William Yang, the Chinese-Australian performance artistby Samantha Ellis / November 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
When William Yang started taking photographs in the 1970s, he set out to document Sydney’s gay subculture. In New York, Nan Goldin was taking similar, snatched snapshots of Bowery drag queens. But whereas Goldin’s images are beautiful and vulnerable, Yang’s are blank, hurried, even cold; social reportage captured without time for composition. In the 1980s, Yang started staging one-man shows, which occupied a space somewhere between photography and performance art. With a mode of performance as affectless as his images, he developed a form of presentation made to match his deeper subject: the banal detritus of migration. Where Goldin had collaged her pictures into a slideshow with songs called “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” Yang looked for inspiration to the American monologist Spalding Gray, who performs his sprawling stories at a desk with a UN-style microphone and a bottle of water. Last year, I watched Yang’s show Blood Links with some suspicion. For 100 minutes, he flashed up slides of his family and told us basic facts-little more than houses and spouses. He delivered his commentary in a blank monotone, staring impassively through the pauses. Performance artists often skate perilously close to mere introversion. When London’s Bobby Baker rolls around in jelly and smashed eggs, she seems to want to be alone with her memories. When Italian Franko B cuts himself and displays his stigmata, the combination of pain and ritual repels the audience, turning them into voyeurs. But these artists are a million miles from the shy and gawky Yang, who dresses like a businessman. The more I watched, the more hypnotic Blood Links became. His monologue sounded like it had been badly translated, but this came to seem a deft metaphor for his family’s translation from one culture to another. The dull, inconsequential details accumulated into an elegaic portrait of chance displacement. Yang’s family has moved twice. His grandfather migrated from China to Australia in the 1880s, in the second gold rush. Half the family then moved to north Queensland when one of the daughters married. Yang lives in Sydney. He does not expect audiences to follow the convoluted moves and genealogy; he has, he says, “embraced fragmentation” and the fragments are all there is to document a family’s deracinations. His distant relatives do not know each other-for some, he is the only link. The shows are a sharp reminder that the reality of migration is not a grand global theme, but a mess of minor details. Even spellings become crucial; it was only when he “came out Chinese,” and decided to reverse assimilation, that William Young changed his surname. “Young” may have been an anglicisation of a Chinese name, but family records don’t go back that far. For all he knows, “Yang” could be as faux-Chinese as “Young” was wannabe-Australian. Researching Blood Links, Yang found that his relatives had assimilated beyond his expectations; his cousins are half-Italian, half-Vietnamese, half-Latvian. In one startling sequence, he flashed up picture after picture until the faces seemed to merge, dissolving into a composite portrait-the melting pot in action. It’s this ease with multiculturalism which drives his new show, Shadows. He has, he says, “run out of stories” about his family, so he turns to other Australian communities whose context has radically shifted: German migrants, who were treated badly during both world wars, and Aborigines. The photographs have become more beautiful (he’s escaped all those living rooms), but the delivery is, apparently, as deadpan as ever.
“Shadows” is at the Barbican from 5th-15th November