A COMMON PREDICAMENT
May 20 2021
The gallery rumble-trembles, the riders always up there were
an abstraction blooded, a frieze the wrong side of the urn.
—Allen Curnow, ‘Investigations at the Public Baths’
CW: This essay contains images of nudity and sexual acts
I fret about memory—particularly when wandering urban spaces. On Franklin Road, near my home in Tāmaki Makaurau, I pass a house being demolished. A cockatoo once lived there. I recall seeing it in the front yard as I walked to the Tepid Baths as a child with my mother and younger sister. Across Victoria Park was the chalky orange-yellow of the old Māori Community Hall, later replaced by a faceless office block. And then there were the baths themselves, with their funny little changing cabins. Suspended above the main pool was a gallery of exercycles, a detail I remember in part because of poet Allen Curnow, who mentions it in his ‘Investigations at the Public Baths’ (1992). The gallery was removed during a renovation. Gone the way of the cockatoo.
The attendant realisation is that my memories, and those of my contemporaries, are at once potent and ephemeral: potent, because—for all the un-totality of recall—they are predicated on presence in the ‘there and then’; ephemeral, because so are we all. No matter the quantity and quality of reminiscences, pictures, films, I cannot escape the sense that my recollections are destined to slip away. The feeling is sharpened by my relationship with what is outside my direct experience—my hunger to know people and places before my time, and the inevitable limits to satisfying that hunger. Nice and all as it is to ponder a future someone reading the Curnow poem, that someone will only be able to imagine, never remember, the gone gallery.
How much more prevalent and striking this situation is in Ōtautahi, where the earthquakes—now, incredibly, a decade ago—have caused the removal of so many reference points. The Tepid Baths, although altered, remain. Along the loops of the Ōtākaro Avon River in the eastern suburbs: odd patches of grass. Artist Jane Zusters showed me around the area recently. She made a comment to the effect that individual plots could be picked out by way of vestigial hedges and trees. I found it difficult to see any boundaries, not having a mental ‘before picture’ to act as a crutch. I asked why the land was vacant. Claims that the zone was just too damaged, followed by buyouts. But, said Jane, wealthier suburbs were not cleared.
Seeing Jane was bound to play into my preoccupation with memory. When I was young, she was in a relationship with my aunt. She is a portal to some of the earliest experiences I can recall. So is her house, which is filled with paintings in her familiar style, the occasional artefact I remember from childhood. Jane drives me to the exhibition that is my primary reason for visiting Ōtautahi, TRUE LOVE: A Tribute to Grant Lingard at the Ilam Campus Gallery. She did not really know Lingard (1961–95). While she grew up in the city, she left before he arrived in 1981 to study at the Ilam School of Fine Arts. (1) She feeds me titbits about other artists associated with the show. Stories apropos of, rather than encoded in, the presentation. Fragments I would not otherwise find.
The attendant realisation is that my memories, and those of my contemporaries, are at once potent and ephemeral...
A TRIBUTE SHOW IS NOT A COMMON PHENOMENON. I struggle to think of another example. Julian Dashper & Friends (2015–16) at City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi was no doubt animated by a similar impulse to TRUE LOVE, but it felt significantly less personal. The closest thing to a parallel that I can come up with is This Joyous, Chaotic Place: He Waiata Tangi-ā-Tahu (2018) at Mokopōpaki in Tāmaki Makaurau, an exhibition that had as a key purpose the celebration of poet and lesbian feminist Heather McPherson (1942–2017). Like This Joyous, Chaotic Place, TRUE LOVE was initiated by friends rather than by an institution. It includes a mixture of older works—records of times and milieux past—and new ones made especially for the show in commemoration.
TRUE LOVE comes twenty-five years after Swan song (1996), a Lingard solo staged in Sydney in the wake of his death from AIDS-related illness. Several people involved in TRUE LOVE helped to produce Swan song, following Lingard’s own instructions; it was his last self-directed exhibition and his first memorial. TRUE LOVE is accompanied by two catalogues, which document the tribute show and represent steps towards an archive of scholarship and recollection. A printed catalogue features a rigorous and insightful essay by David Herkt, who discusses Swan song and ‘Box of Birds,’ a 1987 work concerning HIV/AIDS. A digital publication brings together reflections on Lingard by the participants in TRUE LOVE. They make for enlightening and touching reading.
