The Yang Principle

4 minute read
Sharon Verghis

As a gay Australian of chinese descent, William Yang is intimately acquainted with the world of the outsider. Over the past 30 years, the award-winning photographer and performance artist has been quietly telling an alternate story of Australia, one inhabited by the displaced and marginalized — from AIDS victims to Aboriginal Outback tribes to the little-known Chinese settler communities dotting remote rural areas.

Yang, whose work has featured at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, has also told a more joyful, hedonistic tale of the country, capturing its gay and party scenes, and its key cultural figures, from the late Nobel Prize – winning author Patrick White to actress Cate Blanchett. From Sept. 19-25, he will showcase 16 prints of Sydney gay life at the Pingyao International Photography Festival in northern China’s Shanxi province, while next February a major new work, My Generation, commissioned by Australia’s National Portrait Gallery and based on the Sydney art scene of the 1970s and ’80s, will be unveiled as part of Sydney’s Mardi Gras.

(See pictures of the gay rights movement.)

Yang is excited about his Pingyao debut, if a little uncertain about how some of the raunchier images — of naked bodies and nude men embracing — will be received by the country’s conservative art establishment. The photos, he says, are “all kind of vaguely erotic, without being in-your-face. What I wanted to do was open up a discussion about homosexuality, which is something that’s not talked about much [in China].”

(Read “Why Asia’s Gays are Starting to Win Acceptance.”)

Born William Young in northern Queensland in 1943, Yang grew up in Dimbulah, a tiny tobacco-farming town, with no connection to his Chinese heritage. His grandparents emigrated from China in the 1880s, and his family was completely assimilated — he and his siblings spoke only English. At 6, after a white schoolmate called him “Ching Chong Chinaman,” Yang went home upset and asked his mother if he was Chinese. She gravely told him yes. “I knew in that instant,” Yang writes on his website, “that being Chinese was a terrible curse.”

He was very much a cultural misfit at high school in Cairns — he describes his time there as the worst years of his life. “I desperately wanted to fit in but there was no way that I could, not with the way I looked. Also, I knew I was gay but didn’t understand what that was.” He went on to study architecture at the University of Queensland, where a love for theater was sparked, and moved to Sydney in 1969. Yang tried to make a living as a playwright but found it too difficult, so he switched to photography, holding his first solo exhibition, Sydneyphiles, at the Australian Centre for Photography in 1977. “It was very successful and that one exhibition established me as a photographer of the scene, both the glamorous celebrity set and the darker, underground gay scene which was becoming visible.”

(See pictures of Australian Aborigines.)

At 35, he started searching for his lost Chinese ancestry by researching his immediate family and the history of the Chinese in Australia, and in 1983 he changed his surname from Young to Yang in a symbolic reclamation of his identity. “I described it as a kind of coming out as Chinese,” he says. “It was a big thing for me to embrace.” His first trip to China was in 1989. “The people welcomed me — they said, ‘You’ve come back, you’ve come back home.’ It was incredibly meaningful and moving.”

Much of his art since has explored this cultural heritage, and it is among the key themes of perhaps his best-known work — 1992’s critically acclaimed Sadness, one of seven dramatic monologues featuring photographic slide shows. His work strikes a chord with the wider Australian community because “Australians wonder about [displacement] a lot. For so many here, there’s a homeland across the seas.” His images of Australia’s long Chinese history — its shrines, graves and old gold-mining settlements — are also eye-opening for many viewers. “Most people had not heard a Chinese-Australian story told from the Chinese point of view. I think my stories were some of the first to be told in the mainstream.”

These days, Yang has become part of Australia’s artistic mainstream himself, witnessing along the way an evolution in the country’s attitude toward its minorities, particularly gays and Asians. He also notices more tolerance and diversity. “It’s a slow process,” he says. “There’s always some resistance to change, but if the new attitudes hang around for long enough, then people start to accept them.”

Read “Australia: Glimpses of the Past.”

Read “The Real Australia.”

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