William Yang is a Sydney institution but a Queenslander born and bred. Last week he was reclaimed by his state of origin for a retrospective at the Queensland Art Gallery that allows us to read one artist’s career as a tale of social evolution. Even allowing for the wrong turnings of the present day, over the course of Yang’s life the old, narrow-minded Australia of the mid-20th century has become a place that tolerates – and even celebrates – a cultural diversity once considered a threat.
Yang was born in 1943 into a family of Chinese immigrants in Far North Queensland. His father’s mother tongue was Hakka, while his mother spoke Cantonese, which meant their common language was English. This ensured that Yang, his brother and sister, would grow up as English speakers with barely a word of any Chinese dialect. The omission reflected his parents’ belief that the only way ahead for their children was to forget their cultural roots and be as Aussie as the rest.
In a story he has told so may times it has become a virtual incantation, Yang recalls that when he was six-years-old a boy at school called him a “Ching Chong China man”. It was the first time he had been confronted with this charge and he raced home to ask: “Mum, I’m not Chinese am I?” When informed this was indeed the case, he realised that “being Chinese was like a terrible curse.”
Yang has commemorated this revelation in Life Lines #3 – Self-portrait #3(1947/2008), on which he has written the entire story on a family photo of his three-year-old self. It’s one of many archival images he has appropriated for himself by adding hand-written text.
The idea of life as an ethnic catastrophe would stay with Yang for many years. He likes to joke that he came out as gay about a decade before he would come out as Chinese. He previously went by the surname “Young”, which echoes the correct pronunciation of his Chinese name.
Yang studied architecture at the University of Queensland and got involved in the theatre. It was only after moving to Sydney in 1969 that he developed his talent for photography and found an environment in which he felt comfortable about his sexual identity. In his first solo exhibition, held at the Australian Centre of Photography in 1977, he would document Sydney’s gay scene. It was a provocative show that laid the foundations for a career in which Yang would become the major chronicaller of the city’s homosexual community, from the bacchanals of the Mardi Gras to the tragedies of the AIDS epidemic.
For this survey, Yang and curator, Rosie Hays, have been careful not to over-emphasise the Mardi Gras pictures which could easily dominate the display. Instead these images get a single wall, featuring a selection from the artist’s voluminous archive, chosen to emphasise the diversity of the participants.
On the wall facing the Mardi Gras images we leave the party and arrive at the dark side, with the photo sequence Allan, from the Sadness series of 1990. This series tells the story of young man battling AIDS in 19 disarmingly direct portraits. In the first image Allan is already in hospital, after having contracted the virus. In the pictures that follow we jump back and forth in time. Having seen him fresh-faced and smiling in an earlier photo, it’s gruelling to watch as he is prematurely aged by the illness, getting thinner and sicker. In the penultimate photo he is a corpse; in the last he is healthy and smiling again, as his friends would want to remember him.
Allan was a landmark for Yang and for Australian documentary photography. The combination of simple, unadorned portrait photos and diaristic, hand-written commentary made each viewer feel intimately acquainted with the subject. The step-by-step progress towards death puts us on the alert for every passing emotion in Allan’s face – he is sad, stoical, cheerful, grim, frivolous and heroic by turns. At the end of his life he has become an empty husk. It’s a devastating slice of reality smuggled into an art gallery, a piece that stops viewers in their tracks every time it’s shown.
The solemn nature of Allan’s story stands in marked contrast to the social page snapshots that earned Yang a living. There was a time when he seemed to be everywhere, shooting pictures of celebrities and socialites. Much of this work was disposable but once again there are more than enough good shots to fill a large wall. The best of them succeed as portraits, alongside Yang’s more deliberately composed examples of the genre. There are memorable images of Helen Garner, Cate Blanchett, David Gulpilil, a young, freckle-faced Cressida Campbell and an old, grumpy Patrick White, homosexual but never gay.
Yang’s profile went to another level when he began combining images and words into performances that harked back to his love of theatre. Most of these pieces were hardly more than sophisticated slideshows but they have proved incredibly popular. Yang had discovered the power of story-telling. Taking his own life as his subject he has given us detailed accounts of his family and his childhood; he has looked back on his years in the midst of Sydney’s gay community; he has charted his first journey to China in search of a heritage from which he feels linguistically excluded.
Although Yang’s main themes and preoccupations are clearly spelled out in this retrospective it’s surprising to learn of his devotion to landscape photography. Like most of his subjects, his landscapes are tied to his biography, as Yang revisits the places where he grew up, looking at them through the eyes of a man who has put a lifetime’s experience between himself and his birthplace.
In his photographs and performances Yang sticks closely to the self but his focus is never crudely narcissistic. If audiences have responded positively to his work it’s not just because his personal story is uncommonly interesting, it’s the way in which it has been related. Yang is an anti-hero in his own narratives, vulnerable and self-mocking. He portrays himself as drifting on the sea of fate, muddling through rather than taking command. He confesses his weaknesses and anxieties, his youthful mistakes and the tensions within his family.
The remarkable outcome of this approach is that the tale of a gay, ethnically-Chinese man from FNQ allows everyone to find points of identification. As Yang pitches his private stories into the public realm he draws the public into his own world. All of us have similar stories – memories of our own families, about leaving the country for the city, about becoming aware of one’s difference and learning to cope with that knowledge. We have our own landscapes that we carry around in our minds, a gallery of missing friends, a personal list of life-changing moments, of triumphs and regrets. By focusing on his own life Yang has produced a body of work that speaks a universal language, inviting us to forget about those differences that are only skin-deep and reflect on the things that are truly important.
William Yang: Seeing & Being Seen
Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
27 March – 22 August, 2021
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3 April, 2021