As well as a tribute, TRUE LOVE is an appeal. Lingard’s works have appeared in a number of significant shows in recent years, including Implicated and Immune (2015) at Michael Lett in Tāmaki Makaurau and Simon Gennard’s Sleeping Arrangements (2018) at the Dowse Art Museum in Te Awakairangi Lower Hutt. Yet, to date, no major retrospective of his work has been mounted. Although TRUE LOVE does feature some Lingard pieces (and fine ones at that), it is not itself a retrospective. Nor does it model the concept in miniature. It does, however, call for the artist to be accorded greater attention. In his catalogue essay, Peter Derksen goes so far as to state that ‘Lingard’s legacy can and should be prominent within our national discourse’. (2)
Before visiting TRUE LOVE, I imagined the show might operate something like a posthumous festschrift, a compilation of writings chiefly offered in honour of the dedicatee. Instead, I find myself thinking of it as akin to a group letter. A coterie of artist-friends—some familiar, some less so—publicly testify to the importance of an individual who has been unduly, if not wittingly, overlooked. I wonder if the inclusion of more works by Lingard, and fewer by others, might have strengthened the case for greater attention. But perhaps I am merely impatient to experience further Lingard pieces I know to be out there. TRUE LOVE is the poem; I want to visit the public baths.
Before visiting TRUE LOVE, I imagined the show might operate something like a posthumous festschrift [...] Instead, I find myself thinking of it as akin to a group letter.
AMONG THE MOST STRIKING WORKS IN TRUE LOVE are Trevor Fry’s ‘Little Miss Tease’ and ‘Ouch’ (both c. 1994). They take the form of huge pornographic magazine covers, featuring composite images and texts. Fry’s artist statement notes that ‘Little Miss Tease’ appeared in shows at Firstdraft in Sydney (where Lingard’s Swan song was also presented) and the now-legendary Tāmaki Makaurau artist-run space Teststrip. Its central figure has a moustachioed face, enormous breasts, and a prominent vulva. ‘Ouch’ shows a figure receiving fellatio. His penis has been replaced by a turd. Both works retain the outrageousness they were always intended to have. They are also shaded with pathos, evoking complex experiences of desire and gender and hostile reactions to the same.
Fry acknowledges Lingard by association, but other artists plump for the challenge of making new works in homage. ‘Key chains and snow storms’ (2021) by Ruth Watson—who knew Lingard in Sydney and helped to mount Swan song there—is an especially strong example. In her artist statement, she comments that she took a cue from a Lingard work titled ‘Bench Talk,’ basing her installation on an old ladder, where he had used an old bench. Watson has festooned the ladder with tourist knick-knacks suggestive of keychains and snow globes. The title relates to a 1981 song, ‘Memorabilia’ by Soft Cell, which includes lyrics redolent of travel and transience, romance and memory.
‘Key chains and snow storms’ ties into Watson’s own interest in place and its inscription while resonating with Lingard’s enthusiasm for collecting and popular culture. It nods to works of his incorporating keychains or keychain-like ornaments. Two feature in TRUE LOVE: ‘Damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ and ‘Battle of Wits’ (both c. 1989). In the latter work, the phrase ‘A BATTLE OF WITS’ is surrounded by a frame of brown fake fur. Bovine effigies stand above. Pretzels of shit hang below. I think of Cantabrian agriculture and conservatism, kids’ toilet humour, gay male sex, and disparaging terms like ‘fudge packer’. I think, too, of the camp of drag queens (feather boas and fur stoles) and the kitsch of early works by Judy Darragh.
Another Lingard, ‘Running hot, running cold’ (1988), centres on a pair of flimsy rails carrying fresh, plain white towels of the sort one might find in a bathhouse or a gym or a hotel that doesn’t charge much. Above each towel is a small copy in silhouette of the outstretched arms and not-quite-touching fingers of Adam and God from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The pictures differ only in their captions: ‘RUNNING HOT’ and ‘RUNNING COLD’. Erratic showers and twee ‘his and hers’ linens come to mind, as does the old ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’ line. There are more poignant associations. Desire devolving into disinterest or disgust. Differences disrupting sameness. The threat of being judged ‘unsafe’ or ‘unclean’. Fever, chills, and night sweats.
Séraphine Pick presents a compelling trio of old and new pieces. ‘Untitled’ (1988–89), a painting on beer crate timber, is in sympathy with Lingard’s constructions of recycled wood. The recent ‘Portrait’ (2021) recalls his visage and might well be based on a memory of him. But it is ‘Waxing and Waning’ (2021) that impresses most. It is contraption-like, growing out of another old crate work. Twin cocks-and-balls of Sunlight soap dangle cartoonishly inside a pair of dark-brown tights. The piece recalls the plaster phalluses of Lingard’s ‘Drought’ (1992) and his repeated use of soap and underwear. It is a moment of productive remembrance, convincing both as an homage and as a reimagining of past work of Pick’s. It is vital, emblematic of the ambitions of the wider show.
