MONØkult Feature: Ren Hang

Invisible Encounters and Then Laying Quietly For a While

Three years ago, I dedicated this story for Ren Hang’s unexpected passing. Three years after he’s gone, the pain still lingers heavily on my shoulders.

I scoured for this old piece, originally published on Frame Zero on the same day as today, March 1st. I didn’t realize that this turned out to be a lengthy one, but I’m sure that it’s one of the most heartfelt stories I’ve written about photography and how it affects me as a human being.

As I read it again today, I noticed many parts that I could have written more eloquently. But I left everything untouched to remind me of what I honestly felt writing at that time.

Ren Hang’s vivid photography doesn’t technically suit MONØMANIA’s humdrum motif. But it’s probably the only reason why I admire his work so much — it’s something that I will never be brave enough to do. It’s what I’m not, cannot be, and won’t pretend to be. And I am at peace with this.

Once again, this is for you, Ren. You will always be remembered.


With Ren Hang’s sudden demise, the world grieved. This tribute, in particular, involves a personal, invisible touch with the late photographer himself.

有时候我只是想
安静地躺一会
2013.01.10
– 任航

Sometimes I just want to
Lay quietly for a while
10 January 2013
- Ren Hang

Sunday, 26 February 2017 at 11:14 PM

I still couldn’t believe that it’s true. For the past couple of mornings, my virtual feed was an homage to the brazen lensman — various websites chronicled his provocative images, his way with words, and the occasional trysts with depression. Each posted photograph is stirring, but censored for general consumption. He would have probably wanted them to be presented sans the well-placed concealments, but the collective warmth over the internet and in real life would’ve been much appreciated.

Despite this, I couldn’t bear reading or seeing anything about his death; I was still in denial. I proceeded to his website and Instagram feed, reinserting myself in a more palatable reality from beyond a couple of days ago. It didn’t last. I eventually caved. Upon seeing the image of a woman clad in red, with a crimson flat resting atop a couple of heads, I realized that there will be no further updates on Instagram.

Crushed, I dedicated a short post using one of his photographs from 2008. Life may go on for everyone else, but in that moment, I opted to stay behind and relish at least a few moments within an invisible encounter.

Wednesday, 09 October 2013 at 01:50 AM

Despite his warning, I still sent him a set of carefully crafted questions. The interview, however, didn’t push through. Maybe it was because of the language barrier; maybe he became way too occupied with his works; maybe he was going through his depressive state; or maybe it was something else. I didn’t follow through.

Years following that correspondence, I noticed that Ren has penetrated social media, and even though I didn’t get to know him on a personal level, the initial connection I felt never waned; in truth, it was bolstered even further through each new set that he published online. From afar, I was already contented that I had that ephemeral contact with him. Deeper conversations have already occurred between my eyes and his shutter finger.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016 at 10:35 AM

Unfortunately, foreign lands abide by their own set of norms. Little did I know, his exhibition in Tokyo had already closed even before I got to take a peek at his works. I also lost the chance of meeting him personally, which I had been pining for over the past three years.

Defeated, I logged on the internet and saw his call out for models in regard to his succeeding shoot. I considered posing for him, no strings attached, in spite of the risque themes that he is known for. Hesitation just had to muddle things up and set me back several paces. The idea of working with the Ren Hang made me scoff at myself, to the extent that I believed I was delusional. I thought I was dreaming. Looking back, I should have snapped out of that dream and made myself vulnerable with his art and his hands, framing me like one of his Asian girls.

[My coffee’s gone cold now. I have so much more to say but the thought of forming words is being drowned out by random sounds, like the whirring from a nearby fan and the faint buzz of crickets. I need a cig to keep my thoughts and emotions intact. Not having written anything substantial in the past several months, I’m well-aware that my words could place a rather odd spin to this piece. A few puffs should do me good. Another daydream as well.]

Friday, 27 January 2017 at 07:25 PM

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting a reply from him. I could only assume how his inbox is flocked with messages every day, especially since for the past years, he has been exhibiting his works all over the world; his photobooks were also making waves. He might not bother replying to my shotgun email, given what transpired previously, but it was worth the proverbial bullet. I had another clear shot.

A few days after I sent my proposal to Ren, his assistant named Eldos, surprisingly replied. It was a positive response, which literally made me jumped on my seat. The gist of it read, “Thank you for your sweet offer, Ren and I are both very much honored. Of course he is interested, and he would like to know more about this exhibition if possible.” Again, my heart leaped, with each resounding throb picking up in intensity. It felt that it could break through my chest at any moment and I can fashion it as my reply, but that would be creepy.

I wanted to break the news like a badge, but opted to keep mum, mostly because I didn’t want to jinx it. Arrangements need be made before arranging a string of words on my email platform. Swiftly, I discussed matters with Frame Zero’s Publisher and Vetro Gallery’s owner, respectively. To my delight, both of them agreed with my proposal to bring Ren Hang and his works to Manila. I couldn’t believe it. It’s finally happening.

