A decade ago avant-garde photographer Rong Rong lived in a ramshackle farmhouse and took odd jobs to support himself. "No one was interested in buying my work," he recalls. On the contrary: once when he was photographing performance artist Zhang Huan, who had stripped naked, covered himself with honey and then sat for an hour in a Beijing public toilet while flies landed on him, a villager stumbled upon the shoot and called the authorities.
Today the arresting images created by Rong and his Japanese wife, Inri, also a photographer, get a much better reception. They sell for more than $10,000 each, and 20 are currently on display in "Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video From China" at New York's International Center of Photography (ICP).
Dozens more photos, many featuring nudes, were exhibited last winter in a show in Beijing that Rong, 36, says he thought authorities would shut down "on the first day." Instead the exhibit ran without a hitch for two months. "In the 1990s I never imagined that this could happen," marvels the goateed artist, who now lives in a two-story home designed by a top Beijing architect.
Talk about a cultural revolution. It wasn't long ago that government censorship severely curtailed creative freedom in China. Everything from nudity and abstract art to rock and roll and literary erotica was taboo. No longer. A group of private shows held in Beijing last year contained all kinds of shocking images: a video of an artist sleeping with 20 sex workers; photos of Rong and Inri standing naked near Mount Fuji; an installation of two nudes slowly entwined together by live silkworms; a performance artist tearing up a Communist Party flag; a "shock" installation by Peng Yu and Sun Yuan in which eight pit bulls chained to facing treadmills lunged futilely at each other. Now one of the shows' patrons, real-estate mogul Zhang Baoquan, is preparing his next big splash: a Woodstock-style open-air rock-and-roll concert in the remote western city of Yinchuan, better known for poverty than for artistic progressiveness.
From Beijing to the boondocks, China's contemporary culture scene is flowering. Liberalization triggered by a quarter century of capitalist reforms is transforming not only the visual arts but music, theater, fashion design, architecture and literature. Contemporary artists are selling their works to Western and Chinese collectors alike--and local real-estate developers have emerged as wealthy patrons of the alternative arts (sidebar). To be sure, censorship has not entirely disappeared. But some Chinese authorities are becoming convinced that "the amount of attention paid to the arts is, like GDP, an index to measure the success of a city," says Wong Shun Kit of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council, whose annual international film festival provides an outlet for underground mainland artists. To that end, the government is beginning to support some formerly contraband art.
The rise of a new generation of top leaders has even prompted some to compare China's creative explosion to the glasnost era of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Since Hu Jintao, 61, became president last year, his government has signaled a more flexible approach to creative expression. "The government hasn't given up control, but it is being more lenient," says artist Huang Rui, who was a member of China's first avant-garde arts group, the Stars, back in the 1980s when artists were often arrested and their shows shut down. "Possibly, Hu Jintao will become China's Gorbachev."
To be sure, Hu's no Gorby when it comes to politics. China's awakening--first economic and now cultural--has yet to transform its hidebound political system in any fundamental way. Artworks deemed overtly political may still be banned. And the same old subjects remain taboo: Taiwanese independence, ethnic tension, the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and, above all, the legitimacy of Communist Party rule.
But Chinese authorities have become more aware of the costs of controlling creativity. "They know that if they shut down a show or arrest an artist, they're going to get lots of negative international media attention," says Robert Bernell, owner of the Beijing art-publishing house Timezone 8. Officials are also bowing to the realization that the Internet is impossible to control fully. Weblogs offer myriad new outlets for experimental writing. Online bulletin boards allow budding authors and artists to show their work, access international cultural news and critique one another.
Nowhere is the dynamism of avant-garde China more evident than at the former weapons factory in the Chaoyang district of Beijing known as Factory 798. The soaring Bauhaus-style structure now houses the country's largest single collection of private galleries and studios. What started as a funky, low-rent, grass-roots art enclave two years ago now hosts dozens of --cutting-edge shows a year and is home to international galleries run by collectors in London, Singapore, Tokyo and Berlin. "This is the only community of its kind in China," says Chaoyang district Mayor Chen Gang. "People are comparing it to New York's SoHo district."
The market for experimental works is booming, at home as well as abroad. Wary of both the mainland's stock market and its overheating real-estate sector, newly rich Chinese "are looking at art as an investment," says calligrapher and contemporary artist Wong Dongling. At contemporary-art galleries and auctions, individual pieces now sell for $2,000 to $100,000 each.
