With a major retrospective of Linder’s work opening at Kettle’s Yard, Julia Bagguley reflects on the life, art and legacy of one of Britain’s most overlooked feminist artists and performers of the punk era.
‘Feminism is endlessly difficult because it has to be. Its history shouldn’t be a shallow hunt for heroines, sandblasting away their faults to please modern sensibilities because, often only by virtue of being horrible snobs, bitches and selfish oddballs, were women able to achieve anything.’
‘Well-behaved women don’t make history: difficult women do.’
Paraphrased from Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights by Helen Lewis (2020).
Who is Linder?
Linder Sterling (b. 1954, Liverpool) is known for her photography, radical feminist photomontages and confrontational performance art. Incorporating issues of sexuality with images of pornography, a brief glance at her Instagram page sets the scene for her new exhibition at Kettle’s Yard.
Born and bought up in Merseyside, she migrated east to Manchester in 1976 to study graphic design at the then Polytechnic. This is where her early aesthetic developed with inspiration coming from Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970) and other feminist texts published at the time. Soon after she changed her name from ‘Linda’ to ‘Linder’ and her highly individualist style as an artist and performer emerged. She became known for her striking appearance of sharp cheekbones, quiffed hair and bondage trousers – deliberate gestures to gender identity and the power of the masculine gaze. She was at the forefront of 1970s feminism; early days for radical female protest combined with artistic rebellion not seen, in the UK, since the protests of the suffragettes in the early twentieth century.
Manchester’s ‘enfant terrible’
Linder’s arrival coincided just as northern punk was emerging in the city, in which she played a prominent part. She had a close association with the Buzzcocks and designed the cover for their first single Orgasm Addict with an image of a muscular naked woman, an iron superimposed on her head and a pair of disembodied smiling mouths covering her nipples – an early strident feminist howl against the domestic trap. This theme continues throughout her work using heads comprising electric heaters, washing machines, clocks and, even, a Victoria Sponge. Nor is the male nude safe, with many photomontages of bronzed young men festooned with full blown blossoms covering their genitals.
Her performance art was just as uncompromising. She formed her own band, Ludus, where, at a performance in Manchester’s Haçienda nightclub, she wore a black dildo and a costume decorated with raw chicken meat. She told the critic Alastair Sooke it comprised ‘chicken heads, claws, and giblets, from this big bag of bloody stuff, which we pinned on to my bodice and skirt. It was “protest”’.
By the end of the 1970s Linder had moved on from her punk beginnings and so had the movement. Now so very ‘last century’ is it time for a revival? When talking to Sooke for The Telegraph she recalled that in the 1990s the so-called YBA generation ‘aspired to be as progressive and shocking as my generation had been but the punk creatives were on the dole and unsubsidised whereas the YBAs were supported by commercial galleries very early on’. The only thing she found ‘shocking about the YBAs was the amount of money involved’.
Linder continued to work and develop, but remained under the radar. She kept busy: becoming a mother and an early muse to Morrissey (well before his incongruous and outspoken views on sexuality and politics had developed), as well as travelling and photographing an early tour across the US. Staying in the north-west of the UK, she has established ‘a library of every perversion on the planet’ – what gems there must be lurking there! – and exhibited mostly in the north and Midlands including prestigious venues like Hepworth Wakefield, Leeds and Nottingham Contemporary.
Whilst Linder may be still relatively unknown in this country she had a spectacular creative period in Brussels working with Les Disques du Crépuscule, an avant-garde music label and, in 2013, she held a retrospective of 200 works at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
Of late, more recognition has come from some surprising quarters. In 2018 the Chatsworth Estate invited her to become their first artist-in-residence. Despite the eighteenth-century magnificence of the “Palace of the Peaks”, the Cavendish family have a reputation over many generations for contemporary collecting; together with their wealth of serious Old Master paintings and drawings, they have late twentieth-century works, inter alia, by Edmund de Waal, Michael Craig Martin and Lucian Freud.
Far from the grunge of Merseyside and Manchester, Linder spent a lyrical summer immersing herself in the life of the estate creating a film, interior installations and, in the landscape, a sculpture, a Bower of Bliss.
The Bower of Bliss has a double meaning close to Linder’s feminist heart – a forced but beautiful enclosure. First, from a chivalric incident in Part II of Edmund Spenser’s epic allegorical poem The Faerie Queen (1590) and, second, to an existing bower on the estate where Mary, Queen of Scots – another one of those difficult women? – inhabited while being detained at various times between 1569 and 1584 by that other difficult woman, Queen Elizabeth I.
The Bower of Bliss is now on its own journey. In November 2018, Linder installed an 85m-long billboard at the entrance to Southwark Underground station inspired by her work at Chatsworth and also titled Bower of Bliss. This was not an easy commission and involved six months worth of work and preparation. The Southwark Bower of Bliss celebrates implicit female sexuality at a station where 16.7 million people pass through the barriers each year. Drawing on the creative and archival experience she had enjoyed at Chatsworth, she created a luscious and cinematic sequence of roses, lips, female faces, food and Roman votaries which had emerged from her research into the rich local history, figures and places in the archives of London Transport.
Linderism at Kettle’s Yard
Which brings us to Linderism, the latest exhibition at Kettle’s Yard. There are two themes – retrospection and multi-sensory – and there’s barely a corner that Linder, who has co-curated the exhibition with Dr Amy Tobin of Newnham College, has not reached.