Ecstatic, I sent Ren and Eldos my reply and several more exchanges followed. As it turned out, Ren has never been to the Philippines and I wanted to make sure that everything will play out seamlessly, from his accommodations to the minute details of his solo show. I recognize that other contemporary photographers in the country also admire him, thus making the show special gradually morphed from a want to a need.

The task at hand was anything but elementary, but the pent-up emotions that accumulated over the years kept my limbs nimble like a shot of caffeine to the neck. Images of the exhibit were swimming in my head, and I have withdrawn my insecurity deposits in case the chance to model for the legendary lensman spruces up. I was ready. By god, I was ready.

Friday, 24 February 2017 at 07:10 PM

A couple of hours went by and I was starting to feel antsy. “Simmer down, Erin, a man with a thousand brilliant concepts needs ample time to weave through the fabric of thought and come up with meaningful outputs for the show. Would you please simmer down?” And so I did.

Friday, 24 February 2017 at 09:01 PM

“Ren Hang left us today… 走好…”

At first, I was numb but visibly shaken until an excess of water started dripping out of my eyes. “PLEASE TELL ME THIS IS A FUCKING JOKE,” I screamed online. But it wasn’t. I wasn’t ready to accept what had just transpired. He can’t be gone. It could be one of his flights of fancy whenever he feels depressed. He could be a cooking up a new concept revolving around death. He can’t be gone. Please.

The horrible news infested my feed like a tormenting, irreversible disease. I still had my hopes up until a number of reputable colleagues confirmed that it was true. And within a few more hours, everyone was grieving because of Ren’s unexpected demise.

Every photographer I knew who admires Ren began sharing his awe-inspiring images, his decade-long ardour for poetry, and his inescapable battle against depression, which he bravely documented on his website.

An assortment of articles came out to pay tribute to Ren: some reported his cause of death, others highlighted his constant struggle with controversies, but most fittingly underscored his unparalleled contribution to the world of photography and art.

The truth gradually sank from head down to my shoulders, and then to my heart, seemingly scraping off its insides, until a numbness settled, paired with the occasional appearance of tears.

Ren Hang is a tremendous influence to me as a photographer. Although this may sound odd as his work is not similar to mine in any aspect, he influenced me in a reverse polarity sort of way, at least according to the naked eye. His images are vivid and bold; mine are lackluster and timid. However, his manner of presenting the human form as canvases resulted in peculiar and intriguing (and sometimes way too scandalous) depictions, from which I continue to draw inspiration from.

In lieu of this, I realized that photography is not just a tool to express one’s emotions or visualize one’s imagination; it also serves as a vessel in which one can portray triumph even when the tangible world disagrees. To me, his works never insinuated a sense of depression. I honestly believe that through his photography, he battled his demons and won in every frame.

Equally, his models did a marvelous job in painstakingly recreating the wonderful parcels in Ren’s mind. I salute them for being so versatile: almost fluid-like — they contort to form oddities in nature and with nature, all carefully framed in Ren’s viewfinder as seen in his collections. One such example is Human Love, which aptly coincided with his latest (and unfortunately his last) exhibition in Fotografiska Museum in Stockholm.

Saturday, 25 February 2017 at 01:28 AM

I couldn’t sleep. Suddenly, I was startled by an email; it was from Ren’s email address, which read:

“I really wish that we could do this show together.”

For a moment, I thought that he’s back. Then, in a split second, I realized that it was Eldos who sent the message. I held on to the idea that he’s still alive for a bit. After all, IWASTHISCLOSE to meeting him in person. I could’ve have shaken his hand; I could’ve encased him in my mind’s and my camera’s respective viewfinders; I could’ve picked his brain in a planned interview; he could’ve included me in his risque collection of masterworks; he could’ve been someone close, much closer than what the ethereal line that his images dangled could bring.

With my heart still in pieces, I replied with utmost sincerity:

“I’ve seen the news and I still cannot believe it. I am heartbroken and I am speechless.

I am very sorry for what happened. I am grieving with the rest of the world, along with all the people whom Ren Hang inspired.

With love and light,

Erin”

Monday, 27 February 2017 at 4:20 AM

Words aren’t powerful enough to convey the strongest of emotions, especially to someone who has made indelible impact to a lot of photographers all over the globe. When the moon rises anew, I will marvel from my usual distance and find solace in its warmth, like observing a series of phenomenally composed photographs or browsing through collections of inventive photobooks. I guess this is what photography, his photography, does to one’s soul.

I still want to celebrate his legacy here in Manila and intend to make it happen, but for now, I’m content staying within the continent of our shared space. Ren is right all along — sometimes, it’s okay to lay quietly for a while.

Ren, thank you for letting us see the world differently.

May you peacefully rest in paradise.

Image for post
Image for post
via ArtAsiaPacific

This article was originally published on the now-defunct Frame Zero. Unfortunately, the domain expired, along with all our published articles. Fortunately, though, we have a back-up of all the drafts — and we might be sharing more of them soon, here on MONØMANIA.

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