William Yang: oscillating between shock and sadness, beauty, delight and humour

A conversation with Sarah Rhodes, April 2013


You work flows between photography and performance. Do you feel photography is limited in what you would like to say in your art? And how does performance inspire or influence the making of your work?

Photography and performance are two opposite positions. The photographer is behind the camera, very much observing what is going on, whereas the performer is standing in front of the audience and all eyes are on him. I started off as a photographer, and the voyeuristic nature of photography appealed to me. It took me a long time to be comfortable as a performer and in a sense I am still developing my skills. You have to get used to appearing in public situation, and in my case as a storyteller, making yourself vulnerable to an audience. That’s hard to do and it can make you feel insecure. For exposing yourself you want love and applause – acting is an unenviable profession. It’s easier to become well known as a performer than by being a photographer because you have a higher profile.

Photography and performance require different skills, I think I’m an okay photographer, not that technical but I have a good eye and understand the psychology of humans. As a performer I have specialized in storytelling and work with autobiography, the personal story. These two skills influence each other. When taking photos I am aware of narrative, the sequence of images and location as a background for the story. And narrative has informed my photos in that I physically write my stories onto the prints.

What are you trying to communicate with your work?

In single words, though not all in the one photograph, I want to communicate beauty, shock, awareness, social consciousness, sadness, delight and humour.

Relationships have always been a central theme in your work. It has moved from high profile personalities you spent time with to Sydney’s gay scene, then shifted to China to explore your heritage and now you are celebrating your mother with historic photos of her life in northern Queensland. These themes build on each other to create a complete autobiographical record of your life. Why did you decide to take such an intimate autobiographical approach to your work?

When I started doing performances in the theatre, I found that the personal I was with my story the more the audience connected with me. They wanted honesty, they wanted intimacy, they did not want spin, they did not want self promotion. I put myself into the picture, and became more aware of my own story in relationship to the images. I divided my works roughly into three categories. Photos of well known people and these tend to belong to the arts community, photos of the gay community, and photos of my family none of whom are famous. My family section also embraces Chinese Australians and their history, and the Chinese diaspora, as many of my close relatives live in the USA.

My work on celebrities are generally easy to place, but I’d call the work on the gay community and the Chinese community harder to market because they are marginalized communities. That makes them more important to me as they are stories that the main stream often neglects, so I persist with them. I’d like to put them all in one big story but then it would become unwieldly.

Not only have you taken a very fluid approach to your work, the themes in it represent a personal account of how Sydney has changed? Could you please talk a little about the changes in the gay scene in Sydney, as well how attitudes have changed toward Chinese Australians.

The story of the gay community is Sydney is heartening because in the space of forty years, activism and a visible community has changed social attitudes. The first issue in the seventies was decriminalizing homosexual acts and for this gays and lesbians took to the streets. State by state the legislation changed, beginning with South Australia in 1974, NSW in 1984 and Tasmania in 1996. Next there was the AIDS crisis and Australia’s response to this was one of the best in the world. I think the appearance of the Mardi Gras on television was a watershed event as Gay got into living rooms in regional Australia. Today the community is quite vibrant, full of young people and the division between gay and straight is blurred. But there still is a way to go as gay people are still being bashed.

To talk about the Chinese community in Australia I have to go back to the White Australia policy in the early twentieth century where Chinese were restricted from entering Australia. The Chinese who were already here lived in ghettos – Chinatowns. After WW2 when there was a shake up in the social order, Chinese started to integrate into the mainstream culture, and get University degrees to become prifessionals. People like myself, who were born in Australia, identify with being Australian not Chinese. I’d say it wasn’t until the nineties that Chinese voices were heard in mainstream culture.

Writing on photographs brings a beautiful tactile quality to the image. What made you start writing on your pictures?

I started doing performance pieces in the theatre in the late eighties – talking with music on stage with my images projected on a big screen behind me. The form was successful for me and I’ve done eleven pieces in all most of which have toured Australia and overseas. I became aware of a connecting narrative in my work and started to bring these stories into my gallery prints by hand writing on the images. I started doing this in the 90s. My handwriting helps people associate the print with me. Most of the time I write directly on the print but recently I’ve been scanning the handwriting into the digital print, especially when the writing has to fit into a specific space. It takes away the pressure of messing up the print.

