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‘Otherness’ in a world of Kiwi male stereotypes: Grant Lingard’s ‘Strange bedfellows’

Jeremiah Boniface explores the work of Grant Lingard, whose practice in the early 1990s focused on addressing issues of sexuality and concepts of masculinity.

Strange Bedfellows is indeed strange. 

Even stranger is its inclusion in the art collection of the national museum. Why would Te Papa want to have four flagons, inscribed with letterset poems, on four plinths is its collection? What does it mean, and why does it matter?

Four large bottles containing beer stand on four plinths

Caption

Grant Lingard, Strange bedfellows, 1993, glass, metal, vinyl lettering, beer, wooden plinths. Te Papa (1996-0030-1/A-H TO H)

Smells Like Team Spirit: rugby and ‘otherness’

To uncover this odd mystery, we need to go back a few decades and consider who made this, why they made it, where it came from and why it was considered important enough to be brought for the national art collection, despite a rocky reception.

The who is simple. It was made by Grant Lingard (1961-1995) in 1993 as part of an exhibition he called Smells Like Team Spirit. Grant was a West Coast kid (he was born in Blackball), who wanted to make art that questioned the status quo, to work through issues of his sexuality and gender in a way that gave his audiences the opportunity to not only see where he was coming from, but to allow them to be part of a conversation and make meaning for themselves. All while using everyday objects that, when placed into a gallery setting, shapeshifted from domestic nothings into meaningful somethings. Grant had been working with materials outside the artistic norm since his first show outside art school. Planks of wood, preserving jars, and evening makeup had become his material of choice.

Smells Like Team Spirit was originally shown in 1993 at the Jonathan Jensen Gallery in Christchurch. It consisted of five works all based on that quintessential ‘Kiwi Man’ staple, the game of rugby. Not that Grant was a player, or did he ever find success on a rugby field. For him, the collective works talked about his exclusion from the game, and his ‘otherness’ of traditional kiwi male stereotypes.

The materiality of these collective works reads more like a shopping list than art supplies. Flagons and lettersets. Sunlight soap and a bucket. Undies and a broom. Sand and a set of little plastic figures. Mummy’s Boy is a pair of rugby boots made from sunlight soap. Ball Boy (anatomical study) is a plastic bucket filled with sand with eight putdowns written on plastic cards. Hutch and Lure, 10 pairs of Jockey Y-fronts with Sunlight soap-shaped fruit stuffed in them. Clean Sweep, a broom with the bristles replaced with 15 gold-painted drummer-boy figures. And Strange Bedfellows.

It wasn’t the first time Grant had used rugby as a departure point for his work. Hutch and Lure had been exhibited in a show at The Works Gallery in Sydney as part of the Mardi Gras festival earlier that year, accompanied by Sin Bin (1993), a bench with boot sprigs coming up front the seat.

In Smells Like Team Spirit, Grant successfully met a challenge he had set himself in 1985 when he spoke of his first exhibition outside art school, Skeletons:

“This exhibition is a continuation of my attempt to visually interpret personal feelings and experiences. To develop these into a visual language that can be learned and understood by others. It is about communication. For me what underlies all art is that it is done by people for people and people don’t vary that much, basic needs and desires, fears and uncertainties. By presenting the visual evidence of my own investigations I can only hope it is of benefit to others as it has been to myself.”[1]

By focusing on the (at the time) distance between a marginalised culture (either the gay kid, or the wimp), and the prevalent masc rugby culture, Grant almost forced his audience to see the repressed and bullying nature of rugby’s own (homoerotic) elements. He wanted to suggest that just because he came from a different perspective, why was his masculinity seen as less than?

A pair of rugby boots carved out of bright yellow soap

Caption

Grant Lingard, Mummy’s boy – smells like team spirit, about 1995, soap. Presented to the Gallery by the estates of Grant Lingard and Peter Lanini, 1998. Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū (99/43.1-2)

Looking at the ‘poems’ on each of the flagons of Strange Bedfellows, the first three flagons have putdowns for gay men (‘faggot’, ‘poo pusher’, ‘queer’, ‘bum boy’, etc.), but on the fourth there is a shift in tone – it reads ‘father, daydreamer, he man, slave, playboy, hero, master’ – all roles that are sexually empowered through various aspects of gay cultures.

