THE LIVING ROOM with soft red sofa, antique furniture, magazines artfully arranged in a fruit basket and roaring gas fire (complete with artificial logs) couldn't make for a more picturesque setting on a cold Beijing winter day. 'More juice?' asks my host. 'My wife and child are sleeping upstairs, so we won't be disturbed,' he says, before kicking off his tartan carpet slippers and folding his legs underneath him on the armchair. This isn't what I expected of the home of Sheng Qi, whose extreme performance art - which included severing his own finger to protest against the Tiananmen Square incident - made him something like the Ozzy Osbourne of contemporary Chinese art. 'I'm now almost 40,' says Sheng, a little apologetically. 'These days, I've calmed down quite a bit.' In the mid-1980s, when Chinese artists were experimenting with new media and ideas from the west, Sheng was a founding member of Concept 21, a group of avant-garde artists who performed on the Great Wall and once shouted slogans inside Beijing University's canteen before pouring paint over each other and then riding around on bicycles. Still, Concept 21 was tame compared with Sheng's later works. In 1997, while studying at Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design in London (the first mainland Chinese student to do so), he performed a critique on modern farming practices called Universal Happy Brand Chicken. Reinforced by several pints of beer, a naked Sheng began by tenderly licking several chicken carcasses that were spread out across a table. Having covered them in saliva and rubbed them vigorously up against his groin, he cont- inued by pumping the chickens full of coloured chemicals before violently stabbing them with a scalpel - forcing the chemicals to ooze out of the wounds. As a coup de grace, Sheng got up on the table and urinated over the exhibit, in what was described by one onlooker as 'the longest piss in recorded history'. Of all his acts, it was Sheng's self- described 'moment of madness' that made him famous. In October 1989, distraught from the Tiananmen Square incident, he took a meat cleaver to the small finger of his left hand, before rushing to the nearest hospital. 'I was mad at the time,' says Sheng, whose name in Putonghua can be read as 'angry'. 'It was like there were little aliens running around inside my head,' he says. The four-digit hand remains one of the most poignant images of contemporary Chinese art. Only last month, it was used as the cover piece for a major exhibition of Chinese art, Between Past and Future, now touring the US. All this angst seems far removed from the passive looking, slightly corpulent, middle-aged man now serving peach juice. 'Some people are really tough,' he says. 'They can forget everything that happened to them in the past. It's difficult for me. Violence has been such a strong part of my life.' In 1989, Sheng fled China, took on a series of dead-end jobs, and discovered western culture. He describes the first English-language film he saw. 'I was in Rome and it was The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover by Peter Greenaway. The imagery was so powerful. I went to see all his films.' Sheng now laughs at the idea that he then spent years wandering Europe in an attempt to reassess his life and rid himself of the psychosis that haunted him. 'I see it as a life's journey,' he says. 'Now, all I have is my art, my paintings, photographs and sculptures. These are my muscles.' Sheng has lived in China since 1999 - and his work has toned down. Focusing on painting, his art is generally esoteric enough to usually fall under the radar of the average censor. In one piece, entitled Leg, a lower part of a leg, complete with a well-polished black shoe and white sock, emerges from a towering red brick wall. Although ambiguous about the meaning, the most colourful description accorded the image is that of a Chinese white-collar worker, as evidenced by the quality of the shoe and clothing, stepping through the giant red wall of communism. In another piece, a mass of tanks is driving across the north part of Tiananmen Square. Taken from a scene during the 50th anniversary celebration of the founding of the People's Republic of China, the blurred imagery and martial symbolism of tanks on the square are self-evident. 'I just paint and take photos,' he says. 'I leave it to the audience to decide the meaning. Why do we need to agree with everything said? When I was 20, I felt so powerful, but after two decades of travel and turmoil, I have realised I am powerless, that I am nobody.' Sheng's most recent exhibition, at Beijing's Red Gate Gallery, was closed because a China Olympic Team official deemed the works unsuitable for the upcoming photo shoot with China's sporting heroes. Although Sheng had already removed a mock tank barrel, officials took offence at a painting of an elderly Mao Zedong grasping a ping-pong bat. 'Despite the sporting connection, they didn't understand why Mao Zedong had Chinese characters painted on his head,' says Sheng. On the chairman's balding head were characters referring to the ping-pong diplomacy of the late 1970s. 'He was so rude, the official,' says Sheng. 'My painting of President [George W.] Bush also had characters on his head, and the American Ambassador bought that. This [Chinese] official simply didn't understand art.' Most recently, Sheng has been working on his photography and the small bed in his studio holds his latest work in progress, Madness Appropriation. It's a mass of A4-sized prints, each showing his left hand holding a different photograph taken from domestic Chinese newsreels. 'I think most of the news images we see are frightening,' Sheng says. 'So many are of the military or police. It makes you think that they're deliberately displaying their power, that the authorities are everywhere. 'I really hate the feeling of the government having total control.'