The Pit, London EC2
Opened 5 November, 2003

"I'm not very good at fast talking," says William Yang. He's referring to having to come up with a plausible excuse off the cuff, but the laugh he gets is because he seems to be describing his own delivery. The Chinese-Australian playwright-turned-photographer-turned-monologist's speech, in his monologue with slide projection Shadows, is not monotonous, quite; but it is evenly paced and pitched, calm, almost gnomic. He slowly draws links between the depredations suffered by Australian aborigines, the internment of German-Australians during the world wars, the Holocaust itself and the attitudes of modern Germany and modern Australia to their darker histories.

His entire piece is understated. His photography is more observational than aesthetic, more concerned with recording than with visual composition. In this respect, he has a keen eye. The language of Yang's narrative is similarly precise but similarly restrained; his words serve to put the images in context rather than as a force in themselves. All the components words, speech, pictures are of a piece in terms of perspective and presentation. The trouble is that at least one of these elements needs to be cranked up in order to make Shadows work as a performance, to give the event a status of its own rather than just being a means of getting the material over to us.

There are individual powerful moments: the account of a massacre of indigenous Australians takes place in front of slides of the bones of a child's hand, in the red sand of the site of the atrocity. But only in the final fifteen of the show's 90 minutes do threads begin to come together, and even then it's only a few which are actually tied up, leaving other episodes as interesting but ultimately tangential background. Right at the end, he says in as many words, "This piece is about reconciliation and race, and its negative aspect racism"... fine, but if the piece had really been doing its job, we shouldn't have needed it spelt out.

On several occasions my attention wandered from Yang and his slides to musician Colin Offord, sitting in semi-darkness upstage, performing his haunting score on a curious "sonic sculpture" of his own devising: part guitar, part cello, part sitar, perhaps even part didgeridoo. When an odd musical instrument is more interesting than genocide, there's a problem somewhere.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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