I’ve got a little problem (2018)
Directed by Ren Hang
Documentary film, 44 min.
* * *
And what is the earth below complaining about under the wings of the splendid crows?
You can say all you want about the mental health of Ren Hang, who, during his lifetime, at least spoke about the fact of being sick
in a world in which every day a child dies gasping for breath or water in polluted cities or from walking thousands of miles across the deserts that obscure the borders of embittered nation-states
“And this is not an image,” I echo Artaud (1965, 135), “but a fact abundantly and daily repeated and cultivated throughout the world. . . . Things are bad because the sick conscience now has a vital interest in not getting over its sickness.”
Things are bad because the symptoms of the sickness cross borders of bodies, of time and space and nation-states, of artists and their art
Things are bad because the symptoms are both visible and invisible—it’s so common it cannot be diagnosed, the pathology is normalcy in a world in which everyday people gasp at the images scrolling through their timelines
Or would gasp, if the images—of children dying for breath or water—were not so normal, were not so common it cannot be said to be anything other than symptomatic,
Just collateral damage to the larger aims of safety and protection and security
From illness or disease, contamination or invasion, perversion or pollution
Where this gasping takes the form of an image when the body can’t breathe: a photo, at least, declares “I exist.”
* * *
The work is not about you, it is not about anything.
The artist Ren Hang took photos of his friends with a point-and-shoot and became an international sensation. His work has been described as “minimalistic and surreal, sexually provocative, intimate,” and it is the third adjective that has been taken up by reviewers and the Chinese state as the work’s definitive quality.
Here are some videos of his work.
Here is an obituary.
“Provocative” is what we say when the modes of access go unflexed, so that what we’re looking at appears to transgress what’s normal, transgress the boundaries of taste, of authority, or of art into kitsch or fashion.
So the work finds a home in its exile—
Articles that indicate Ren Hang’s fame outside China him as “an artist who could not live an artist’s life freely where he most wanted to: at home”
—and exile makes home an invisible cage. Why not go west, then, when in China, your work faces constant censorship. Why not be psychically displaced from your body’s habitations. It’s cool, everyone’s into it. Why bother with the where. But Ren was arrested, his photos were confiscated or publicly defaced, and his websites taken offline.
* * *
Within the discourse on queerness is the implicit mechanism for challenging a history of coloniality, from the seventeenth century in the West onward: that a body that does not ascribe itself to categories cannot neither be liberated from them nor controlled—a new metaphysics would be required for deriving an appropriate politic.
In the film, Ren sits in a legislative office with a Chinese official. Ren desires to follow the likes of Allan Kaprow and other artists of relational aesthetics, which had its heyday in the late sixties, by staging a happening on a major street in Hong Kong. During this happening, he wants a mob of people to run down this street—naked. He’s asking about getting around the law.
The official says: “You cannot blindly rebuke the majority. You cannot legitimize yourself to do what you want.”
It’s not about you, it’s not about anything.
And why not? Ren describes a nude body not as a sexual object but as “the human in a raw state. . . . We just do what we do. We aren’t getting naked at Tiananmen, after all.”
More than this, his art is not a deliberate transgression of social norms in China. “I don’t want to be excluded from life,” he explains, “I just do what I do.” He is at the office seeking protection.
But the official rejects Ren’s request to be protected from arrest if the happening happens. “It is not whatever framework that allows you to express yourself in public space,” he insists, “it is about the biggest difference between China and the West: we Chinese don’t regard being scantily dressed as beauty. On the contrary, it is a sense of implicitness and ambiguity that leads to beauty.”
Ren is the subject Michel Foucault describes between ars erotica and scientia sexualis: a subject of confession, who camouflages the Oriental history of sex (its mythology, its acceptance of queerness or premarital sex, its site for art and creativity) and indicates, instead, its Western contamination: the import of alleged explicitness.
So it is interesting that, during the Cultural Revolution, Mao worried about the contamination of Western hedonism, when it is Western repression that buries a historically artful and open view of sex in China;
When it is the West’s scientific diagnoses that pathologize what is otherwise normal, call queerness a disease, or make the queer person’s depression seem like their inevitable symptom.
* * *
Ren’s photographs veer on the edge of art and fashion, in which a nude body is a site for sculptural arrangement.
