China's Glasnost; the Country's Communist Leaders Are Beginning to Embrace the Avant-Garde Art and Literature They Once Considered Taboo

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Byline: Melinda Liu (With Craig Simons and Jen Lin-Liu)

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. …