'There is untrimmed wildness and natural-born rebellion in my blood ... I've been chasing freedom like a trekker to the clouds above him, guided by my ideal.' Nothing better explains who Zheng Lianjie is than this line on his website. Beijing-born Zheng was active in the underground-artists movement in China in the 1980s. Now, living in New York, he has never been closer to the Chinese culture that he once challenged. Born in 1962, the youngest of seven children, Zheng's childhood was marred by the political madness of the times. His father, a factory worker and calligrapher, was labelled a rightist and sent to a labour camp, where he stayed for more than 20 years. His oldest brother was jailed for 11 years after being found listening to a Russian radio station. These circumstances helped to embed the seeds of rebel- lion in Zheng. When he studied arts as a teenager, bored by the strictures of the Cultural Revolution, his traditional Chinese ink painting began to take on a Western abstract style. By 1990, he had become an avant-garde artist with his first solo exhibition scheduled at Beijing's Daqian Gallery. However, it was banned by the authorities just before its opening because one piece, named The Dance of Death, was considered too sensitive for post-Tiananmen Square-crackdown Beijing. Then Zheng read a report about the fall of the Berlin Wall, in Germany. 'Many people in China didn't think the Berlin Wall had anything to do with us. But I was shocked; I thought a new era was coming,' says Zheng. Consumed by confusion, Zheng went to a deserted part of the Great Wall - by the Yan Mountains - where he lived for the next three years, contemplating and creating. The result was his 'Great Wall Series', which he dedicated to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The work was hailed by international critics. Zheng moved to New York in 1996, 'for the freedom'. He says he wasn't surprised, though, when he found that, even in a city that hosts the Statue of Liberty, there was no unconditional freedom. Not only did he have to spend more time on making a living than making art, he also had to contend with restrictions. For example, when he was preparing for the 1998 performing-art work 'Subzero New York', he learned he had to apply for a permit from the police because public nudity was involved - and the process would take more than a week. 'You can't ask an artist to delay his work for a week only for a permit. He'd lose his inspiration,' says Zheng, who completed the work in a hit-and-run manner, without a permit. But New York has offered him much. A stint as a construction worker exposed him to tools he'd otherwise have not considered using for art; the loneliness of an unfamiliar city afforded him space to communicate with his art; and the cultural struggle of a new immigrant prompted him to think about the relationship between East and West. 'I think immigrant artists are under the grill of two cultures,' he says. 'I call this double anxiety. It gives your art greater possibility.' Zheng began making return visits to the mainland in 2004, often living with Taoists in the mountains. 'By retreating to my native culture, I can better answer the question of how to keep my own culture from being swallowed by the Western one. This is also a way to get closer to freedom.'