What constitutes an important photograph over a snapshot?

In taking the photo there is little difference, but in selecting the image certain formal qualities come into consideration. It could be the clarity of the composition or the emotion captured. It could have social relevance, images often become emblematic of a time. Then you have to tell the audience that this is an important photograph.

Do you always have a camera in your hand? Or are you more selective these days about what work you make?

Often I take my camera with me when I go out, I never know when my next shot will come up, although I take fewer photos now. I choose images that I know will fit into my existing collection. For example I never take photos of dance parties as I have enough in my collection to last a lifetime.

Have artists like Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe had an impact on your work?

Linda Jackson, Peter Tully and Jenny Kee
Linda Jackson, Peter Tully and Jenny Kee

Nan Goldin has been a big influence because we have a lot in common: the personal narrative, the marginalized groups she photographs, and the vulnerability of her subjects. With Robert Mapplethorpe, although we have a lot in common, the male figure and nudity, I like him less. I think his images are often beautiful surfaces and he is not warm hearted like Nan. Actually my favourite photographer is Diane Arbus because of her searing portraits. She slices through the surface into a state of existence.

Have you had a mentor?

Jim Sharman helped me in my early career. He was supportive and his production company Public Pictures brought out my first book, Sydney Diary. Today I have many supporters although they are not really mentors.

How do you fit into the landscape of Australian photographers?

I’m definitely in there as I’m quite widely shown. My most important work is my documentary photography, the diary of my social life. Unfortunately documentary photography has gone out of fashion, so in recent times I have reinvented myself, mainly by writing on photos, so I can claim to be a photo media artist, just to keep up with the times.

What was the defining moment in your career so far?

When I did my first performance piece, The Face of Buddha, at the Downstairs Belvoir Street theatre, I had a panic attack in the wings just before I went on. I thought it would not be a good look to have a heart attack on stage, but I managed to calm myself through breathing, and was able to do the show to warm applause. Later when I came out of the dressing room into the foyer, the audience applauded me again and I had a Sally Field moment where I thought “Oh you really like me”.

I had discovered a form that involved two skills that I have, one was an ability to take and edit photos, and the other an ability to write, or more specifically, writing for the spoken word. In time I was able to develop these two aspects and they have informed and nourished each other.

Please tell us about the new work you are making.

Currently I am going through my archive, finding a path through it and printing up my best photos. I’m also trying to get my collection into some kind of order so that others can access it. I’m letting others know which images I think are my good ones. It’s a process. When people ask me now to show work from a certain period, I take editing it very seriously, as if this may be the last time I get to go through this work. So the new work I am making is going through old work.
As part of this process I have been Making DVDs of some of my performance pieces at the University of New South Wales where I am a visiting fellow. I have reinvented the stage performances to video works for small screen. I’m working on three, My Generation (artistic community), Friends of Dorothy (gay community) and Blood Links (Australian Chinese family).

William Yang, Stories Then and Now

Upcoming events to see William’s work

Co-directed by William Yang and Annette Shun Wah.
Six people tell of their Asian Australian experiences.
22 – 25 May 7pm Carriageworks.
2pm matinee with Q&A Sat 25 May.

Part of Head On Festival 17 – 31 May.
Maunsell Wickes Gallery, 19 Glenmore Rd, Paddington.
Opening 4 – 7pm, Sat 18 May.
Exhibition continues till 30 June.









William Yang, 'My Generation' the exhibition
William Yang, ‘My Generation’ the exhibition

Sydney Film Festival, screening Dendy Opera Quays, 9/2 circular Quay E, 7pm Sat 8
William Yang In Conversation with Jim Sharman. Vivid Festival. MCA 9pm Sat 8
Something of a double bill. After the screening we are going over to MCA for the
conversation. There is a bar.

Broadcast on ABC1, 10.30pm Sunday 16 June

Watch William’s performance about his work in China HERE.