Given our emphasis on the art of story, there is no more fitting person than master storyteller William Yang to close this year’s Writers Week. So we thought we’d ask the Sydney photographer, filmmaker, writer and spoken word artist to tell us more about himself, his work and what we can expect from his show Words and Image on Sunday February 25.
PF: Your work is perhaps not as familiar to West Australians as it is to those living on the east coast. How would you best describe your written, spoken and photographic art and its chief sources of inspiration?
WY: I started as a documentary photographer in the ‘70s. Photography was the new art form then, and I identified as an artist photographer. I worked freelance for 15 years, just doing the jobs that I could do, that I could get people to pay me for. Then in the ‘80s I started to do slide projection. There is a natural tendency to talk with the projected images, so it became a performance in theatres. I had to make a huge adjustment, from coming behind the camera as a photographer, to metaphorically standing in front of the camera. I didn’t find this easy, but like everything you get used to doing it and gradually I lost my nervousness of speaking in public. My performance pieces generated enough money for me to live on, so I didn’t have to work freelance for others. This meant I could devote all my time to my own work.
Besides being a performer, I have kept exhibiting in galleries as a visual artist. In the ‘90s, after I had had success as a storyteller, I realised that many of my images had stories and I began to write these stories directly onto the prints so my handwriting became part of my art form. They say that a picture is better than a thousand words and while there is some truth in this, I think that context and words can help you enter into a picture and help you figure out what a picture is about.
Some of the first written works I did were about sexual encounters I had in the ‘70s, although I didn’t actually write on the prints until the ‘90s. Some of my encounters were really good stories and I have continued to create works about my relationships with men, but none have the excitement of that time in the ‘70s, when I first discovered sex during the heady days of Gay Liberation.
Family was another area which lent itself to stories and text. I have a Chinese background, although I was born in Australia, as were my parents. I have made a documentary history of my family’s journey in Australia since the 1880s, when both my grandfathers came to Northern Australia during that second-wave gold rush. Issues of race and being marginalised are complex and I have found that words help me explain them.
PF: Your presentation Words and Image will close this year’s Writers Week. What can audiences expect to see and hear in the show?
WY: Viewers of my talk Words and Image can see me live on stage. I have made films of three of my pieces, but the live performance is absolutely the best manifestation of my work. Viewers can expect to see projected images of my art work, on which I have written, and to hear me tell my stories. One is about an encounter I had with Joe, a person I met in a nightclub.
'The music was loud so I leant over to shout my opening line. He shook his head and pointed to his ears and I immediately understood that he was deaf.'
There are stories about my relationship with my mother and how the murder of my uncle, William Fang Yuen, in 1922, has haunted our relationship. I had a friendship with Patrick White over the last 14 years of his life. He was famous for being a curmudgeon but I reveal a lighter, more humorous side of him. Lastly, there is my most famous series about Allan, a young man who was once my boyfriend and who died of AIDS in 1990. So the stories are mostly autobiographical, and all have been vivid experiences in my life.
The performances with images have become the most successful aspect of my work as an artist. I’ve done 11 full length works and I’ve developed my own method of telling stories with images. I call it the Yang Method and I do storytelling workshops. Over the past six years I’ve done many with Annette Shun Wah for Contemporary Asian Australian Performance (CAAP). I’ll talk a bit about my method of storytelling with photos. It’s a spoken form, I never let my storytellers write the stories, they have to speak them, it’s a more direct form of communication.
PF: How do you think our notions of Australian identity have changed since you first started working as a photographer?
WY: When I was growing up, Australian cultural identity was mainly British-based, certainly white, with some Aboriginal stories uncomfortably reminding us of our past. Multicultural stories began to appear in the ‘90s. The ‘Wogs’ came first but I was one of the first Chinese, albeit Australian-born Chinese, to tell a Chinese story. Everyone had known about a Chinese presence in Australia – there was a Chinese restaurant in every town from Broome to Barcaldine – but no one had heard a story told by a Chinese person. Things have gotten a lot better since then. We at CAAP are always pressing for more representation of diverse cultures on our screens and stages, and by and large this is happening, but there is also a rise in the Alt Right with its racist platform. We live in a very divided world where there is much discontent. On issues of race things are getting better, in that there is more social acceptance of difference, and worse, in that people of a different race are being blamed for degrading the country.
PF: What have you been reading lately?
WY: I’ve just read Cory Taylor’s Dying: A Memoir. It’s broken up into roughly four parts. The first is about the physical indignity of dying of cancer, where she contemplates suicide. Then she tells the mother’s story. Her mother was the black sheep of family of four siblings, when she ran off with the handsome pilot. The parents left the family station to the boy, the girls got nothing, and that has been a thorn in the side of the mother who already had a hard life. Then there’s the father’s story. He was troubled and a bastard and made everyone’s life miserable. Finally, there’s her own story, which was hard as well. She married a Japanese man and has two sons – that was happy. Out of these broken shards comes a story of grace and courage. She sets the scenes deftly and doesn’t overstate her case. It’s a short book, but she’s made her life a gift for us. I read a lot of books about death and dying, it helps me overcome the fear of death and the unknown. You can expect a generous serving of death in any of my pieces.
Buy tickets for Words and Image here