Curating a career’s work like watching life flash before your eyes

Seeing and Being Seen traces five decades of photography and performance art by William Yang, who sees the narrative of his life play out on the walls of the Queensland Art Gallery – from Sydney’s gay liberation movement to ‘coming out’ as Chinese.

Mar 30, 2021, updated Mar 30, 2021
William Yang's Self Portrait #5, 2008
(Image: William Yang)

William Yang's Self Portrait #5, 2008 (Image: William Yang)

The exhibition is the first major survey of Yang’s work to be presented at an Australian state gallery and contains more than 250 works which will be displayed until 22nd August.

Yang told InQueensland that his exhibition Seeing and Being Seen centres the eye as the driving force of his career.

“Photography for me is the art of seeing, whereas being seen is a reference to the social photography element.

“There is a political undercurrent to it, as a gay person and as a person of Chinese origins, being seen, speaking, and talking is all a political act,” he said.

The exhibition includes Yang’s documentation of the gay liberation movement in Sydney during the 1970’s and his own reckoning with being a Chinese immigrant growing up in far north Queensland.

“I never consciously came out as a gay man, I was swept out by events at the time. I realised that being visible is very important.

“I think that the most effective way of changing people’s minds is actually just to be visible,” he said.

Yang told InQueensland he felt his ethnicity as a third-generation Chinese immigrant was suppressed moreso than his identity as a gay man.

“Twelve years after I came out as a gay man, I realised that being gay, one’s sexuality is suppressed, but also being Chinese in Australia, it is like your ethnicity is suppressed,” he said.

“I felt quite strongly that my mother suppressed my ethnicity because she thought being Chinese was a complete liability. And so, there was a kind of cultural suppression that occurs when you are Other.

“I consciously came out when I embraced my Chinese heritage, I came out as a Chinese.”

Chinese New Year party Year of the Rabbit, Asian, Lesbian and Gay Pride, 1999. (Image: William Yang)

The exhibition was curated with Rosie Hays, Associate Curator at Australian Cinémathèque, QAGOMA, which was a process that began years ago and covers the main themes of Yang’s work.

Yang said they began by putting the works into sections in order to manage the thousands of images –  the segments developed into themes such as Chinese identity, LGBTQI+ represented by Mardis Gras and the male body, landscape photography, and social portraiture.

Hays said Yang’s identity as a Chinese-Australian, a gay man and artist informs his marginalised experience.

“While the stories and images included in the exhibition are quite specific to William’s life, the emotions underpinning them are instantly recognisable and acutely relatable,” Hays said.

“There is confession and courage in William’s storytelling. His most well-known works are often deeply personal and represent the means by which he reckons with his past, his relationships, and his experience outside the mainstream.”

“Alpha”, Late 1960s (Image: William Yang)

Yang said it has been a wonderful process because it has allowed him to look back over his life and five decades of work he has accumulated.

“Everything to me is about making sense. It has been illuminating for me to look at my various photographs and to select them.

“Narrative is a big part of my photography, storytelling and narrative are two major issues in my work. And it is good to see my life makes sense on the walls,” he said.

“I think I’m a better storyteller than a photographer, because storytelling means that you have to organise things into a narrative which is a special skill.

“I don’t really think I’ve got any special skills as a photographer – I’m okay. But it’s just that the stories within my work are more unique.”

Yang’s work became internationally renowned as he began to mix mediums in the 1980’s, combining a pioneering method of slideshows, performance art, and written work.

“If you want to see my work, you couldn’t do better than to come and see a performance. I’m there in person which is an important element.

“With written work, for example, I am only there in my handwriting, but on stage I can present it.

“The best way I’d like people to remember my work is to have seen a live performance.”

William Yang: Seeing and Being Seen is now open at the Queensland Art Gallery and will run until 22nd August. For more information, visit QAGOMA’s website.

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