I think of Cantabrian agriculture and conservatism, kids’ toilet humour, gay male sex, and disparaging terms like ‘fudge packer’. I think, too, of the camp of drag queens (feather boas and fur stoles)...
VISITS TO ŌTAUTAHI THESE DAYS tend to provoke in me two strong and notionally opposed reactions: sorrow and hope. Inevitably there is a great sense of loss. All those historic buildings gone. The state of affairs seems especially unfair since Christchurch, among Aotearoa’s cities, has always seemed particularly interested in its own heritage. To be sure, the histories vaunted have often been colonial or white. Reviewing Tales Untold (1994), a city-wide art presentation that included well-known Lingard works composed of white Jockey underpants, Justin Paton referred to ‘Christchurch’s Anglophile surface’. (3) He did so while discussing a work by Cath Brown that drew attention to the scant visibility of Kāi Tahu in the city.
In 2021, the cultural landscape feels different, and rather more promising. The word ‘Ōtautahi’ is newly prominent. The central library is simply ‘Tūranga’. Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū boasts one of the most exciting and thoughtful programmes in Aotearoa, supporting local artists of note, in shows like Touching Sight: Conor Clarke, Emma Fitts, Oliver Perkins (2020–21), and developing surveys of national importance, such as Ralph Hotere: Ātete (to resist) (2021). In 2017, it presented Sydow: Tomorrow Never Knows, a retrospective of work by Carl Sydow (1940–75), who, like Lingard, died tragically young. The institution holds a good number of works by Lingard, and I tend to think it will mount a solo before long.
There might in fact be no place better than Ōtautahi to see to it that Lingard’s legacy is given greater prominence. The city is, and has been, home to numerous LGBTQ+ artists, including Paul Johns and Jane Zusters. In the early to mid-20th century, it was the centre for the influential art association the Group, and the wider leftist artistic circle that Peter Simpson has termed ‘Bloomsbury South’. That community encompassed such figures as Rita Angus, Lawrence Baigent, Leo Bensemann, Ursula Bethell, Charles Brasch, Allen Curnow, Douglas Lilburn, Douglas MacDiarmid, Olivia Spencer Bower, Bill Sutton, and Toss Woollaston—some patently not straight, some ‘allies,’ some with complicated tales that remain to be told with appropriate nuance.
The party line is that queer histories are often fragmented and difficult to piece together. Before the Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986, there was suppression via criminalisation. Trauma and bigotry linger, even find new expression. Lingard received his share of crummy receptions in his own time. Works included in the forward-looking Art Now (1994) at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa attracted a range of negative responses. (4) However, as Jeremiah Boniface observes, the show’s curator, Christina Barton, stood by Lingard, writing, ‘His work speaks about the desire to conform and the pain when such conformity proves impossible.’ (5)
There might in fact be no place better than Ōtautahi to see to it that Lingard’s legacy is given greater prominence. The city is, and has been, home to numerous LGBTQ+ artists...
Lingard had champions, and he has them still. The Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, of which Barton is now director, will soon exhibit a significant late installation from Swan song that shares its title. Moreover, as TRUE LOVE makes clear, the artist had dedicated friends who recall and perpetuate his presence. I fret about memory, fearing the texture of the past is terribly difficult to appreciate. It can feel as though I am puttering round a jumble of houseless lots and unbounded gardens. But there are people who remember what was where, or who have at least dedicated themselves to finding out. There are people who can school us on what we never knew ourselves. The past is not simply a place of ruin and loss; it is also a project of collective reconstruction.
(1) Here and Now: Twelve Young Canterbury Artists, Ōtautahi: Robert McDougall Art Gallery, 1988, n.p.
(2) Derksen, Peter, ‘Tethered: Lingard and His Legacy,’ in TRUE LOVE: A Tribute to Grant Lingard, Ōtautahi: Ilam Campus Gallery, 2021, n.p.
(3) Paton, Justin, ‘Exhibition,’ Listener, 30 July 1994.
(4) See, for example, Bowron, Jane, ‘Art for Art’s Sake?,’ Sunday Star-Times, 11 September 1994.
(5) Boniface, Jeremiah, ‘“Otherness” in a World of Kiwi Male Stereotypes: Grant Lingard’s “Strange Bedfellows”,’ LGBTQI+ Histories of Aotearoa New Zealand, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
About the Author
Francis McWhannell is a writer and exhibition-maker from Tāmaki Makaurau. He is curatorial adviser to Visions and curator of the Fletcher Trust Collection. He has contributed essays to diverse arts and culture publications and websites, including Art Collector, Art New Zealand, Art Toi, The Pantograph Punch, and The Spinoff.
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