'Do You Have Any Ectoplasm? Is it Vaginal?' The Return of Punk Artist Linder
By: Charlotte Higgins
Seance trumpets, one-armed flutes, northern cross-dressers … brace yourself for the eerie, dizzying world of Linder and her House of Fame show
The scene: inside Nottingham Contemporary gallery. A dialogue is unfolding between the artist, Linder, and a visitor from Cambridge University Library, who has come bearing an item for the exhibition she is curating. It is a 1920s “spirit trumpet”, part of a collection amassed by the Society of Psychical Research, and now cared for by the library. It is, in effect, a cardboard cone. Its box proclaims that it cost five shillings and was produced in Manchester by the Two Worlds Publishing Company. The box is ripped at one end, as if in eagerness by its original purchaser. It is also rather stained. Which is good: Linder likes stains.
Elsewhere in the exhibition are two paintings by Ithell Colquhoun, the British surrealist and occultist who wrote an essay in 1952 entitled Children of the Mantic Stain, pondering esoteric uses of the Rorschach ink-blot test. Linder is interested in what else lurks within the SPR collection. “Do you have any ectoplasm?” she asks. “I think so,” says Jim Bloxam, the man from Cambridge. “Is it vaginal?” asks Linder, eagerly. “Er, no. It’s a piece of cloth,” says Bloxam.
Linder seems a little disappointed, and turns her attention back to the spirit trumpet. “I wonder how it works,” she muses. “I don’t know,” says Bloxam. “I’m actually a book conservator.” He makes a hurried search on his phone to the library webpages, and we discover that, during a seance, the trumpet is designed to “rise from the table and float around the room emitting ‘spirit voices’ and, if occasion demands, exuding ectoplasm”.
The spirit trumpet is one of a number of arcane and intriguing objects in Linder’s exhibition, which is titled The House of Fame, in tribute to a Ben Jonson masque and Chaucer’s dream poem. There are also – aside from works by Linder herself – 19th-century hat boxes, specially shaped to protect one’s ducal plumes, a somewhat stained lace hankie, or pall cloth, for placing over the face of a corpse, and a beautifully decorated Derby-made jug from 1815, which one might easily mistake for a gravy boat (it is, in fact, a bourdaloue, a kind of chamber pot).
Born Linda Mulvey, the artist is best known for her immersion in the punk and post-punk scene in Manchester in the 1970s and early 80s. As a graphic design student at Manchester Polytechnic, she began making feminist photomontages. (She did not study fine art: “I was the first in my family not to leave school at 14, and my parents were concerned I should have a trade,” she says.) Leafing through magazines, she cut out images of kettles and cookers and gas fires and combined them with soft-porn pictures of girls draped over suburban shagpile. Famously, one of these satires on the domestic objectification of women – a naked figure with an iron for a face – became the cover of the Buzzcocks’ single Orgasm Addict.
She co-founded a band, Ludus, and in 1982 performed in a meat dress on stage at the Hacienda, a gesture famously borrowed by Lady Gaga. She has had an eclectic career since those days, devising performance works, studying Indian music (her extraordinary taus, a 20-stringed bowed instrument, will be on show in Nottingham), and lately returning to photomontage. These last months she has been the first artist in residence at Chatsworth, the Derbyshire seat of the dukes of Devonshire.
The exhibition is a capacious web of associations and coincidences, a scrabble through Linder’s mind and memory. Lace is one of many delicate leitmotifs running through the exhibition, partly a tribute to Nottingham’s history as a centre of lacemaking, partly because its reticular, woven nature might make a metaphor for the show itself. There are lace masks that Linder made for Howard Devoto; that pall cloth; a photograph of lace made in the 19th century by Isabel Cowper, a little-known figure who photographed items in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection; and lace curtains in photographs, by Shirley Baker, of children staring out of windows in Salford in the 1960s.
