William Yang

In Artist Profile 54, Drew Pettifer spoke with William Yang about remembering, the ambivalent work of documentary, and Yang's enduring "humanist poetic." We're pleased to share Pettifer's essay in celebration of Yang's show alongside Mai Nguyễn-Long at Art Atrium, Sydney: Diasporic Dialogues.

Seeing and Being Seen, William Yang’s latest project, has had a long gestation. It was first proposed by former Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) curator Aaron Seeto four years ago, before being picked up by another QAGOMA curator, José Da Silva, who similarly moved on before the project was realised. “It was all in limbo,” Yang recounts, until the gallery appointed Rosie Hays, Associate Curator of Australian Cinémathèque, to oversee the exhibition. “Her expertise isn’t in either photography or contemporary art, but she really knows her films and so we have come to regard the project like a documentary film.”

Given Yang’s background as a documentary photographer, Hays’s appointment to curate this major survey exhibition – which, at seventy-seven, Yang prefers to call a retrospective – seems particularly fitting. The integration of still and moving images in the gallery space has been a particular challenge, Yang candidly observes. “I was quite confident exhibiting photographs in frames, but I needed help with the videos.” Hays has been tasked with curating over 250 works across still and moving image, as well as a new spoken word performance piece. The loose curatorial framework of storytelling in the mode of a documentary film unites these different elements. There are clusters that focus on particular “scenes” from the artist’s life – his involvement with the LGBTQI subculture and celebrity social photography, for example – but other parts of the exhibition reflect dynamic interactions of different moments. Works related to his childhood sit alongside more recent self-portraits and contemplative landscapes in what cinematic theorists might call a non-linear “database narrative.” This mixture of clusters and non-linear narratives echoes the competing motivations and identities within Yang’s work. The overarching tone of the show, according to Yang, is of a humanist poetic and a search for identity. “There’s a lot of mortality and life,” he confesses.

William Yang grew up on a dry and dusty tobacco farm in Dimbulah, North Queensland, in the 1940s and 50s. His Chinese immigrant parents were so committed to their children integrating and succeeding in this unforgiving place that it was only at the age of six that Yang learned of his Chinese heritage. He pinpoints this moment when he recognised his identity as Other as a source of childhood trauma that he has carried through much of his life. An excerpt from Tony Ayres’s documentary Sadness, 1999, that features in the exhibition shows children re-enacting a scene where Yang was taunted with racist schoolyard sneers, capturing this trauma and shame. It was only when Yang was in his mid-thirties and became a Taoist that he describes “coming out” as Chinese-Australian and exploring this part of his identity. He soon changed the anglicised name Young that his family had adopted to Yang, took trips to China, and began working with the Chinese-Australian community.

The acknowledgement of his migrant roots also saw Yang interrogate hidden family histories, including producing a poignant series of works in 1990 that investigate the murder of his uncle, William Fang Yuen, in 1922. My Uncle’s Murder is a series of seven images that recount a harrowing story of Yang’s uncle being shot by the white manager of one of his cane farms. The series includes found family photographs and images Yang took of what he describes as “bloodstained documents, a sketch of the site of the murder, and my mother’s signature on the affidavit.” The image in the middle of the installation is a casual self-portrait of the artist, standing in a cane field and returning the camera’s gaze with a look of solemnity. Across the top of the print, scrawled in the artist’s hand, is written, “I stood in the place where my uncle, William Fang Yuen, was shot in 1922.” This unflinching and honest annotation is representative of the artist’s stoic drive to openly reveal stories that would otherwise remain hidden and invisible.

This pithy, concise, and direct mode of communication was honed over the many years Yang spent recording Australia’s LGBTQI subculture, from the late 1970s through to the 1990s and beyond. In the early parts of this period he captured the glamourous and hedonistic counterculture that led to the birth of Mardi Gras and campaigns for equal rights. During the 1980s and into the 1990s, however, his focus turned to documenting the devastating impacts of HIV and AIDS. It was only in the early 1970s when Yang moved to Sydney, which was in the nascent stages of gay liberation (as it was then called), that he came out – or was “swept out by events at the time,” as he puts it. He had no history in Sydney and delighted in the opportunity to reinvent himself and be who he wanted to be. It was during this period that photography became a serious compulsion.

Yang had first taken up photography as a hobby several years earlier while he was at university in Brisbane studying architecture. He did so as an excuse to photograph men he desired as a socially permissible act to get close to them. His creative life in Brisbane began as a playwright, however, scripting original works for the Architecture Review at the University of Queensland. He eventually integrated his skills as a writer and visual artist years later in the late 1980s when he started performing monologues over slideshows of his images. He also began working with minority communities around this time, leading workshops in storytelling to help others find their voice and share their histories and cultures.

The more recent self-portraits and landscapes in the exhibition reveal a different stage in the artist’s life story, exposing moments that are more poetic and contemplative. A prominent two-channel video work several metres in scale immerses the audience in this meditative space as they are surrounded by landscape scenes of quietly flowing streams and treetops, accompanied by an ensemble of bird sounds. The soundtracks to the video works add what Yang refers to as an “aural expression” to the primarily visual engagement of the still photographs. Another video work shows incense bark burning and street food being prepared in China. These are poetic observations of everyday moments. “I like my work to move people, to make them feel human,” Yang shares.

There is a generosity in the space that Yang carves out for others in his work, whether that be for collaborators or subjects or audiences. In their monograph on the artist, William Yang: Stories of Love and Death, 2016, Helena Grehan and Edward Scheer poetically frame how it is “through his own stillness he makes room for others to move and be moved.” Yang’s practice is infused with an authenticity, intimacy, and humanist pathos that extends beyond the cultural and subcultural contexts to which the individual works might be said to belong.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 54, 2021.

Mai Nguyễn-Long and William Yang: Diasporic Dialogues
8–22 October 2022
Art Atrium, Sydney


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