WANG ZHIYUAN likes underwear. Specifically, the 47-year-old sculptor likes women's knickers - big and frumpy ones as well as little, sexy ones. In fact, Wang likes knickers so much that he carves them out of wood in larger-than-life sizes, up to one metre across, paints them pink and mounts them on the wall, where they hang like giant butterflies. For Wang, who celebrates the ordinary in life, the knickers symbolise the dignity he sees in the most mundane of objects. 'Take underpants. We usually wear them in here,' says the shaven-headed artist, digging around in his khaki trousers. 'But I make them bigger and put them on the wall. I call it wall sculpture.' Tianjin-born Wang may sound like an eccentric artist with an unremarkable penchant for women's underwear, but there's more than love of the ordinary and sexual fantasy behind his obsession. Importantly, to Wang, who admits to being influenced by American king of kitsch Jeff Koons, hanging giant knickers on the wall is about humour. 'People think of knickers as a sexual thing. But I felt that putting them on a wall was plain funny. I realised at some point that whatever it was I wanted to say, the starting point would be humour. Everyone should laugh first - and then I could say what I wanted.' The end result was Underpants, 2001 - a collection of 16 knickers, several of which he sold to private collectors at between $27,000 and $54,000 a pair. Today, Wang is a successful artist whose works are collected by the National Gallery in Canberra, and the Queensland Art Museum. On a recent hot, sunny Beijing afternoon, the sturdily built Wang was dressed in a casual cream-coloured sleeveless T-shirt and cargo pants. Appealing and round-eyed, he smoked ceaselessly while talking. Wang has just finished carving a new set of works, including large knickers for a second collection, and shows off his muscles. 'Look. Strong!' he says, flexing his biceps and laughing. Born in 1958, Wang comes from what he describes as 'a very ordinary family of workers' in Tianjin, a port city an hour's drive east of Beijing. He was 31 when army tanks moved in to break up democracy protests in Beijing in June 1989. At an age when he should have been developing his artistic vision, having graduated five years earlier from Beijing's Central Academy of Arts, Wang found his adopted hometown a traumatised, bleak place, its citizens shaken by the government crackdown. 'The atmosphere at the time was awful,' he says. 'No one knew in which direction things would go.' Wang left China for Australia. 'I got out. So did everyone who could.' That was November 1989. Wang stayed away for 11 years. Once in Australia, he did odd jobs to get by. 'I did everything,' he says, sipping coffee at a white plastic garden table in the shade of a bamboo awning. It's spring, the trees are shedding seeds and the air is thick with cottony balls that Wang bats away when they drift near his face. Behind him is his large, red brick studio in Beijing's northeastern suburbs, off the airport highway, in the artists village of Feijiacun, or Fei Family Village, where about 200 artists, both Chinese and foreign, live and work. 'Everything' included cleaning and painting houses. Wang did that for years to make ends meet, while he worked on his art in private. He didn't know anyone in Australia when he arrived as an English student, and it was a tough time. 'But I was so happy to get there that all the problems seemed quite small,' compared to what he had left behind in Beijing. 'Besides, it was good for me as a person. I never look down on anyone for what they do, because I was once that person.' That philosophy of egalitarianism feeds into his art, which includes other ordinary objects, such as household tools. A favourite expression of his is a rhyme infused with the characteristic earthiness of Beijingers: 'VIP, goupi!', meaning 'VIP, dog fart!' 'I like ordinary people and I like ordinary things,' Wang says. 'So that's why I spend a lot of energy and effort doing really, really simple things, like that light bulb over there,' he says, gesturing at a collection of pink sculptures on the floor that include a light bulb, a pen knife, a corkscrew, and a Disney cartoon. 'I think everything is simple. I don't believe in power, in leaders or in status.' For Wang, the apotheosis of that radical simplicity is the knickers, those most necessary and, in prudish mainland China, often despised article of clothing. 'I take something like knickers, and by turning them into art, I elevate their meaning.' Initially, Wang copied the patterns on them faithfully. 'Then I realised I could add my own design, and say something with it.' On one pair of knickers Wang carved a man minding his own business fishing from a boat, while high overhead in the sky, a missile flies past. 'That is meant to make fun of the traditional Chinese virtue of minding your own business, no matter what is happening around you,' he says. Another pair shows a pair of beautiful women, one classically Chinese, one a Picasso-style western woman. The two are divided by the middle line of the knickers, which in this case is open, held together only at the top by a bow. 'I was sick to death of hearing about east and west while I was in Australia,' says Wang, who got Australian citizenship in 1996. 'But yet I also felt it was a very important subject. So I put it on a pair of knickers. People hold all these academic discussions, what is east and what is west, but I just put it on these to give it humour. To make it funny. Of course, the point where east and west merge, here in the middle, is the most interesting part,' he says, pointing at the scallop-edged gap in the centre of the knickers. 'On a woman too.' That Wang, despite his insistence on humour and elevating the ordinary in life, is driven by sexual interest is evident. An open, appealing man, he chats easily and fluently. His presence is very physical, and he revels in his physicality. If knickers, the interviewer wonders, are so important to him, why doesn't he do art on Y-fronts? Wang looks appalled. 'I don't do men's underpants.' Why not? 'Because I'm a man and I like women's underwear. It gives me a sexy feeling that men's underpants just don't.'