William Yang’s photographs have a quality of ordinariness about them. By that I don’t mean the Australian use of the term ‘ordinary’ as actually meaning ‘not good at all’. I mean that a lot of Yang’s photographs resemble the snapshots that a lot of us take: his flash reflects off windows back into the lens, he frames a lot of his subjects centrally, he either uses a self timer or hands the camera to someone else to get a shot of himself in front of some monument. This is not the case with all his photography, but there is a sense that the way he frames the world is one that is familiar to anyone who’s ever been on holiday. Matthew I., a friend who’s seen Yang at work, made the point that this visual quality is suggestive of Yang being there, being involved in the scene that he’s documenting. Yang is as much involved in the conversations and meals that he photographs as anyone else present. Yang is a kind of documentary photographer; he’s a memoirist, I suppose.
What turns William Yang’s photographs into events for an audience is the way he edits them together into a monologue with slide show and soundtrack. For his current show, China, he has gathered images from various visits to China into one narrative. I caught this a few nights ago in Adelaide; the show is also on its way to the Melbourne Festival in October. Anyone who’s seen Yang’s other work will be familiar with his themes and allusions: for example, his concern about being an Australian Chinese who can’t really speak Mandarin, or his keen eye for attractive men. He doesn’t tell us anything really new with this show, and in fact some of his ruminations on what his experiences mean are left a little undeveloped in comparison with earlier work. But the way he starts with a trip to China, introduces us to a character, makes a detour into the reasons for an earlier trip, and returns to the present story made more significant for the meandering – the narrative logic is gently compelling.
Image: Heidrun Löhr and John Sones
My own part-Chinese heritage makes me curious about how he negotiates his Chinese-ness. This is a stumbling, but sometimes satisfying thing for Yang. One time at a factory he writes a note in the official visitors’ book that’s more personal that the usual exhortations, and gets quite a warm response from the workers. He pauses about whether to write his name in Chinese characters. Feeling the weight of a calligraphic tradition of visual beauty that makes his own hand seem childish, he writes anyway. He feels like he’s returned to his second home. Another time in Nanjing, his guide rails against the Japanese and says that he wouldn’t understand because he’s “not Chinese”. China does seem a place to which he must return, though, for pilgrimages that are as much spiritual as personal. One of the threads of his story is his journey to China’s sacred mountains. On Huangshan, the Yellow Mountain, he gets guided up by a group of teenage boys who treat him affectionately like a beloved uncle or grandfather.
What I also find interesting in China is Yang’s use of video in his projections. Most of the visual material is still photographs, and the first transition to moving images is simple and breathtaking. Now and then, especially on the walks up the mountains, he shows us what he sees with video. What do the moving images reveal? Here, at any rate, they indicate the nature of some of relationships he encounters, like the friendly respect of the teenagers I mentioned earlier. On another mountain, more video shows him with another young guide showing him a prayer ritual. With the crowds and chatter in the air, these interactions aren’t silent, but because the communication with Yang is through gestures rather than words, they are mute. And in the end, they are simple, and beautiful, and moving.