Huang Rui knew he was flirting with trouble when he took part in a performance-art piece that featured a Communist Party flag being transformed into handcuffs and blindfolds.
Sure enough, he soon received a visit from a senior official of the Public Security Bureau, China's secret police.
But instead of packing him off to jail, the official gently questioned him about the intention of the piece. Huang served him tea on an antique table in his studio, and the two talked about the role and meaning of art.
After a couple more polite visits, the official went away and never came back.
“A few years ago, an artist who disagreed with the Communist Party would have been called a counterrevolutionary traitor,” marvelled Huang, a dignified man with a wispy goatee and a ponytail.
After decades of repression, authorities are easing up on creative expression, and artists are responding with a flood of work that is experimental, provocative and often simply weird.
One artist filmed himself having sex with a dozen prostitutes. Another made strings of wriggling frogs, snakes and crabs by sewing them together, then fashioned them into a living curtain and challenged viewers to walk through it.
“The transformation of China is going on at such a fantastic pace that it produces a kind of creative energy, because the contrasts are so strong between past and future,” said Chantal Pontbriand, editor of the Montreal-based art magazine Parachute, which put out a special issue on Shanghai artists last spring.
Smitten contemporary-art lovers sometimes compare China's explosion to the ferment in Europe when Modernism was born a century ago. Like the creators of Cubism, Dadaism or Fauvism, China's artists are testing every boundary, from the sexual to the political to the cultural.
Shanghai artist Xu Zhen bashed a cat against the floor for 45 minutes on video. (“It was already dead,” he told a disgusted interviewer.) Artist Sheng Qi cut off his finger and photographed the crippled hand holding a picture of Chairman Mao.
Until the 1980s, officials usually allowed only two kinds of art — propaganda showing heroic workers and peasants in the socialist-realist style, or traditional art such as calligraphy and paintings of birds and cherry blossoms.
Even in the 1990s, when things began to open up, authorities often shut down avant-garde exhibits before they even opened, citing fire-code violations and other made-up reasons. Artists had to show their work in private homes or foreign embassies. Many moved abroad to work in Paris, London and New York.
Today, “the only limits are in your own mind,” photographer Rong Rong said. He takes pictures of himself and his Japanese wife, Inri, embracing naked in striking locations, from the Great Wall to the snowy woods of Finland. They sell for as much as $10,000 apiece and appear in galleries in such places as Singapore, Austria and Brazil.
When he showed the pictures in a Beijing gallery, “I was sure the police were going to close us down, but nothing happened. I thought to myself, ‘China's really free now.' ”
There are still some taboos. Explicit depictions of homosexuality are out. So is direct criticism of the Communist Party or its role in putting down the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. The government drew the line when performance artist Zhu Yu ate aborted fetuses purchased from a Shanghai hospital in a 2000 exhibition titled Fuck Off.
Apart from that, just about anything goes. Xu Zhen, the cat basher, recently exhibited a video in which a man and woman disrobe and sniff each other's body parts like animals.
But China's artists do not aim only to shock. Many works critique the rampant consumerism, materialism and corruption that have come with the country's headlong development.
Zhang Qing hired 10 taxis to drive back and forth toward each other in a Shanghai museum, a rhythmic dance that played on the frantic pace of life in modern China. Wang Qingsong litters his photographic montages with Western logos and products. One shows a posed group of Chinese staring in awe at a Coke bottle suspended like a star in the sky.
The centre of China's artistic renaissance is Factory 798, a collection of studios and galleries in an old Beijing industrial district that has become a magnet for tourists and well-heeled Chinese looking for a dash of character in Beijing's grey expanse. The soaring, Bauhaus-style factory spaces once housed thousands of workers in Mao suits fashioning weapons to defend China from Western imperialism.
“This place used to be the centre of socialism. Now, it's the centre of modernism and individualism,” said Xu Yong, one of the early artists to come to the district.
Ken Lum, a Vancouver artist and curator who studies Chinese contemporary art, says the country's leaders tolerate places such as 798 because they want to show that modern China is about more than cheap DVD players. “They said to themselves, ‘Hey, this could make us look good.' ”
Today, the government actively promotes modern art. Shanghai recently opened the Duolun Museum of Modern Art, the first government-funded avant-garde art museum in China. In a show this year, it marked a milestone when performance artist He Chengyao wrapped her barely clothed body in white duct tape, the first time a public gallery had permitted a nude performance.
Even smaller, less cosmopolitan places are taking risks. In northern Shanxi province this year, officials turned over the public art museum to experimental artists Peng Yu and Sun Yuan, whose recent works include a giant pillar made out of the leftover fat from liposuction procedures.
They brought in 30 fog machines, filled the museum with fog and invited patrons to grope their way through as loudspeakers played hissing noises.
The government is also helping artists by investing millions in the latest technology that they need to make video and performance art. At the art academy in the city of Hangzhou, students have access to 200 new Sony and Macintosh computers.
With computers at their fingertips and government off their backs, Chinese artists are producing a torrent of work that is getting attention around the world. The San Diego Museum of Art and New York's International Center of Photography each held eye-opening shows this year.
Western collectors are paying up to $100,000 for work by the most renowned new artists.
Rong, the Beijing photographer, lived in a one-room hovel when he came to Beijing 12 years ago as an impoverished art student. Now, he, Inri and their new baby inhabit a two-storey, architect-designed villa.
As British culture critic Jackie Wullschlager wrote in The Financial Times this month, artists are experiencing “a thrilled astonishment . . . at their transformation from outcasts to stars.”
But artists being artists, many worry about being spoiled by success. In the Factory 798 district, rents have doubled since the artists moved in. Many of the less well off may have to move — the price, some might say, of freedom.