characteristic of object-oriented material photography.

This format of impromptu recording of private moments in life is reminiscent of early works by Nobuyoshi Araki, the Japanese photographer who dedicated many years of his work to creating private images.

Araki initially became famous for his incisive, dynamic shots of street life, but his popularity outside Japan dates to the early 1990s, when he drew attention to himself with scandals and fines for unacceptably explicit photographs. He began keeping his own photo-diary, unembarrassedly photographing his unclothed wife during both health and illness. Two decades later, when his wife died, Araki continued shooting nudes; now, he invited young Japanese women to model for him.

Araki has himself said that he had intimate relations with most of the women in his photos. His justification is that photography is merely a means of recording contact with a person and of expressing the unique features of each such experience as memorably as possible. This is not a matter of egoistic voyeurism or pure pornography; its purpose is to normalize sexual and corporeal diversity, to celebrate sincere desire regarding each of these women.  

In many of his real scenes Araki imitates subjects from the classical Japanese tradition of the shunga – using shibari techniques and ropes to tie up and suspend his models and giving their bodies a changed but at the same time fascinatingly repellent form.

Araki’s photographs are often criticized for being pornographic. Like those of Ren Hang. Undoubtedly, works by both men are provocative and set out to create a stir. But they are only perceived in this way because these explicit shots shamelessly invade one of the most stigmatized and censored areas of life – that which concerns perception of nakedness and the naked body.

The sexual revolution that took place in the west in the 1960s and 70s normalized depiction of the naked body and liberated corporeality from the need to follow standards and rules. Nevertheless, Chinese society continues to this day to exercise severe censorship of sexuality. Certain strata of Chinese society – the older generation, in particular – still consider it impermissible to treat nakedness as a subject for creative narrative or a means by which to create art. The human body and all related themes that are in the least challenging – homosexuality for instance – are painstakingly suppressed at the orders of the Chinese government. Don’t forget that until 2001 homosexuality was regarded in China as a psychological disorder.

I don’t regard what I do as taboo. [...] I have no intention of pushing the boundaries. I simply do my own thing.’

Living and working in Beijing, Ren Hang could not but be affected by these severe taboos. Several times, the Chinese authorities arrested his exhibitions due to the overtly erotic subtext of the photographs. Nevertheless, when talking about politics and censorship, Ren Hang did not regard his work as inappropriate or, still less, aimed at insolently provoking the public. This cautiousness in talking about the intentions of his own work was possibly in fact due to the high risk of repression. But if we put together everything he said in his introductions to and comments on his work, we get the feeling that Ren Hang really was unconcerned with political context or public resonance.

Unlike Chinese colleagues such as Zhang Huan, Wang Quingsong, and Ai Weiwei who have used photography as an instrument for creating direct statements or radical action. Ai Weiwei, incidentally, played an important part in Ren’s being taken up by art institutions and the world art scene: he and Ren held a joint exhibition, Fuck Off 2 The Sequel, in the Netherlands in 2013.

Ren Hang’s overtly erotic but not pornographic photographs of male and female bodies were not created with the intention of dynamiting censorship or drawing attention to himself.

The naked bodies of young people are a collective portrait of the new Chinese generation – a generation which is open to ideas, boldly experimental, and liberated from pressure and shame regarding things as natural as the human body. These are performative assemblies of bodies, a form of aesthetic provocation without insults; and they take place against the background of the white wall of a cramped student room.

‘We were born naked. If people are not born clothed, and I want to take off their clothes, then I don’t think I’m doing anything revolutionary. I’m simply photographing things in their natural state.’

Or a blue wall. Some photographs by Ren Hang nevertheless required the inclusion of a natural background. Or at least of an imitation of natural conditions. This, for instance, was how one of his most memorable photos came into being: a blue wall serves as the background against which human bodies are arranged with their buttocks pointing upwards; their undulating curves, which resemble the foreshortened reliefs of hills and mountains, remind us of desert landscapes by Georgia O’Keeffe.

Other shots, which were created using an airborne perspective, allude to one of the first Taiwanese masters of art photography, Chang Chai-Tang. In the 1960s Chang created surrealistic and simultaneously material views of the human body, photographing naked bodies from close up in the midst of nature, in a wasteland, or against a background of high mountains or abandoned high-rise buildings.

Ren Hang’s ode to classical corporeality is expressed in his shots of naked nymph-like models photographed on the roof of a skyscraper, against the background of Beijing’s industrial landscapes, or drowning in ponds with gigantic lotus leaves.

Like John Everett Millais' delicate, long-haired Ophelias surrounded by flower buds of different colours or fragile ‘Ledas’ holding a snow-white swan in their porcelain hands, they celebrate an ancient-classical idealized corporeality and the dramatic beauty of Shakespeare’s images.

If we spend time studying each photograph by Ren Hang, there comes a moment when we find ourselves swept up in a kind of subconscious stream of feelings and associations. Flandrin’s twistings, many-handed Buddhist statuettes, traditional Chinese ornaments, Bourdin’s static compositions with a velvet softness, Magritte’s optical illusions, Man Ray’s paradoxes of form, Goldin’s touching privacy, Araki’s shocking frankness, a tension that alludes to von Trier’s Antichrist: this series of images could be continued almost endlessly.

Ren Hang’s photographs are visual poetry that has a very intense impact on the senses but is very difficult to interpret analytically. This is because they are such a strong, organic intertwining of different traditions and philosophies that it is almost impossible to find the joins between them.

Even if Ren Hang himself repeatedly tried to convince his audience that his way of looking did not depend on the legacy of specific actors, he clearly had access to the collective figurative memory in concentrated form. He really did ‘just do his own thing’ – continued to record and transmit that memory’s eternal images. Great, timeless art always contains an element of poetry.

Once invented, an artistic method continues to live.