Chinese contemporary art pioneer Gu Wenda is no stranger to controversy or clampdowns. His first solo exhibition in 1986 was closed by the authorities in Xian before it even opened for public viewing, so fellow artist Ai Weiwei's detention this month brought back dark memories.
But that hasn't deterred New York-based Gu from becoming increasingly involved in the country he left more than 20 years ago. Since 2000, he has stepped up activity on the mainland, where he maintains several studios, and is now in talks to design a museum in Guangzhou.
'Artists like to challenge and the government wants to secure its political system; it's a constant struggle,' the Shanghai native says of Ai's arrest.
But Gu reckons the struggle will benefit mainland society and its art scene in the long run. 'Every time we push the envelope, we can go further. It stimulates discussion,' Gu says. 'Artists will become more sophisticated and more sensitive to the political situation and diverse social needs, instead of just being simple-minded and naive.'
He was recently in town for a ceremony that appointed him guest artist of the University of Hong Kong, and will return later in the year to conduct seminars and guide students on art projects. (Hong Kong Sinfonietta music director Yip Wing-sie and veteran filmmakers Mabel Cheung Yuen-ting and Alex Law Kai-yui were also named guest artists for this year.)
Gu shook up the staid world of traditional Chinese ink painting more than 30 years ago by presenting works of made-up ideograms. Inspired by 'big-character' propaganda posters of the Cultural Revolution and ancient seal scripts, his paintings resembled conventional calligraphy but were comprised entirely of nonsensical, pseudo-characters. The series immediately aroused officials' suspicions.
'My early works of unreadable, pseudo-characters were interpreted by the government as containing some hidden meaning,' says Gu. 'Actually, they showcased my thinking about the Chinese scholarly tradition, but back then everyone was politically motivated.'
Originally trained in design, Gu pursued a masters degree at the China Academy of Arts under master painter Lu Yanshao. He began to realise he had to understand tradition better in order to challenge it.
Soon after graduating, he went to the US in 1987 for a short stint at the University of Minnesota and subsequently settled in New York, where he established himself as an internationally acclaimed artist, with works collected by institutions such as the British Museum and the Guggenheim.
He left Shanghai, he says, because of the lack of resources and information and poor appreciation of contemporary art on the mainland at the time.
'For my generation, struggles were more about social taboos because I lived in a time so oppressive and closed. But you develop a greater thirst for the things you don't get enough of,' Gu says.
He has worked with controversial material such as semen and menstrual blood, but is probably best known for his installations using human hair. A silver braid that Gu has kept for years on his otherwise shaved head is an indicator of his obsession with hair.
United Nations, his multimedia series built around the hair of various ethnic groups, has been shown in 15 countries since 1993.
'Hair consists of rich cultural and personal identity, just like it's full of a person's DNA,' Gu explains.
'Wherever I do the project, I use local hair to build the monumental pieces to reflect the local culture. It's a unification of different cultural identities in my works.'
The series is also his way of creating a kind of Utopia in his art.
'As I grow older, I know that Utopia or fairness is difficult to achieve in reality. It can only be romantically, idealistically realised in artworks as they are beyond reality.'
The use of unusual materials sometimes creates hurdles. When his United Nations project travelled to Israel, it was initially banned because officials felt the work recalled the Holocaust, when Jewish women were shaved bald before being sent to the gas chambers.
It took a fair bit of explanation before the government eventually gave him the green light to proceed. Still, the dispute triggered a media frenzy that gave him an unexpected publicity boost, with national television tracking his work.
'It was like when my first exhibition was closed. It was the best kind of publicity and turned me into a national figure, a hero in visual art, ' he says, recalling how a worker came up to him while he was waiting to fly off from Tel Aviv airport and offered to donate more hair.
Although he has had studios in Shanghai and Beijing since 1993, these were used mainly for production and storage, and he rarely exhibited on the mainland. The new millennium, however, ushered in an era of change in the art scene.
'Before 2000, the government was quite negative about contemporary art and didn't allow it in the institutions and museums. But now, the government has at least accepted contemporary art.'
He has since taken part in various group exhibitions in Hong Kong, Taipei and major mainland cities, and staged a solo exhibition at the OCT Contemporary Art Terminal in Shenzhen in 2006.
The Guangdong Museum of Art has also invited him convert a disused power plant on the banks of the Pearl River into a contemporary art museum. They are in talks about the construction, which is scheduled to begin in September to coincide with the Guangzhou triennial. Gu can't reveal more details now but says the project is expected to be completed within three years.
Despite such advances, Gu reckons Chinese contemporary art, with just 30 years' history, is still in its infancy. 'Mainstream visual arts in China today still embrace a nationalistic approach.'
Even soaring prices that some mainland contemporary works fetch at international auctions don't fully reflect the art scene, Gu says.
'Some Chinese contemporary pieces are unfairly getting more attention than those from Japan and Korea because China has more artists and China's growing political status and booming economy draws a lot of attention.'
A realist, Gu reckons art and culture are closely linked to the existing socio-political environment.
'Art and culture are supposed to be compatible with what's going on in politics and the economy. Only when art is more important than its collectors can an artist produce certain ideas that lead a social trend.'
Citing his ongoing United Nations series and Heavenly Lanterns (a site-specific installation of 5,000 lanterns that transformed a building in Brussels into a Chinese pavilion), Gu says combining the Chinese scholar tradition with contemporary art is central to his practice.
'I feel fortunate to have trained in traditional Chinese aesthetics and spent years practising in the most developed capitalist society. I've seen both extremes.
'My work is always attached to the time I live in. I'm not creating for dealers or collectors because I know if your work is important to the times, it will eventually be recognised as icon of the period.'
Could this be his time on the mainland?
'[Popularising] avant-garde work is difficult anywhere, but especially so in China. This also makes it meaningful because you try to push culture to be more advanced and challenge existing aesthetics.'
If everything was straightforward, he says, he would lose his edge.