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visual arts

Work is being done to prepare the site of the new massive outdoor stainless steel sculpture called Rising, by Chinese artist Zhang Huan. It will stand outside the Living Shangri-La on University Avenue in Toronto.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

There's still a crane on top of the new Living Shangri-La building in downtown Toronto, but at street level a flock of birds is ready to take flight across the façade. The birds are part of a 22-tonne, multimillion-dollar stainless-steel sculpture by the Chinese art star Zhang Huan that will be unveiled Saturday. Up close you can see that the birds are perched all over a giant tree root, covering it in a flurry of detail before they migrate inside to the lobby. But the root is shaped like an animal, and when seen from further up the street the work will look something like a silver Chinese dragon parading down University Avenue.

The title of this bold piece of public art is Rising. That may be a reference to the birds; it might be a reference to the 66-storey hotel and luxury condo tower that soars above them – or you could interpret it as a metaphor for the red-hot Chinese art market, where artists such as Zhang can employ dozens of assistants to create work that sells for millions at China's 1,200 auction houses. It's estimated that about a third of the world's 100 top-earning visual artists are Chinese (although not all of those are living in China.)

"The market has gone wild," says Toronto dealer Andrew FitzGerald, co-owner of The East Gallery and a specialist in Asian art. "The prices are fantastic, in the millions of dollars for living contemporary artists."

Vancouver-based developers Westbank and the Peterson Group will not put a price tag on Rising, but Westbank president Ian Gillespie says that the piece is costing "several times" the $2-million that the city's 1-per cent-for-art rule would require be spent on public art attached to a development. In other words, commissioning the sculpture and getting it up on the façade could be estimated to cost $4-million to $6-million.

Zhang's work is all over Toronto this month. The Art Gallery of Ontario, which helped the developers organize an international competition for the Shangri-La commission, is showing 12 large, recent works to coincide with the unveiling of Rising. And the Canadian Opera Company has scheduled performances of Semele, an Asian-themed version of the Handel opera directed and designed by Zhang, who had no previous theatrical experience before he created the opera for Belgium's Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in 2009. For a set, Zhang uses a real Ming temple he salvaged from a small town.

Performance artist, photographer, sculptor, painter and now stage director, Zhang arrives in Canada riding the crest of the Chinese art wave. Until 2005, he was an émigré, best known as a provocative New York-based performance artist. His most recognized piece before he left China in the 1990s was a performance during which he covered his naked body in honey and sat in a Beijing latrine while flies landed on him. He was part of the artistic ferment in Beijing's grotty East Village that rose up to challenge the regime and take on the art world. But like many Chinese artists in the years following the Tiananmen crackdown, Zhang chose the freedom of the West's great art capital, thriving in New York.

By 2005, however, he seemed to grow bored of the place, converted to Buddhism and repatriated his career, settling in bustling Shanghai. Today, in his late 40s, he is part of an international contemporary art boom in China that is driven by wealthy collectors eager to keep Chinese art in China (or speculate on its rising prices). It is surprisingly well tolerated by a regime so often hostile to freedom of expression – the dissident activities of Ai Weiwei notwithstanding.

"If he is living there, it means his work is acceptable to the government," observes Donald Thompson, a professor at the Schulich School of Business in Toronto who has researched the current Chinese art market. "The Chinese government has gone further in allowing freedom of expression in the visual arts than anywhere else. It is acceptable to produce cultural references to the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and the past; it is not acceptable to criticize party policy or the central committee … Zhang Huan has not done that."

Zhang's recent work, especially the famed ash paintings created since 2006 using incense ash collected in vast quantities from Buddhist temples, takes an ambiguous, almost elegiac attitude toward the bad old days. The works use the delicate medium of religious memorial to reproduce propaganda photographs from the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, periods of economic and ideological lunacy to which millions of citizens lost their lives or their freedom. The ash paintings on display at the AGO include several images of Chinese soldiers in the field, and one of Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor still revered in China.

As Zhang abandons provocative performance art for painting and sculpture, it's tempting to observe that in the midst of a roaring market the artist, who is well known in the West but not among China's top earners, is now creating a product that collectors can buy. Meanwhile, descriptions of his studio, former airplane hangars on the outskirts of Shanghai where he creates works such as Rising using as many as 100 assistants, might suggest an art factory.

Still, the artist has always paid tribute to mass human effort in his work: For one early performance he asked migrant workers to stand in a fish pond to see if they would raise the water level. The largest work in the AGO show is The Great Leap Forward, a 10-metre panel depicting a vast landscape in which tiny workers are building a canal, their anonymous labour providing a thematic link with all the labour required to make the painting.

The connection between China's past and present is also typical of Zhang's work. The other works in the AGO show are his so-called memory doors, works in which old photographic images are transferred onto surfaces freshly sculpted out of old temple doors Zhang scavenges. With these, the rescued Ming temple for Semele and the propaganda images, the repatriated Zhang offers his homeland art as a possible venue for reconciliation with a difficult past.

There is increasingly skepticism about the Chinese art boom, however; at Gallery East, FitzGerald says that much of the collecting is motivated by speculative investment rather than aesthetic delight, although he adds that to date that speculation has been richly rewarded. Thompson, meanwhile, points out that the Chinese use auction houses rather than galleries to trade contemporary art, permitting various forms of price manipulation that are not legal in the West. But he also believes that Chinese contemporary art is of particularly high quality.

"They are as good or better than anyone in the world," he says. "Western schools have tended to train artists in concepts; Chinese schools give technical training, you have to draw, you have to use colour." Marrying that technical ability with a contemporary sensibility, Chinese artists have, in little more than a decade, advanced from parroting Western vocabularies to driving the international art scene. At the end of the day, the million-dollar prices may not hold, but the artistic value of the ash paintings or memory doors no doubt will.

"Within their careers, most artists hit a peak, they have their moment, and Zhang Huan is one of those artists, doing the most interesting work in the world," Gillespie of Westbank says. "To have him at his pinnacle is a great thing for Toronto."

Zhang Huan: Ash Paintings and Memory Doors will be on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario from May 5 to August 19. The Canadian Opera Company's production of Semele will open May 9, with performances continuing at the Four Seasons Centre until May 26.