The photographer and poet’s friend, model, and publisher Ho King Man on how he’s getting the English translations of the late artist’s writings into the hands of those who mattered to him
Ren Hang is most famously known for his minimalistic and surreal, sexually provocative, intimate photographs of friends, who are often nude and in nature. He was a queer Chinese photographer who gained an international cult following before choosing to end his life on 24th February 2017 at the age of 29. This happened just as his first international photography book was being released with the publisher, Taschen, and his photography career was skyrocketing. At the time, he had two concurrent solo shows, Naked/Nude at Foam Fotografiemuseum in Amsterdam and Human Love at Fotografiska in Stockholm.
Ren had also just finished a yearlong photography project in which he released a book of photography every month for 12 consecutive months. He self-published all of the books, making them available on his website for purchase. The only book that wasn’t sold was December’s.
For the past few years, I have been editing Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color, which was released from Nightboat Books in May. Throughout this editorial process, I was introduced to the publishers, estates, friends, and family members who controlled the rights to living and deceased queer poets of colour that were writing in the last 100 years since the 1920’s Harlem Renaissance. Most of the poets included in this anthology are American but a few of them, such as Ren, are from abroad.
Sitting in a café in New York City with Ho King Man, a dear friend and model of Ren, we chat about the unreleased December book. I learned that Ren finished that final book of photography before he passed away and that it’s all laid out but was just never published. Unlike most of Ren’s other photographs that are printed in colour, the photographs in this December book are all black and white. Ho tells me that someday he would like to help publish it. We also chatted about another project, which the two of them had been working on together before Ren’s death; Word or two.
“Ren ‘exhibited much control over his images and poetry, possibly because it was so difficult to have that much control over his mental health’” – Ho King Man
Aside from photography, Ren wrote poetry. Ho was translating this poetry into English (alongside a friend named Casey Robbins), compiling the poems into a collection called Word or two. The title of this poetry collection is also the title of the first poem published on Ren’s (now defunct) website in 2007. The poems in Word or two are selected from writings, beginning in 2007 and continuing until 2016.
Ren’s poems are similar to his photography; perverse, surrealist, interested in oddity, and deeply intimate. In the poem “Foots eye” the poet writes, “he says your feet are really beautiful / then he becomes aroused”. In “Hardcore fan”, Ren pens, “have you thought about him cummed in without a condom / then the look when shitting out the cum?” The poems are so often tender, sensual, and completely uncensored, allowing the poet – whether intentional or not – to break social taboos.
This project came into conception during the second and final trip that Ren made to New York City, where he first met Ho. They met during Ren’s first trip to New York City through a mutual friend, the Chinese artist, Coca Dai (who was incarcerated because of the political art he produced). The two of them, Ho and Ren, had gone thrift store shopping during Ren’s second visit to New York City and were walking along Tompkins Square Park, en route to Mast Books. Ren was discussing English translations of his work that had been attempted by another writer and how he was unsatisfied with the manner by which those translations sanitised some of the sexual or graphic content of his poetry. Ho offered to translate Ren’s poetry instead and Ren asked for a sample packet of translations from Ho.
Ho had never translated poetry before working with Ren’s work (originally written in Mandarin) and so he recruited his friend and native English speaker, Casey Robbins, to help translate a sample of ten poems for Ren to approve. While back in Beijing, Ren approved the sample translations and gave the okay for Ho and Casey to translate a book of his poetry into English. Ren saw the PDF of Word or two before his death but never held a hard copy of it.
Prior to Ren’s death, a printed copy of Word of two was showcased at an art exhibit in New York City, which was covered by the New York Times in an article called, “Chinese Cultural Nomads Find an Oasis”. This version of the book was one of five hand-made copies of the book’s first edition, which had 213 poems. Ho said that Ren was happy about the design and translations in the book but didn’t pay too much attention to the press about the exhibit in which his book was shown. Ren proofed the translations of the book with a bilingual friend in China before giving his final approval of it.
