Blood Links traces William Yang’s scattered family’s migration from China to Australia over a hundred years ago. Defying conventional theater, Yang presents an intimate monologue with over 500 slide images that explores the ties which bind families. Yang is one of Australia’s most respected artists and a world-renowned photographer. Asia Society spoke to Yang about his autobiographical works and career as a perfomance artist.
Blood Links traces your family across several generations and regions. What inspired you to reflect on your family history?
It was a slow evolution because Blood Links is actually my third piece on my family. The very first performance piece I did in 1989 was a collection of nine short stories and photo essays. My mother had started to show me photos of my family and tell me stories. That story about my family was the most popular of the nine stories so I knew it was a theme that people found interesting.
My next piece called Sadness included two stories about my family. It also covered stories about the AIDS epidemic. When I was doing documentary photography in Sydney, I realized I was going to more and more wakes and funerals. This was during the height of the AIDS epidemic and so I went with that topic and used it as one of my stories.
Sadness was very successful as a piece, which I didn't expect, and it toured Australia and the world. After that I did a piece called The North and it was about my childhood in North Queensland. The North should have been in Sadness but I didn't have enough space to really store it so I did another whole piece. It was successful too. It was less confrontational than Sadness and people liked that. But I have now taken it off my repetoire because the material has been overtaken by Blood Links.
Blood Links is the story after my mother died and it is about my family scattered around the world - relatives just linked by blood, but still connected. The perfomance is mainly set in Australia and the United States but I also visit China.
I read that it was later in your life that you became more interested in your Chinese heritage. Growing up did you feel fully assimilated into white Australian society or was there a sense of being an outsider?
It was a bit of all those things. But colonialism is really the key issue here. I grew up in Australia in the '50s and my mother wanted us to be Western and she brought us up that way. So I suppose that the Chinese side of me was always unacknowledged. It wasn't all because of my mother's attitude but it was cultural as well. At that time Australia wanted people to assimilate and to speak English. If you spoke a foreign language you were mocked. That happened with other immigrant groups like the Italians. It was very much a monoculture. Australia only really became multicultural in the '70s. So I grew up feeling uncomfortable about being Chinese. But when I was 35 years old I met a teacher from Taiwan who taught me Taoism and it was through my engagement with Chinese philosophy that I began to embrace my Chinese heritage. That was the beginning of the process that led me to research the Chinese in Australia and start doing these pieces.
How would you compare Chinese Americans and Chinese Australians back home?
I can't really say in terms of my family. But in general, Americans are more conscious of the politics of race than Australians because of the black movement in the United States. For example when I first became aware of the word "racism" I thought it only applied to black Americans. But later I realized it has meaning for the Chinese as well. I think the main difference is that Chinese Americans are more politicized as a result of black politics in America.
Is it difficult to create a public work with very personal photographs about your family? How do your relatives receive your work? Do they agree with the way they are portrayed?
It is not hard for me because I am a public figure and all my work is personal. I am used to that public process. But I think it is a bit hard on my relatives sometimes. They are ordinary people and I make them see themselves on the big screen. At its best, they can see that they are part of a wider story and my work is really a homage to the family. At its worst, they argue with me and they feel slighted or I don't fulfill their image of themselves. But that happened anyway when I was a photographer.