Initial response: ‘A hard show to fathom’

When it was first reviewed, Smells Like Team Spirit was ripped apart by Pat Unger, writing for the Press. She described the exhibition as ‘novel, if taxing’, and Lingard a ‘maverick installationist’. For her, Smells Like Team Spirit was ‘both a superficially funny, and, at crux, a hard show to fathom’:

“… By striking one sub-culture against another, audience inclusion relied mainly on communication on joke-level, leaving many viewers, perhaps expecting a more serious discourse, unfulfilled. … At best it made humour – always controlled – the password for limited entry into these two lifestyles. Any bid to elect sympathy for emotive issues, such as fear of AIDs [sic] or victimization, was absent.”[2]

The addition of any dialogue about AIDS was perhaps relevant to some of Grant’s practice, as he had been diagnosed in the late 80s, but did it really have any place in an exhibition clearly based on rugby, divergent masculinities, and what that could mean in early-90s New Zealand? Unger used her inches to focus on what she perceived as a dangerous turn in the art world brought about by the 1993 Whitney Biennial.

Later described as when ‘Identity Politics Changed the Art World’ it was a period of rapid change in the art system, of the 90s-era culture wars, and a time when marginalised voices forced themselves on the mainstream. Calling on the stalwart of an older approach to the study of art, Robert Hughes, Unger repeated his words when she quoted his Times magazine piece where he called that paradigm shift:

“[A] long-winded immersion course in marginality – the only cultural condition, as far as its reborn curators are concerned, that matters in the 90s. Instead of Artists as Star we have Artist as Victim or Victim’s representative. Artists are represented as witnesses. Witnesses to what?... To their own feelings of exclusion. To a world made bad for blacks, Latinos, gays, lesbians and women in general.”

Unger finished by making the shocking call that ‘Victim bias is well established in New Zealand’.

They are shocking words in today’s climate, for sure, but this displays some of the response to not only Grant’s work at the time, but also the reality of work made by pretty much anyone from or reflecting a marginalised background. It wasn’t all bad though, with Justin Paton describing Smells Like Team Spirit as confirming ‘...Lingard’s reputation as a maker of concise, funny and socially meaningful objects.’[3]

Art Now and a wider audience

In July 1993, Christina Barton, Curator of Contemporary Art at the then titled Museum of New Zealand (MONZ), wrote to Grant to ask if he would be interested in including Smells Like Team Spirit in an upcoming exhibition she was working on entitled Art Now, which was intended to be a biannual survey of contemporary New Zealand art practice. She was ‘very impressed’ with the images Grant’s gallery had sent through, and wanted to include all five works from Smells Like Team Spirit, or another work.

Grant was over the moon, saying that Smells Like Team Spirit was ‘perhaps the most successful installation’ he had made to date, and that he was keen for it to see a wider audience. Grant went on to say that Smells Like Team Spirit was the culmination of five years’ work investigating the term ‘masculinity’. In a letter to Barton he positioned himself outside the standard male gendered role because of his homosexuality:

“…[H]ow easy it is to be left without a sense of self, to simply assimilate a culture (that is, rugby culture) that does not acknowledge or make room for me, although attracts me for reasons different yet equally strong. Smells like team spirit is less a parody of the straight ‘he-man’ than a questioning of those who don’t fit the mould.”[4]

His dad once told me that this othering he assumed was due to his mother’s death when Grant was 13, and he had to assume the duties of housewife for his father until he went to art school. His friends also told me that his focus on rugby as the stand-in for male was due to his dad’s preference for his older brother who was not only good at rugby, but also followed his dad down the mines. It’s this distance from the norm, combined with his sexuality, that Smells Like Team Spirit stemmed from.

Increasing popularity

Grant had been living in Sydney since the late 80s, had felt like he was becoming just another gay artist, and his sickness was worsening. But 1994 changed that, and his own perception of himself as an artist. Aside from his inclusion in Art Now, he returned to Christchurch as the Ilam Artist-in-Residence, the outcome of which was the hastily produced exhibition Coop, but there were many other concerns for Lingard during that year.

Despite failing health, he prepared for six shows, all with breakneck turn-around times. There was the group show Breathless (Teststrip, Auckland) in February; the residency resulting in May’s Coop; a week after Coop closed, the group show Tales Untold: Unearthing Christchurch Histories (South Island Arts Project, Christchurch) opened; a week after Tales Untold closed, Art Now opened in Wellington; he was part of the group show Sugar Lift (School of Fine Arts, Ilam); and he also had work in Stimulus to Style (CSA Gallery, Christchurch).

Another round of Strange Bedfellows

The reception of Smells Like Team Spirit caused some controversy, with various pundits claiming ‘my kid could do that’. Rosemary McLeod talked directly to Strange Bedfellows in her North & South review:

“[Strange Bedfellows is] by an artist who we’re told ‘complicates our conceptions of male bonding by speaking from the position of a gay man.’ He has another work on display: plastic [they were modelled then painted] pieces of fruit in the crutches of white mens underpants. … Half a dozen people are looking at the show this afternoon. They’re not lingering by the half-G’s and underpants though.”[5]

Informal complaints also became part of the reception of Smells Like Team Spirit, with MONZ’s public programmes sending Barton a memo asking her to explain ‘the nature of the work, and why we do not consider it offensive’:

“Over the past three weeks Security staff have been fielding some informal complaints about the Grant Lingard works, and today I received the first ‘formal’ complaint over the telephone.

