The sudden death of photographer and poet Ren Hang on Feb. 24 shook the art world to its core. His photographs were a radiant celebration of sensuality and the naked beauty of life that he continued to create despite constant censorship from the Chinese government.
But the artist behind the vision had long struggled with depression, writing extensively about his mental turmoil, and was finally driven to take his own life two weeks ago. As Ren Hang's friends, family and fans still come to terms with the loss, TIME spoke to Ai Weiwei, an eminent Chinese artist who has also suffered artistic persecution.
"[Ren Hang's] works interpreted sex in a Chinese way, which contained a sense of loss and sorrow," Weiwei tells TIME. "In Chinese literature or poetry, sex is about something which is impossible. It's very different from the West. It's sexier."
There can be no doubt that Ren Hang's images were elegantly explicit; he was keen to portray Chinese sexuality in an unexpected way. He once said of his work: "I don't want others having the impression that Chinese people are robots... Or they do have sexual genitals but always keep them as some secret treasures."
The apparent superficiality of Ren Hang's work – beauty for beauty's sake – was criticized by some. But Weiwei believes beneath this vivid facade lies something much deeper. "Ren Hang represented a new generation of young Chinese artists," he says. "Their works reflect the reality of China, today. The images are fresh, but also empty and superficial. They contain a deep sadness within."
This sadness haunted Ren Hang's work and inner world. He wrote extensively about his illness, which was marred by suicidal thoughts and frequent auditory and visionary hallucinations. Below are some excerpts from his Depression diary, translated for TIME by Amanda Lee Koe.
Weiwei was one of Hang's early champions and though he didn't have much direct contact with him, Weiwei included his work on several occasions."The first was when I guest-edited the 18 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman. I included him in a photo essay of young Chinese photographers," he says."The second occasion was when I curated the exhibition FUCK OFF 2 at the Groninger Museum in 2013. Ren Hang was one of the participating artists."
Ren Hang was exhibited around the world, staging 70 group art shows and more than 20 solo shows and published many monographs, including a recent retrospective by Taschen. Though he struggled to exhibit in his home country due to censorship, he was firmly established on the Chinese art scene as a contemporary great.
"He is evidence of this so-called New Photography in China, which is poetic and superficial at the same time," says Weiwei.
Ai Weiwei is a Chinese contemporary artist and activist, working across sculpture, installation, architecture, curation, photography and film. Ren Hang was a Chinese contemporary photographer whose explicit images garnered worldwide acclaim.
Alexandra Genova is a writer and contributor for TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Danielle Amy Staif, who edited this photo essay, is a photo assistant at TIME. Follow her on Instagram.