Ren Hang on nature, nudity and censorship

‘My pictures’ politics have nothing to do with China. It’s Chinese politics that wants to interfere with my art’

Photographer Ren Hang has certainly made a name for himself. In art circles around the world as photography's new blood, shooting his friends in the nude and avoiding the arm of the law back in his homeland of China – where his name is known for a different reason. Notably, to the authorities who are hell bent on censoring him – even threatening him with arrest. “They won’t bother my lifestyle, but they will arrest me if I’m taking pictures outside,” says the Beijing-born artist. For the moment, he’s in New York at Capricious 88 gallery where his work has just gone on display in an exhibition titled 2014, his first in the city.

“My pictures’ politics have nothing to do with China. It’s Chinese politics that wants to interfere with my art,” he says. “China doesn’t allow outdoor nudity. I’m very careful about taking pictures outside. If I see police, I’ll run. But I’m not hiding as I’m taking pictures.” Although Hang is new gen (born in 1987) his determination mimics that of his fellow Beijing creatives, such as Ai Weiwei, who, co-curated a show with Hang in 2013. Weiwei uses his art for activism, employing mixed media to advocate for human rights and oppression and was thrown in jail in 2011 for 81 days – he's now banned from leaving China at all. “I care that the government want to limit me. Of course I don’t want to go to jail, but I don’t think there’s a way to fix that,” says Hang.

For Hang, he's keen to reassert that his work isn't about politics. “China has had little influence to me. If I was born in America, I would like American models. If I was born in England, I would pick English models. When I take a picture, I’m not sure what I want. It’s only when I see the picture that I realise what I want.” Intertwining the nude with nature, Hang’s images are recognisable as a jumble of bodies, limbs, flowers and plants. Previously we’ve seen hands reaching down milky thighs, a limp penis flop onto a watermelon and a series of backsides imitating a mountain range. “It’s more natural if they’re not wearing clothes,” he muses on his fascination between the two elements. His latest work, 2014, explores the ‘optics’ of camouflage where bodies disappear beneath lily pads, arms multiply like Hindu gods and plumes of pink smoke escape from a woman's privates: “When you look at them, they look like they should be together.” For Hang, this really is just a bunch of limbs in front of a camera. There's no statement to be made. No fight to be had against the institutions that govern him. Here, in Hang's world, nudity and nature go hand-in-hand and that's all there is to it.

2014 runs at Capricious 88 in New York until 5 April, 2015. For more, click here