Six or so pairs of hands with red-painted fingernails make a shape in the space between another’s crotch and knees;
An octopus is braided into someone’s hair, which trails down their back,
A kiss arranged on a rooftop where a sunset illuminates the oddity of their kiss, one person leans all the way back while their kisser leans over top;
A nude body hunches down on a riverside;
They are hardly pornographic. But, true here as it seemed for Foucault in the sixties, a discourse on sex allows it to be the site for a potential happiness in its revolution: “Today it is sex that serves as a support for the ancient form—so familiar and important in the West—of preaching” (Foucault 1978, 7).
One can preach about freedom or tradition;
The body—the person—becomes what ought to be free, or it ought to be kept secret, hidden from view;
Sexuality itself a site for psychiatry: what’s visible is vulnerable to diagnosis.
In the articles I read about Ren, a quote shows up again and again, that Ren feels his work is “not at the point where I can make people feel desire yet.”
* * *
But Foucault is talking about desire in the West.
He is talking about Western repression by ecclesiastical law and the ways in which we teach each other what parts of us are deviant and need to be kept secret
The ways in which the poem can never be a life because a poem confesses what is kept hidden under ecclesiastic regime
The policing we do to each other
A deployment of sexuality, like a squadron that loves its rules, which “operates according to mobile, polymorphous, and contingent techniques of power” (Foucault 1978, 106).
In the film, Ren performs a poem lying down while a broken mirror swings like a pendulum above him. A scrim features the title of the work: “Ren Hang and His Poems: My Poem Is My Life”
I am not sure if the mirror symbolizes his depression or the state, which (he says in the film) “follows you everywhere, you never know when it might hit,” or for that matter if it symbolizes nothing. A recording of Ren reading his poems absorbs the room.
The means by which queerness adopts a form that reflects ontological fluidity, how a lack of power means the poem gets internalized
The poem gets swallowed
The poem gets turned into discourse
He seems to want to just photograph his friends in odd and striking compositions
To play with form
To enjoy the process, after which editing (he says in a later scene) is “a completely distinct feeling.”
It’s not about you, it’s not about anything,the poem says, it doesn’t want to be read anymore.
* * *
Ai Weiwei, who edges close to the red line of the Party, exhibited Ren Hang’s work for a show called Fuck Off 2;
Pornography and nudity have been banned in the People’s Republic of China since 1949,
But it has been argued that China’s opening to international markets in the eighties accounts for its new discourse on sexuality.
Ren does not so much upset this tradition as acknowledge, through his response to the world, by expressing a queer sexuality in his art, that the Chinese state suffers more from its Western influence than he does.
The sovereignty of sex accounts for the sovereignty of truth, and this, expressed through Ren Hang’s suicide, “is worth dying for” (Foucault 1978, 156).
hmm (a muffled sound)
It’s not about you, it’s not about anything
The state disciplines this work with silence
It chases nude people off the roofs
It gets into everything like a piss smell
Or a smoke smell
Or something fishy
One thinks about the history of artists and their censors
One thinks about the rules of constraint in making art
Its demands on the artist
What takes its toll
I don’t care about the law at all, and I don’t want the law to care for me.
How “we must at the same time conceive of sex without the law, and power without the king” (Foucault 1978, 91).
What to do about it in transnational contexts where its surrogate dissemination is what reproduces its labor beyond the border. “At a time when labor capacity was being systematically exploited, how could this capacity be allowed to dissipate itself in pleasurable pursuits, except in those—reduced to a minimum—that enabled it to reproduce itself?” (Foucault 1978, 5–6).
Ren, in a scene where he's hanging out with friends: "I am probably sick, not knowing where this [barrette] comes from."
It is a sickness, if discourse allows for that, a disease, if it makes them feel better about the tone it takes when it’s horny.
And later: "Maybe it’s not called depression. I’ve just got a little problem."
* * *
Ren published his poetry on a blog during his lifetime—an excerpt from the last series, “Love,” reads:
I buy a knife
We can both use it
If you don’t love me anymore
I’ll kill you
If I don’t love you anymore
You can kill me
What if Love is just the State, hiding in a human costume?
I look back . . ."
Artaud, Antonin. 1965. Artaud Anthology. Edited by Jack Hirschman. San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon Books. Originally published in 1976.