On the wall facing the Mardi Gras images we leave the party and arrive at the dark side, with the photo sequence Allan, from the Sadness series of 1990. This series tells the story of young man battling AIDS in 19 disarmingly direct portraits. In the first image, Allan is already in hospital, after having contracted the virus. In the pictures that follow we jump back and forth in time. Having seen him fresh-faced and smiling in an earlier photo, it’s gruelling to watch as he is prematurely aged by the illness, getting thinner and sicker. In the penultimate photo he is a corpse; in the last he is healthy and smiling again, as his friends would want to remember him.
Allan was a landmark for Yang and for Australian documentary photography. The combination of simple, unadorned portrait photos and diaristic, handwritten commentary made each viewer feel intimately acquainted with the subject. The step-by-step progress towards death puts us on the alert for every passing emotion in Allan’s face – he is sad, stoical, cheerful, grim, frivolous and heroic by turns. At the end of his life he has become an empty husk. It’s a devastating slice of reality smuggled into an art gallery, a piece that stops viewers in their tracks every time it’s shown.
The solemn nature of Allan’s story stands in marked contrast to the social page snapshots that earned Yang a living. There was a time when he seemed to be everywhere, shooting pictures of celebrities and socialites.
Much of this work was disposable but once again there are more than enough good shots to fill a large wall. The best of them succeed as portraits, alongside Yang’s more deliberately composed examples of the genre. There are memorable images of Helen Garner, Cate Blanchett, David Gulpilil, a young, freckle-faced Cressida Campbell and an old, grumpy Patrick White, homosexual but never gay.
Yang’s profile went to another level when he began combining images and words into performances that harked back to his love of theatre. Most of these pieces were hardly more than sophisticated slide shows but they have proved incredibly popular. Yang had discovered the power of storytelling.
With his own life as his subject, he has given us detailed accounts of his family and his childhood; he has looked back on his years in the midst of Sydney’s gay community; he has charted his first journey to China in search of a heritage from which he feels linguistically excluded.
Although Yang’s main themes and preoccupations are clearly spelt out in this retrospective, it’s surprising to learn of his devotion to landscape photography. Like most of his subjects, his landscapes are tied to his biography as Yang revisits the places where he grew up, looking at them through the eyes of a man who has put a lifetime’s experience between himself and his birthplace.
In his photographs and performances, Yang sticks closely to the self but his focus is never crudely narcissistic.
If audiences have responded positively to his work it’s not just because his personal story is uncommonly interesting, it’s the way in which it has been related. Yang is an anti-hero in his own narratives, vulnerable and self-mocking. He portrays himself as drifting on the sea of fate, muddling through rather than taking command. He confesses his weaknesses and anxieties, his youthful mistakes and the tensions in his family.
The remarkable outcome of this approach is that the tale of a gay, ethnicallyChinese man from FNQ allows everyone to find points of identification.
As Yang pitches his private stories into the public realm, he draws the public into his own world. All of us have similar stories – memories of our own families, about leaving the country for the city, about becoming aware of one’s difference and learning to cope with that knowledge.
We have our own landscapes that we carry around in our minds, a gallery of missing friends, a personal list of life-changing moments, of triumphs and regrets.
By focusing on his own life, Yang has produced a body of work that speaks a universal language, inviting us to forget about those differences that are only skin deep and reflect on the things that are truly important.
John McDonald travelled to Brisbane courtesy of the Queensland Art Gallery.
William Yang: Seeing & Being Seen, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, until August 22.
Start your day informed
Our Morning Edition newsletter is a curated guide to the most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up to The Sydney Morning Herald’s newsletter here, The Age’s here, Brisbane Times’ here, and WAtoday’s here.
John McDonald is an art critic and regular columnist with Good Weekend.