“[One visitor]… complained about the fruit in the underpants [Hutch and Lure], saying that her young children exhibited highly inappropriate behaviour when they came home after their visit to the Museum: ‘putting fruit down their underpants and running around with it.’”[6]

‘The pain when ... conformity proves impossible’

Barton defended the work, and its origin, stating:

“Heterosexual desire (with its focus on the female body) has been the subject of much art throughout history. We have become used to this fact to the point that we do not recognise it.

“… In general, I believe Grant’s works can also touch a general audience. They are poignant reminders of how hard it must be for young boys to grow up in a physically orientated culture like New Zealand’s. His work speaks about the desire to conform and the pain when such conformity proves impossible.”[7]

Another complainant was deeply dissatisfied with the ‘poems’ on Strange Bedfellows, saying the display needed a warning attached as her kids repeated, ‘with delight’, the naughty words. Barton again defended Grant’s work, justifying Art Now as a union between the ‘everyday’ (as reflected in material choices) and ‘art’, hoping that such a union would appeal to a wide audience.

“Grant Lingard’s works use simple everyday objects and materials to explore his feeling as a gay man towards the kind of male culture he has inevitably been brought up into as a New Zealand male. He does not set out to offend, but rather to come to terms with the fact of being different in a culture that strictly defines how men should behave and what they should aspire to. I would suggest, therefore, that although he speaks from his particular perspective, his works offer much for a general audience, their message concerns the pressure to conform and the pain when such conformity proves impossible. Surely there is a message here that all parents can pass onto their children.

“… The whole point of this work is to reveal the cruelty shown towards those who suffer from any kind of physical inadequacy.”[8]

The strength of Barton’s response aimed to illustrate that though Grant was coming to works like Strange Bedfellows as a gay man, there is a much wider possible impact about the ‘cruelty’ that masculine mob thinking can have.

Leaving a legacy

After Grant died in November 1995, a retrospective exhibition was held at the Jonathan Smart Gallery in Christchurch. Desire and Derision contained works from 1988 to 1993, and it’s from this exhibition that Strange Bedfellows was brought for the national collection.

Grant’s work holds a special place in our art history. He focused on addressing issues of sexuality and socially uncomfortable issues. Does his work belong in a category of ‘queer’ art? What even is ‘queer’ art? All Strange Bedfellows needs is to be filled with beer (from memory, it was Lion Brown) and it can take its place in an exhibition based on ideas of masculinity, or sexuality, or bullying, or object-based practice.

I wonder how it will be received today? Would the context in which it’s shown illustrate that our collective views have moved on, or would its outing reinforce some of the criticisms it received almost 30 years ago?

Works by Grant Lingard held in the Christchurch Art Gallery Collection

Grant Lingard’s archive at Auckland Art Gallery

References

  1. Grant Lingard, artists’ statement, in CSA News: the journal of the Canterbury Society of arts, No. 124, September/October 1985, unpaginated.
  2. Pat Unger, ‘Exhibitions: Christchurch’, in Art New Zealand 67, Winter 1993, p. 34.
  3. Justin Paton, Smells Like Team Spirit in the Press (Christchurch N.Z), 30 March 1993.
  4. Letter from Grant Lingard to Christina Barton, 3rd August 1993. This, and wall label are in the Te Papa archives for Art Now, curated by Christina Barton for the National Art Gallery – MONZ. ‘Art Now’ archive MU 41/1/3.
  5. Rosemary McLeod, ‘The Mighty MONZ: Artless at Heart?’, in North & South, No. 103, October 1994.
  6. Memorandum from Hubert Klaassens to Tina Barton, 11 July 1994, Te Papa archives, MU 41/1/3
  7. Memorandum from Tina Barton to Hubert Laassens, 12 July 1994, Te Papa archives, MU 41/1/3
  8. Letter from Tina Barton to complainant, dated 12 July 1994, Te Papa Archives, MU 41/1/3

 


Grant Lingard grew up on the West Coast of the South Island, and studied fine arts at the University of Canterbury, graduating in 1984. He moved to Sydney, Australia in 1989, and exhibited in both New Zealand and Australia until his death in 1995 from an AIDS related illness.

Jeremiah Boniface is a designer based in Wellington. He produced a catalogue raisonné of the life and work of Grant Lingard for his Honours in Art History at VUW in 2006 and runs a website dedicated to the work and memory of Grant Lingard.