To celebrate International Women’s Day on the 8th of March last week, a group of staff from the British Council and the British Embassy decided to undertake a guided tour of British artist Linder’s first ever retrospective in Paris, currently at the Museum of Modern Art and supported by the British Council. It proved a fascinating and delightful way to discover this uncompromising artist, as exhibition curator Emmanuelle de l’Ecotais had developed a particularly close relationship with Linder as they endeavoured to bring this exhibition to fruition. An ambitious project from the outset, Linder’s genesis as a punk vegetarian feminist, with her Dadaist influences and pop cultural references, will strike most as provocative and confrontational and most certainly merits to be viewed on such a grand scale.
One of the first pieces exhibited is a series of black and white photographs which Linder herself took in the Dickens Bar – a Manchester club popular with gays, transvestites and cross-dressers. Almost ten years after homosexuality was legalised in England, there is something both homely and flamboyant about these images – men posing like magazine models in an intimate setting that could be someone’s private parlour. ‘Sanctuaries’ as Linder refers to them, where the men and women ‘could switch effortlessly between being perceived as male or female’.
Linder’s burgeoning interest in photography took a detour when she was the victim of a mugging. Unable to afford the expense of replacing her camera, she began raiding her collection of women’s fashion magazines as well as men’s magazines (cars, DIY and porn) in her first attempts at photomontage – an accessible and inexpensive artistic technique that she has revisited many times throughout her career. With surgical precision, scalpel in hand, she would painstakingly remove the lips from pouting models, the kitchen appliances from advertisements, and with a flair for the grotesque, ‘couple’ the images together.
One of her most famous photomontages from this era (1977) was used as cover-art by punk group Buzzcocks for their album ‘Orgasm Addict’, and features a headless, bare-breasted woman striking a provocative pose. Her head has been replaced with a domestic iron and her nipples with grinning open mouths. In fact, a recurring image throughout her work is this accentuation of the female mouth – voluptuous, artificial, an instrument of both discourse and carnal pleasure, not to ignore its most obvious function – the consummation of food – a theme later revisited with some disturbing consequences.
While the bulk of Linder’s artistic output continues to explore these particular themes, she is no stranger to music and performing art. The exhibition highlights a concert she performed with her punk group LUDUS in 1978 at the Hacienda in Manchester. Linder, wearing an enormous black dildo and with strips of decaying chicken flesh sewn to her dress, can be seen shrieking into a microphone while a curious and somewhat shocked audience looks on. Screaming ‘Women, wake up!’, Linder’s violent expression of anger and disgust is at its most visceral – the video extract is both compelling and unpleasant to watch. Her stance on the gender debate firmly expressed, one cannot but re-examine the series ‘Pretty Girls’ afresh.
Linder, drawn to the mundane and everyday, has been known to hunt down photographic negatives on eBay. There is something of the amateurish voyeur in the images she selects – the sexual foreplay of a bored housewife posing for her lover or crude scenes of gay male intercourse. Digitally manipulating each image with superimposed macro photographs of brightly coloured cut-out orchids or roses, Linder is able to playfully subvert and disguise the inherent rawness of her subject matter, rendering the consummation of acts of pornography and titillation with an uncommon beauty.
Her latest work to date, exhibited in a dark ‘peep-show’ space of broad publicity light panels, is an effective attack on the global porn industry and its tendency to not only objectify women but to treat them with violence. These images have been overlaid with close-ups of cup cakes with lurid pink icing, key lime meringue tarts or caramel cookies and this confusion of confectionary and stylised sexual coupling invoked strong reaction amongst our group, ranging from embarrassing discomfort to outright revulsion.
In a conversation between Linder and her good friend Morrissey published by Interview magazine, Linder is asked if the ‘screaming’ which is apparent ‘at every stage’ of her work, will ever stop. Linder responds: ‘Sometimes I glimpse Linder at 80 years old, still screaming. It’s the way that I was born and the way, no doubt, that I will die. I now meditate each day at dawn in order to find silence. Sometimes I’m successful. The screaming would only stop if the universe would see fit to remove the layers of overstuffed eiderdowns that I feel have been crushing me since childhood.’
Linder’s art and rebellion, her ‘fusion’ and ‘ripping apart’ of ‘capitalism, sexuality, violence, feminism, desire, morbidity’ remains as relevant today as it was in its post-punk milieu. An artist whose oeuvre is well worth discovering. Highly recommended.
Linder Sterling at the Musée d’art moderne until 21st April
11 avenue du Président Wilson