PIONEERING CHINESE artist Wu Shan-zhuan has been elevated - or demoted, depending on your point of view - to being the 'it' boy of the Hong Kong art scene. He's in the society pages. He was the centre of attention at Asia Art Archive's (AAA) gala auction at the China Club last month - and the only one to catch Maggie Q's eye. When Wu's Today No Water 319 and Today No Water 296 went under the hammer, a bidding war ensued between the supermodel and a Korean representative of the Darling Art Foundation. The drama caused auctioneer David Tang to become even more flamboyant. Calling Wu onto the stage, he said: 'Of course he's the artist. He's the only one wearing shades!' Wu, Maggie Q and the Korean posed for photographs. Why this fascination with Wu, who is respected in art circles, but practically unknown to the public? It's certainly not because of a newfound understanding of conceptual art in Hong Kong. Maybe it's because Wu cracks jokes, mugs for photos and looks like a cross between DJ Kulu and one of the Blues Brothers. The 43-year-old has waist-length hair and a long braided beard, and he wears black leather jackets and dark sunglasses, day and night. Wu is in town because AAA is doing a major research project on his work. 'It took me two months in Hamburg and one month here to organise my papers,' he says, flipping through large red binders filled with meticulously notated art and photos. 'Now, it looks pretty logical.' Stacks of blue plastic boxes hold more raw materials, which AAA researchers hope to turn into a book by spring. Wu was born in 1960 in Zhoushan, Zhejiang province. 'My home town is very small,' he says. 'My father is a shopping man - not a shopkeeper, but a man who buys things for students. My mother is a midwife.' He says his sense of daring comes from his rough-and-tumble early life. 'I'm street born. Most of my friends are gamblers, karaoke owners, cigarette stealers, fishermen, local gangsters. Rebelling was very normal for those of us with handicapped educations ... That's why, when China just opened up, the first generation got rich. They had nothing to lose.' Wu went to art school, but returned to his home town to work at the Mass Culture Institute. 'My job was to teach and organise mass culture events. I taught fishermen how to paint. I taught the little girls and boys of the fishermen how to paint.' Still, Wu managed to participate in the then-radical 85 movement, a rebellion against dull government-approved art. For the first time, Chinese artists created provocative pieces, influenced by American Pop Art and Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp. Looking at Wu's works, one wonders how he got away with it. 'I still don't know why I didn't get in trouble - never!' he says. Perhaps it was because Wu's works were so conceptual, nobody could pin down exactly what was wrong with them. Wu points to an old photo of himself doing performance art, in which he is dressed like a protester. 'I have my hand up in a fist. I am standing in front of a red background. But the words painted on the signs are nonsense, mean nothing, are not political. I made the content all go away.' Other earlier works include a loud-speaker against a red background and a squashed cabbage stamped with an official government stamp taken from - of all places - Zhoushan's Mass Culture Institute. Wu showed at the National Museum of China in 1989. A year later, he got his first chance to see the west, when he was invited to teach at an Icelandic art academy. 'I was really surprised. The first night they took me to a disco and I was like, 'This is the west? The west is like a frozen desert!'' He spent a year in Iceland, where he met his wife and long-time artistic collaborator, Inga Svala Thorsdottir. 'Me and Inga, we talked about Duchamp,' he says. The result was a rather literal performance art piece, Pissing On Duchamp (1993). 'I had to drink a lot of Coca-Cola first,' Wu giggles. That same year Wu's work was featured at the Venice Biennale. And in 1994, he was invited to be a visiting scholar at an art school in Hamburg, where Inga successfully applied to study, so she could be with him. Since then, Wu has been featured in major museum exhibitions from London to Sydney, and is represented by some of the world's contemporary Chinese art galleries, including Hanart TZ in Hong Kong and Ethan Cohen in New York. Wu is considered to be a groundbreaker in postmodern Cultural Revolution art, which has become so popular it seems as if every hip boutique now carries Mao T-shirts and posters. But how does Wu rationalise using those images, when so many suffered so much only a few decades ago? 'My father was treated not so good during the Cultural Revolution, but somehow I got it out of my system, and I saw the art and the images as pure forms,' he says. 'I am very fascinated by Cultural Revolution art as a form itself.' He uses the pyramids in Egypt as an example. Once, they had great religious and spiritual importance. Today, they are simply impressive-looking tourist attractions. 'It's the same with Cultural Revolution art. It's just going to be a matter of time. [The meaning] won't hold, but the forms will.' 'When I went west in the 90s, I realised that red was just a colour, like the red you see in the supermarket.' What he was doing was reclaiming the colour. He took what was once used for communist propaganda and neutralised it. He took the visual images once associated with Mao Zedong and de-politicised them by using them in the most mundane ways. 'I put red in the water in the fridge, red paint on a ruler, red writing on an envelope. I was doing a case history of red,' he says. Asked about his next project, Wu answers, half-joking: 'I'm going to build a tourist mecca in Ying Shan. It's a city with no history. It's a cultural desert.' Wu grabs my notebook and pen and draws a map of China, showing his flight from Guangzhou to a spot in the central north. He says he is involved with something that he calls 'The Will of Artists' - a development project for which 12 artists will design houses and restaurants. Wu's plan is to build a restaurant shaped like the simplified character for the word 'chan' meaning 'meal'. My final question is not about art at all, but what it feels like for a 43-year-old to suddenly become the coolest kid on the block. Wu dismisses the attention paid to him with a wave of the hand. 'I'm trying to rid myself of the classical art idea that art is about yourself, the artist. Anyway, this is the first time people paid so much attention to me,' he says. For most of his art career, he has been quite poor. 'The younger generation [of artists] see me like a grandparent. But as an old artist, I guess I'm pretty lucky.' For more information about the Asia Art Archive and the Wu Shanzhuan project, go to www.aaa.org.hk .