The displays in the two main galleries are framed selections of her montages and collages from her early years – there’s even a grainy video of an early Ludus performance. Though they were sensational at the time of their creation the cut outs from Simplicity patterns, cookbooks and women’s magazines have a nostalgia that is ‘very last century’. Later works – usually made in series – are more complex meditations on representation, myth and belief. This gallery culminates in a sensational self-portrait, Glorification de l’Élue (2011), a brilliant photograph created from random enamel paints of strong colours and photography. The title which translates as ‘Glorification of the Chosen One’ derives, inter alia, from Part 2 of Igor Stravinsky’s music for the ballet The Rite of Spring where the strong and violent music acts as a preliminary to the choice of a young woman for sacrifice.
The Research Space on the museum’s top floor has various screens with a constant stream of videos, the basement Learning Studio has a Warholesque wall of black and white self-portraits with scarlet variations of her mouth – happy, sad and all things in between. Most spectacularly, the walls of the winding stairs from bottom to top have a continuous painted series – a successor to her Southwark Bower of Bliss; blink and you’ll miss it.
In the main rooms of the house, Linder has displayed some quirky three-dimensional objects in the various rooms. Most interestingly, she is on the record as being puzzled by the relationship between Jim and Helen Ede. They moved to the house in the mid-1950s, but it’s Jim’s imprint which dominates the interiors – the collection was created purely on his terms and Helen left very little trace in the fabric of the house and its contents.
To celebrate Linder’s commitment to uncovering women lost to history she has invoked Helen’s quiet presence as a cypher for women’s material absence and mythic presence. Using archival photographs of Helen, Linder has created a new photomontage and sound installation in her bedroom, made in collaboration with the musician, Maxwell Sterling. In addition, Helen stars in the shop, a part of the museum not usually featured as a display space, with a line of products under the title The House of Helen, which includes fabrics, printed papers, cosmetic mirrors, pin badges, notebooks and herbal scented fragrances. Recognition at last, but I do wonder what Helen – and Jim – would have made of her new found fame.
Exhibitions are like icebergs: Kettle’s Yard has been fortunate to secure this project and while, on the surface, it looks effortless, the amount of work and number of hands required to get the sum of its parts up and running is considerable.
Having taken part in putting exhibitions together from start to finish – not at Kettle’s Yard – this is an impressive tour de force and one in which Linder has closely participated. The site it tight and small, the ‘hang’ touches every part of the building, most of the objects have been lent – an administrative and insurance nightmare – or are new and bespoke to the site. Beyond the physical, the retail and publishing deadlines will have presented challenges. At the private view the Director’s VMT list was endless and Linder heartfelt in her appreciation.
The long game
Fashions in art are very fickle and it needs patience and an iron clad will to stick with your beliefs and style. Linder is to be greatly admired in being uncompromising and holding to both. In a recent interview in the Guardian with the critic Caroline Roux, she commented ‘you have to sit out various periods in culture if you’re like me. The YBAs, for example, they were so much for irony and that wasn’t a game I wanted to take part in. But I’ve always had the sense that someday acknowledgment would happen.’ Now in her 60’s, the world – or, at least, the hot spot that is our own island – may finally be ready for Linder’s unflinching, upfront feminism. That the BBC, albeit with warnings, are showing Mary Beard’s The Shock of the Nude is testament to how far public sensitivity has come.
In the 1970s she was years ahead of her time – Lady Gaga wasn’t even BORN when Linder took to the stage at the Haçienda nightclub clad in chicken offal. Any contemporary artist – of whatever gender – interested in the history of the genre, cannot ignore her massive contribution and the staying power of her message. Photomontage was in its early years – there were no digital devices or internet editing tools; it was off to the chemist and wait for your reels of film to be developed then cut and glue. Polaroids and Xerox machines where the paper endlessly got stuck in the machine helped if you could get access.
Austerity required skilled execution. Again, when discussing the medium with Sooke she explained that ‘photographers in the Seventies needed rigorous training, models were well lit, composition was carefully composed and there was always some attempt at a narrative. Now nobody has time for setting up’. It’s about instant uploads using Adobe, Jpeg, Luminar.
After her Kettle’s Yard exhibition Linder is returning to Merseyside to participate in the prestigious Liverpool Biennial, opening in July 2020. The theme, recently announced, is The Stomach and the Port (Oh, Linder, what will you make of this challenge?!). Throughout, Linder has not flinched in her determination to get her feminist message across, nor is she afraid of censorious brickbats. Good for her – and lucky for us!
Linderism is at Kettle’s Yard until 26 April. Click here for further information and events connected to the show. The exhibition is produced in association with Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery, where it will open in September 2020.
If you like photomontage, why not see Tate Modern’s current exhibition of Surrealist artist Dora Maar (read our review here), which runs until 15 March.
Feature Image: detail from Linder’s Untitled, 1977, Photomontage framed (size 30 x 38 cm), image size 13.6 x 21 cm, 5 3/8 x 8 1/4 ins © Linder Sterling. Courtesy the artist; Modern Art, London; Dependance, Brussels; Andréhn-Schiptjenko, Stockholm, Paris; and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo.