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"Birds Nest, in the Style of Cubism," a painting by Zhang Hongtu, is now at the Lin & Keng Gallery in Taipei, awaiting shipment back to New York.

The ashen-brown picture shows the gleaming new Olympic stadium, designed by the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, as Piranesi might have imagined it and Picasso painted it -- as a decaying ruin rendered in fragmented angled forms. On the canvas, cubist-style, are inscriptions in English letters and Chinese characters: "Tibet," "human right" and the Olympic motto, "one world, one dream."

The painting was supposed to be in Beijing during the Olympic Games, in the exhibition "Go Game, Beijing!" organized by a Berlin marketing firm and displayed at the German Embassy. But it was seized by Customs on arrival and denied entry as "unacceptable" for its color, its depiction of the stadium, and its inscriptions.

"I didn't think that the Tibetan people had the same dream as the Communist Party," said the softspoken Mr. Zhang, 64, who lives and works in Woodside Queens. Not a "frontline" art-star bringing record-breaking prices in the Chinese contemporary art boom, he has lived in New York since 1982, when he left China to study at the Art Students League. Yet his work, which blends Chinese and Western styles, has often satirized Chinese political icons, as when he put the image of Mao Zedong on Quaker Oats boxes and in "The Last Banquet," a parody of Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper." His Mao Series (1987-94) depicted the former Chinese leader in a range of media, from watercolor to rice kernels to blades of grass.

"I'm a Chinese Muslim," said Mr. Zhang in a phone interview. "I don't care about anything pure -- pure Chinese culture, or pure European culture. I don't think there's anything pure. I just want to mix, and from the mixture to make something new."

For more than five years, Mr. Zhang's landscape paintings and warmly satirical ceramic Coke bottles with Ming dynasty decorations have crept slowly into public view in China. His Mao pictures were already toying with the official line against lampooning an icon. Inscribing such taboos as Tibet and the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 into "Bird's Nest," Mr. Zhang found out, crossed that line.

In December, Mr. Zhang was invited to be part of "Go Game, Beijing!" by Renate Bauer, a curator working for the Berlin firm Brands United, which organizes art shows at major events. He accepted and, in June, sent a reproduction of "Bird's Nest." "A marvelous work!!" the Brands United office wrote back. Since Mr. Zhang was also showing work in a private gallery in Beijing in July, he arranged for "Bird's Nest" to travel to Beijing in a container with the work of another Chinese artist showing at that gallery.

The press release for "Go Game, Beijing!" (in English, Chinese and German) promised "an excellent opportunity for Chinese contemporary artists to make a statement and be part of an event that will boost China's way to the future." The hype intensified when, through Brands United, Mr. Zhang was contacted by the fashion magazine Vogue China for an interview that was to include a photograph of the artist and a reproduction of "Bird's Nest." By email, Mr. Zhang discussed "deconstructing" China's trophy building and mocked the "stupid" numerological superstition of a communist country scheduling the opening Olympic ceremony at 8 p.m. on Aug. 8, 2008, to maximize the alignment of the lucky number eight.

In any country except China, you might call those comments waving a red flag.

Arriving in Beijing on July 2, Mr. Zhang looked for "Bird's Nest." He learned from his gallery that the shipping container had been opened and searched, a rare action that his dealer attributed to heightened Olympic security. The gallery said that Customs held "Bird's Nest," along with the rest of the container's contents, pending clarification of the painting's "meaning." Mr. Zhang's efforts to explain cubism fell on deaf ears.

For the container to be released, Customs demanded that Mr. Zhang sign a form stating that, "as an overseas Chinese," he was "proud that the Olympics were being held in Beijing," and that the painting would be taken back to New York. Mr. Zhang was also told that the painting's dark palette clashed with official Olympic revelry. The signed letters were the only way to release everything else in the container. Mr. Zhang refused to endorse the language about Olympic pride, but he agreed to have the painting sent out of the country. Mr. Zhang's gallery also promised that "Bird's Nest" would never return to China.

Then came news that the Vogue China article had been killed "for political reasons" -- not by Vogue, but by superiors at People's Pictorial, an official government publication to which the Vogue editors answered. Not only was the painting seized and, in effect, deported, but news of it was being expunged from the official press, presumably to ensure anonymity rather than any fashionable notoriety, for Mr. Zhang.

Mr. Zhang told the curator of the German Embassy show of the seizure, and he offered to paint another "Bird's Nest" while in Beijing but decided against it for lack of time. The exhibition opened without the picture, which might have clashed with blithe cartoonish landscapes and upbeat photographs of hurdling athletes.

Seizing "Bird's Nest" at Customs for its somberness was in line with the enforced beauty of the Beijing Olympic moment, which included putting a cute young girl with straight teeth on television while the public heard the voice of the actual gap-toothed singer of "Ode to the Motherland" at the opening ceremony. Yet the words in Mr. Zhang's painting were surely a more acute problem for Chinese officials, and there were a lot of them.

Tibet is a third rail politically in China, and even more incendiary with "human right" written right next to it, say Chinese artists and curators. One of those curators, Luchia Lee, who organized the exhibition "Reason's Clue" at the Lin & Keng gallery, showed Mr. Zhang's less-threatening ceramics and landscapes without controversy this summer.

"Bird's Nest" also included the Chinese characters for Carrefour, the French supermarket chain, whose stores all over China were picketed in response to Nicholas Sarkozy's support for the Dalai Lama. The numeral 8 is scrawled 23 times, mocking the "lucky" opening date and time of the Olympics. Toward the bottom of the frame are the letter J and four horizontal lines, the traditional representation of the number 4. The June 4 date of the Tiananmen Square massacre would not have been missed.

Mr. Zhang's eagerness for a public forum in China to test official limits is understandable. His Web site, www.momao.com, has been blocked in China for years. Yet the organizers' inclusion of "Bird's Nest" in a promotional show raises questions about their marketing judgment. The curator, who did not respond to emails and telephone messages, may have wanted to showcase multiple viewpoints on China today, but Mr. Zhang's picture was so loaded with volatile political references that even a curator of contemporary art could have spotted at least a few of them.

"In order to survive and survive well in China, you not only have to learn how the read the lips of the government -- you have to read their mind," said Zhinjian Jian, an art historian who teaches at Parsons School of Design in New York, who spoke by telephone from Beijing.

For Mr. Zhang, seeing his painting denied entry into China and barred from view in the Chinese press evoked the grim old days. As a young art student in the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts in Beijing in 1969, he went with the entire student body to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution to work in rice fields and root out counter-revolutionaries. When he returned to Beijing three years later, Mr. Zhang, whose official training was in ceramics, was assigned a job as a design adviser in the "gold department" of a factory that made jewelry for export, even though jewelry was condemned in austere Maoist China as a bourgeois luxury.

If there is a political battle over "Bird's Nest," it won't include dealers interviewed for this article, who requested anonymity for fear of exclusion from a huge market. Nor will it include Germany. A spokesman for the German Foreign Office in Berlin, where "Bird's Nest" is due to go on view in September when "Go Game Beijing!" opens there, insisted that all the paintings planned for the exhibition were shown at the German Embassy in Beijing, even though Mr. Zhang had a contract from Brands United stating that "Bird's Nest" was to be part of its show.

"I think it would create a lot of attention," wrote Ms. Bauer to Mr. Zhang on July 7 about showing "Bird's Nest" in Berlin, "not just because it was banned by the Chinese authorities for the Olympics."

Mr. Zhang will soon have his property back -- he valued "Bird's Nest" at under $20,000 -- along with the knowledge that the lines that he tried to cross in China are still non-negotiable. (Dealers working in Beijing say some less-lucky Chinese artists who, unlike Mr. Zhang, are not U.S. citizens, simply had critical works seized and destroyed.) "I would have let them destroy my painting," said Mr. Zhang, "but only after the Chinese public had a chance to see it."

"This is part of his own dialogue with China and the Chinese government," said Jerome Silbergeld, a professor of Chinese art at Princeton who has followed Zhang's work, "and he got an answer."

Mr. D'Arcy is a correspondent for the Art Newspaper (London).

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