Claire Wilson 「Chinese identity and Sydney’s gay party scene in the photographs of William Yang – in pictures」

Posted on February 19, 2016
William Yang, 「Self portrait with light meter」, 1987, inkjet print, 38 x 24 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney.

Chinese Australian artist William Yang explores cultural identity through photography, text and performance.

As part of the celebrations of Mardi Gras and Chinese New Year, Stills Gallery, Sydney presents the solo exhibition 「William Yang: Stories of Love and Death」 from 18 February to 5 March 2016. The exhibition will also launch a new monograph of the same name from academics Helena Grehan and Edward Scheer.

William Yang is an Australian photographer and performance artist who often makes work that investigates his identity as a gay Chinese Australian. Working for over 40 years, Yang explores themes such as sexual expression and social politics, the emergence of Sydney’s gay community in the 1980s as well as investigates his Chinese heritage and family.

The exhibition 「Stories of Love and Death」 at Sydney’s Stills Gallery presents a collection of his photographs, ranging from works overlayed with written notes to portraits of celebrities such as Patrick White, Brett Whiteley and Cate Blanchett.

Yang’s first solo exhibition in 1977, which depicted the Sydney gay and party scene, attracted much attention for its frank portrayal. He was able to capture the wild mood of these events through his involvement in the community. As a result of this exhibition, Yang was recognised as a photographer to watch, and he hasn’t stopped since, exhibiting in solo and group shows across Asia, Australia, Europe and North America.

His work has been collected by a number of prestigious institutions, including the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Museum of Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Australia, National Portrait Gallery and Queensland Art Gallery, among others. In 2009 he was also a contributor to 「The China Project at the Gallery of Modern Art」 in Brisbane, an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art practice.

In an interview about his work, Yang explained:

I think my photography is extremely simple. I’m not looking for complex things…I just want people to reveal themselves in an intimate way […] the portraits themselves are not spectacular and, in fact, if I presented a single one of those images people might even think that […] they’re not glamorous enough but I think the strength is just trying to let the person show through, not me but the person.

From the late 1980s Yang also began to work with performance, integrating monologues with slide projections. It is perhaps not surprising that his work turned in this direction, given that he was involved in theatre early in his career. Whether it is through performance or photography, what drives Yang’s work is his capacity for telling stories.

In many of his photographic portraits, for example, he overlays the image with handwritten anecdotes that create an extra layer of meaning. It is a way for the artist to appear from behind the camera and talk directly to the audience through his own handwritten notes.

Another key aspect of Yang’s work is his investigation of his Chinese heritage. Yang’s grandparents migrated from China to Australia in the 1880s, but much of his family history had been overshadowed by the need to assimilate to Australian culture in North Queensland. In the 1980s Yang began to uncover this history, making trips to China and drawing inspiration from Chinese philosophy.