Jeremiah Boniface

Rifling through the Top Drawer: Looking through Grant Lingard

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Grant Lingard (1961–1995) was a West Coast boy through and through. Born in the tiny town of Blackball (most famously known as the birthplace of the New Zealand Labour Party), he came from a line of coalmining, rugby-playing men, who were considered by many to be prototypes for the good Kiwi bloke. Practical men, manly men, tough men, emotionless men. Such ideals of manliness that could never be applied to Grant, but they were exactly what he based his creative practice on.

From State House Yellow (1 & 2), 1985, a homage to New Zealand’s public housing made from demolition materials to Strange Bedfellows (4 Flagons, 4 Poems), 1993, in which he installed flagons – the good-Kiwi-bloke staple – on gallery plinths, Grant’s work focused primarily on masculinities and his attempt to make sense of his own queerness. From 1987 onwards, his work took on an additional value, with Box of Birds (an image of which could be seen in the Malcolm Ross, Fiona Clark, Grant Lingard: Looking at Men display at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, although it was never exhibited) which can be considered his first direct response to the AIDS crisis. This additional layer of ‘virus’ is clear, as his own diagnosis and health journey became more central to his work. Indeed, Swan song, an exhibition planned by Grant, was installed by his friends at Firstdraft in Sydney, Australia in 1996 after his death, and recently shown at the Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi.

Grant’s work traversed risqué topics: cruising in Christchurch’s Hagley Park (the exhibition Incident in the Park, 1988); homosexuality, in the group exhibition Homosexual: Beyond Four Straight Sides, 1988; the damaging and othering influence of rugby (the exhibition Smells Like Teen Spirit, 1993); the personal impact of HIV/AIDS (the 1991 exhibition Beauty and the Beast); and of course, Swan song.

I spent a year exploring the archive of published and unpublished material relating to Grant's work. The published sources all told the same story: an ‘othered’ artist; someone who was misunderstood during his time; someone who was trying to make it in the tight, almost hermetically sealed New Zealand art world of the 1980s. But it was the unpublished material that gave me greater insight into what Grant was doing and his intentions for his art.

The reason I wanted to discover more about him was totally selfish. While at the University of Otago in 1995 I had to write an essay about a New Zealand artist. Colin McCahon left me cold. Rita Angus was amazing, but I wanted something harder … something queerer and more contemporary. Pouring through copies of Art New Zealand, I found an image that made me LOL: a soap-moulded banana hanging out of a pair of Jockey Y-fronts on the floor of a gallery. I was, of course, hooked. Later, when needing a topic for my Honours art history dissertation in 2006, I chose Grant. However, I was concerned there wouldn’t be enough material to whip up 10,000 words – boy, was I wrong.

The people I contacted were kind enough to share copies of their letters from Grant. In the archive at the E H McCormick Research Library (here and here), I found letters they had sent him. He was sentimental after all. Having both sides of a conversation puts any researcher in a position of privilege – stories get better fleshed out, and you get to see the development of their ideas and concepts. When you add Grant’s diaries into the mix, your understanding of the guy and his practice becomes more complex, nuanced, and emotionally connected. There was more than enough for 10,000 words, but what angle do you take? 

Grant kept almost everything, allowing any researcher greater access to his work, and his mind. The display outside the E H McCormick Research Library, Malcolm Ross, Fiona Clark, Grant Lingard: Looking at Men​, encapsulated this, with examples of works that test out ideas (like Self Portrait as a Greek Icon, 1988), pairs of almost 30-year-old gruds, photos and slides of install shots (that I relied heavily on in my Honours dissertation and which illustrate the work-in-progress website database I’ve made about him), but it doesn’t show his diaries, or the multiple copies of the same funding letter he wrote, each edit with a more precise hand, or the queer chatter about life in clubs or music in a time when homosexuality had only just been decriminalised in New Zealand. To find that, you need to access the archive. And you need a lot of time, because there is a lot there.

There is a difference between examining an artist through published sources and looking into their diaries. The former becomes an official narrative that is played out again and again. I am party to this with everything I say about Grant, starting with the same narrative that begins this piece of writing. The latter exposes you to more than his practice; it exposes you to a deeply personal journey that changes the way you perceive his story. That relationship means you think deeper about what you say publicly, as there are still family around to consider, friends who have lived longer and furthered their careers, and a range of other issues that complicate what stories you can make from the volumes of material left.

When Grant Lingard died, he had already planned his final exhibition, Swan song. He was sick, with AIDS ravaging his body and his mind. He felt alone and his insecurities were mounting. Living in Sydney, Australia, his HIV status made life almost impossible: work was increasingly hard to find, he received little to no support from local medical centres, and his relationship with his partner struggled. His archive and the insights it provides fleshes out a deeply complex character, driven by a desire to complicate ideas of masculinity, national (male) identity, and a researched journey of discovery to really examine what it meant to be a Kiwi male. In a way, Grant was voyeuristically looking at himself, his place, and his emotional and physical isolation (although 30 years before it was cool to do so). He was author, subject, and object.

This voyeurism is detailed through his diaries, in which he explicitly describes his dreams and seeks to analyse them by comparing his dream state to his lived experience. He discusses his relationship with his older brother, who became his go-to stand-in for the good Kiwi bloke: a rugby-playing-coal-mining-hit-with-the-ladies kind of guy – everything Grant wasn't, but representative of what he ‘should’ have been. Representative of the man that he critiqued throughout his short career.

The Grant Lingard Archive is a rich, deep, and personal journey through the 1980s and early 90s from the perspective of a smart, detail-focused, borderline obsessive collector and documenter of his life and the world around him. Without doubt, there have been moments of editing (either by himself, or others), as has impacted many historical queer archives, but the time is right to look more deeply not just at his art (which is minimalist, optimistic, and joyous) but the rich complexity of his reflections on a time period that seems so distant now. A time that is, however, in these Covid-19 days, all too familiar for those impacted by the early AIDS crisis.


– 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 Victoria University of Wellington in 2006 and runs a website dedicated to the work and memory of Grant Lingard.