During our first dinner, in November 2017, I asked Ho an endless list of questions about the book and about his relationship with Ren. I told Ho that I could introduce him to poetry publishers in the United States that could distribute the book and promote it. I said that I would help him get excerpts of the book published online so that there would be more attention to Ren’s poetry. He looked at me and responded, “No, thank you.” For Ho, Ren’s poetry is not a product to be mass-produced, disseminated, and consumed. The poetry of his belated friend is something much more personal.
After Ren passed, Ho published a second edition of the poetry book with 550 copies and containing 178 poems. This was published under BHKM, a house that Ho had created. He revealed that the book was designed like Ren; simple, delicate, and detailed oriented. Ho told me that he felt the books were too fragile and that he didn’t want to ship any of them via postal mail. He said 50 copies were given to bookstores and institutions that he and Ren were friends, including Motto (which had made copies available for purchase online) in Berlin, Librairie Yvon Lambert in Paris, Ooga Booga in Los Angeles, and 2 Bridges Music Arts in New York City.
Ho personally delivered copies by hand to friends and models of Ren’s in Beijing, Berlin, Paris, and Tokyo throughout his travels in 2017. Ho said that Ren would often travel with a group of his friends and that he would often introduce people to one another if he knew they would be in the same city.
Ren was an anxious and shy person but he loved to go out dancing and was always looking for the best clubs to dance in. While visiting Ren’s friends across the world and gifting them the book in the wake of Ren’s death, Ho said the friends and models would almost always go dancing together. Dancing would connect them with each other and with Ren, even when he wasn’t there. Ho added that some of the books are still available but he is just slowly selling them or giving them to friends when he sees them.
There was a small book launch for Word or two in the summer after Ren passed. The book launch was at an art institution in Basel, Switzerland, and organised by Harry Burke, a curator who was working in New York City at Artists Space. Harry is also the person who introduced me to Ho and said that I should republish the translations of Ren’s work in Nepantla, the anthology I was editing with Nightboat Books.
I asked Ho if the English translated poems had appeared anywhere else before and he said they hadn’t. He said a few galleries had translated some of Ren’s work into English and printed it on their walls but there weren’t other major publications of Ren’s work in English that he knew of, or at least which Ren had consented to. Ren told Ho about translations of his work into Japanese before but Ho has never seen or heard of these translations elsewhere, so he isn’t sure whether they actually exist. Ren’s boyfriend, Huang Jiaqi, didn’t know of them either.
There is one book of poetry in Mandarin with Ren Hang’s work called Poem Collection of Renhang: 2007-2013, which was published in Taiwan (Neurasthenia, 2013). Ho also told me about a second collection of 300 poems by Ren, written in Mandarin from 2007-2015, called The Sun, but I couldn’t find information on this book online. Aside from the aforementioned publications of Ren Hang’s poetry, there are also a handful of poems written during his final months with the same title “Love” – none of these poems have been published in book form yet.
“For Ho, Ren’s poetry is not a product to be mass-produced, disseminated, and consumed. The poetry of his belated friend is something much more personal”
Ren was described by Ho as “a straightforward person who cared about his work and his friends and his fans”. Ren used to reply to all of his fans comments online until his following got too large that he could no longer write everyone back. Ho added that Ren “exhibited much control over his images and poetry, possibly because it was so difficult to have that much control over his mental health”.
I asked Ho what he would like to do with the poems now that Ren has passed. He said he didn’t know and that he was talking with some friends about setting up a foundation for Ren Hang’s work. There are complicated copyright laws, which have halted the distribution of Ren Hang’s work posthumously. Ho is worried that Ren’s signature is being forged on photos, photos are being printed without permission in poor pixelated quality, and that the integrity of Ren’s work is not being honored after his death.
Ho revealed that some friends would like to help with the foundation, while others are simply struggling to move forward in their lives. When the friends meet, Ho says there isn’t much speaking about the past but there are so many questions about what to do in the future.
The future owes so much to the work that Ren Hang produced during his lifetime. The braveness of Ren’s life is inspiring. He constantly risked arrest with his nude photographs that broke Chinese censorship laws and his poetry depicted the emotional and sexual intimacy and isolation of queer life in China, where queer people are not always treated with much respect or reverence. Ren was a hero to many people across the world and it’s my hope that his prolific work continues to seep into the public in the years to come.