While most such works are displayed privately, government-sponsored venues are also beginning to test the limits of creative freedom. In mid-June a group of intellectuals, artists and photojournalists gathered at Shanghai's Duolun Museum of Modern Art to peer at artist He Chengbuo's nearly nude body bound with white duct tape--the first time the government had granted permission for a nude performance in an official public space. Beijing recently invested $18 million to renovate its National Art Museum, which now boasts several Picassos as well as works by Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns--all of which would have been banned during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.
Avant-garde exhibits and performance venues are popping up in smaller towns too. In early July the tradition-bound inland city of Xian--China's capital during the Tang dynasty--hosted an exhibit called "Is It Art?" that featured, among other things, a shirtless man suspended high in the air moving bags of cement around like a human crane. Designed to draw attention to the relationship between man and machine, the installation also critiqued China's relentless construction boom.
The push for more artistic openness has sent expectations soaring. "In the past, if we could just have an exhibition without it getting shut down, that was good enough," says mixed-media artist Qiu Zhijie, who recently set up a Web site for artists to display works. "Now we have greater demands. We want a bigger audience. We want domestic and private foundations to support us."
Some forms of creative expression remain more circumscribed than others. The mainland doesn't have a single radio station dedicated to rock music, says a local DJ, because so much rock is anti-authoritarian. Censors still restrict alternative music, maintaining the right to vet song lyrics before all public concerts, from those of local rockers to the Rolling Stones. But some underground bands are emerging into the open. Last year state-run China Central Television invited heavy-metal band Black Panther to perform--one of the first times a Chinese rock band had been shown live on mainland TV, says Liang Long, the 27-year-old lead singer for Secondhand Rose, another Beijing band. "The government didn't understand rock and roll in the '80s and '90s," he says. "Today's leaders are younger and more open-minded."
Literature, drama and especially mainstream media remain on a tighter leash. That's because top leaders are still queasy about anything that might have unpredictable mass appeal. But public discontent is mounting: when government officials recently tried to stifle media coverage of the popular but controversial Beijing play "Toilet," media outlets revolted. Many simply disobeyed the ban, running articles about the drama, which traces three decades of Chinese history through the lives of a public-restroom custodian and his patrons.
Increasingly, being banned in Beijing is no deterrent to making a living. In fact, sometimes it actually helps propel an artist onto Western radar screens. Shanghai author and former junkie Mian Mian maintains that the ban in China on her two novels about sex, drugs and despair helped make her name abroad. The book "Candy" was published in the United States and France and ultimately became an underground best-seller on the mainland as well. Mian says her third novel, "Panda Sex," due out this year, may even pass the censors because it has "no drugs and no sex."
Chinese artists who once fled to the West in search of freedom and a broader audience are beginning to return home. This literary elite is no longer producing as many "Chinese books aimed at a Western audience," says London-based literary agent Toby Eady, who represents a dozen Chinese novelists. "It's indigenous Chinese writing for Chinese people." And today those writers are more interested in addressing such modern taboos as high-level corruption, AIDS, urban crime and the growing gap between rich and poor. Lu Tianming, a former TV scriptwriter, has become a sensation in China by writing about crooked government officials and corrupt underlings. One recent novel, "Pure as Snow," was inspired by a real-life whistle-blower in northeastern Heilongjiang province. By tapping into China's insatiable appetite for anti-corruption themes, it sold 185,000 copies. Shen Shao-min, a 48-year-old artist from Heilongjiang, moved to Australia in 1990 because his exhibitions were closed after the Tiananmen Square crackdown. But now, he says, "it's better for my art to be in China. I can think more deeply in China because things are changing so quickly."
Indeed, for artists who rely on tension to fuel their creativity, there's no place like home. "In the West there isn't enough conflict," says Huang Rui. "In China there are conflicts everywhere--between capitalism and socialism, between tradition and modernization, between rural life and urbanization." The big question is whether China's cultural flowering will ultimately wither--or be crushed--without fundamental political reform. "Artists make the people smarter," claims rock-music pioneer Cui Jian, "and the leaders think that smarter people are harder to control." For the moment, China's seething frictions and contradictions are helping spawn creative energy--and, just as important, a growing market to bankroll it.