Wake Up Together: Ren Hang And Where Love Is IllegalHomotopia + Witness Change @ Open Eye Gallery – until 17/02
An unclothed woman stands on the roof of a high-rise building, the Beijing skyline light and dusty. She arches defiantly in a backward curve to meet the face of a nude man, tilting forward to kiss her, creating a bumpy ‘m’ shape with their bodies. Can people see? They don’t care. Behind his point and shoot camera, REN HANG carefully directs his friends, arranging their limbs and hair to capture a transient image of youth, affection and life.
3,000 miles away in Russia, ROBIN HAMMOND photographs two women holding each other in an embrace; their fingers knit tightly together between their chests, one rests her cheek against the other who looks directly into the lens. They get a biro and paper and write down their story for Hammond to take, describing how they were followed home and brutally attacked for holding hands on a subway.
In more than 70 countries around the world, there are discriminatory laws against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex relationships. As part of Homotopia Festival 2018, Open Eye Gallery’s winter double bill Wake Up Together: Ren Hang And Where Love Is Illegal brings together two fluent bodies of photography which champion identity and the right to love who we want.
Uncensored and enlivening, Ren Hang’s keenly experimental point and shoot photography has shone a light onto a generation of China not often seen through layers of politics and western clichés. Having been denied the right to exhibit his work repeatedly in China for his deemed ‘flagrant’ and ‘pornographic’ themes, an electricity runs through each of Ren’s photographs chosen for his UK premiere.
One of my favourite images is I Compact U, which features in Frank Ocean’s self-directed publication Boys Don’t Cry. Three young men hang out of the same car window, unclothed and arranged in a remarkable constellation of elbows and wrists, holding cigarettes to each other’s mouths. Throughout all of Ren’s images a sense of touch and physicality is exaggerated through carefully aligned shapes and objects; heads tucked under armpits, bodies stacked, limbs coiled into orifices.
Often shooting his friends, Ren had an illuminated and unphased way of seeing. Before tragically taking his own life in 2017, aged 29, Ren’s enduring struggle with depression was apparent, the elegiac show title Wake Up Together taken from his last poem posted online. His work, however, celebrates his abiding vitality, a seemingly random use of objects – lily pads, peacocks, lizards, cherries – provide planes of texture and palpability, his aesthetic world clearly referencing bodies as vehicles for play and unapologetic identity.
When Robin Hammond began his project Where Love Is Illegal he gave complete control to his sitters, allowing them to choose exactly how they presented themselves before the camera. The portraits here are peaceful and homely, even a bit bizarre at times; Amine from Tunisia sits across his bed, his white stilettos not quite touching the floor; Jessie, a transgender woman from Lebanon, is poised like a cat in her front room, shrouded in a red veil. Shooting members of the LGBTQI community in countries where bigoted views are backed by law, Hammond’s tangible and importantly singular Polaroids (should they wish to withdraw their story) are paired with poignant handwritten stories.
Moving between each gallery space, the two bodies of work confront each other in a way that enhances the agency of Ren’s subjects, while spotlighting the lack of freedom for the people courageously sharing their own stories of censorship and isolation. Aspects of each narrative captured by Hammond are unimaginable, but the collection of portraits in its entirety provides a strong sense of community; each person’s story is relatable regardless of identity, creative activism at its most powerful.