3 October, Parlour Projects
Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival 2017

Against a backdrop of artworks on the theme of face and place, local playwright Puti Lancaster (Edge of a Raindrop, The Contours of Heaven) came together to share space, breath and story with celebrated photo essayist William Yang. Lancaster’s powerful mihi whakatau and lyrical introduction set the tone for the evening – a deep and articulate chronicling of the evolution of Yang’s work, and of the process and practice of storytelling.

Yang’s progress from student of architecture, to impoverished playwright, to commercial photographer, to pioneering his own brand of performance art, is mirrored in his awakening interest in reclaiming his Chinese heritage. He unabashedly declares his younger self to be culturally assimilated and superficial – choosing to photograph the most attractive, most famous, most marketable subjects. Then his mother, who had erstwhile denied their origins, brought out a box of photographs and began to talk. What followed was a debouching of image and story, culminating in his piece, About My Mother.

Through his process of artistic and spiritual evolution, he learned to find value and beauty in recording marginalised people, and consciously documenting the communities they create. Now, he holds workshops to enable others to examine their own lives and construct personal photojournalistic narratives. He’s done just this right here in Hawke’s Bay, in preparation for a performance on Friday in which five locals will say their pieces before he presents some of his work. He’s called it The Story Only I Can Tell, in reference to an assertion by Nobel laureate, Isaac Bashevis Singer, that a literary appeal to everyman is pointless, but rather, that in telling one’s own unique tale, paradoxically, it becomes universally relevant.

Together, Yang and Lancaster tease apart the elements and importance of story – the myth of objectivity; the paramountcy of experience over fact; the catharsis of unpacking memory, moving through emotional release to resolution. Yang’s process of distillation of a lifetime into a coherent thread, anchored by images is fascinating. A central tenet is first to listen. He firmly believes that a good yarn will be received by most with compassion and a hunger for connection. Perhaps the hard part is the hook with which to draw people in. Yang admits that he first conceived of his audio visual performances as a way to combine his love for photography and theatre. Whereas exhibition viewers were sometimes fickle, unwilling to commit to a deeper communion with the artist, with a performance piece, once someone had paid to attend they were paying attention.

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