Masks are another recurring image – not only Linder’s photomontages, in which women’s heads are replaced with household objects, but the masks you might wear in a masque, like those in Inigo Jones’s designs for courtly 17th-century entertainments. Or one might think of a death mask: and here is that of Sandford Arthur Strong, who died in 1904. “He taught Persian to the archaeologist Gertrude Bell,” says Linder. He was also Chatsworth’s librarian. Or masks might make you think of dressing up and disguises: here are some of Madame Yevonde’s 1935 photographs of society beauties costumed as classical goddesses; here are photographs by Linder taken at a Manchester cross-dressers’ bar in the early 1980s. “A lot of them were wearing their mother’s or sister’s clothes. The whole thing was very celebratory. It was the one night of the week when they could turn up and be themselves.”
Or maybe collage is what glues everything together. Aside from Linder’s own photomontages, the show includes objects such as a decoupage screen, lent by Chatsworth, that must have been made in the 1840s: it is covered with fashion plates, scenes of Highland landscapes, and little moustachioed horsemen galloping away into the distance. Linder has some fellow-feeling for the anonymous person who made it. “In weak moments I do feel like a sickly Victorian lady,” she says, as she describes her hours with scissors and paste. The spiritualist objects in the exhibition cast back to the idea of collage, too, since early photographers might use layering techniques, such as double exposure, to create the ghostly effects in their spirit images.
Earlier in the year I meet Linder, with the director of Nottingham Contemporary, Sam Thorne, at Chatsworth. The 18th-century house is closed for the winter, and we enter through the old servants’ quarters, now a warren of offices and storerooms and staff lockers and mannequins from recently removed Christmas displays (a prone Charles Dickens; slightly sinister giant Nutcrackers). It is just like being backstage at a theatre. We walk up to the public areas and find Linder in the ice-cold sculpture gallery with a group of classicists from Nottingham University, who have been advising her on ancient perfumes. “I’d love to put a strobe and some dry ice in here,” she says wistfully.
Nearby, in the magnificent Painted Hall, whose walls were covered in the 17th century with scenes from the life of Julius Caesar, they have been wafting frankincense and other smells to see how they might “create an imaginary olfactory landscape”, she explains. (In the wall paintings incense smokes, and the goddess Fame presides – in the end, everything Linder does connects with everything else, if only you follow the chain of association.) The house has been like a vast properties cupboard for her, a mad attic from which no one has ever thrown anything away. It’s rather a long way from the Hacienda in 1982. “I usually make work with ephemera, with things that have been discarded, with things that are literally lightweight. This is the complete opposite.”
She has marvelled at everything from 1950s packets of soap powder to jet mourning buckles worn after the death of Queen Victoria (the latter are in the Nottingham show). The curators have magicked up all manner of strange things that she’s asked for – “You voice the invitation and it somehow appears,” she says. “Someone opens a cupboard and there it is.” One of the more remarkable objects she has borrowed to show in Nottingham is a one-handed flute, made for a musician who lost an arm and a leg in the Napoleonic wars.
Nothing seems to escape Linder’s voracious eye: she points out to me in the near dark, high on a bedroom wall, an 18th-century painted frieze of little men with frogs’ heads (as opposed to women with irons for heads – they are illustrating a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses). She beckons me over to look at a 19th-century perambulator, its fittings designed to resemble coiling snakes, the creatures that appear on the Duke of Devonshire’s family crest. She has made a new photomontage inspired by her immersion in this place of fantasy and performance. It is based on a painting, by Maria Conway, of Georgiana, the fifth Duchess of Devonshire, flying through a nocturnal cloudscape in the guise of the goddess Diana.
Linder has given Georgiana a coiled snake for a face, and an owl as familiar (a gentle homage to one of Madame Yevonde’s costume-ball portraits, which showed a society beauty, accessorised with a stuffed barn owl, as Minerva). She has called the work Pythia – the name of the prophetic priestess at ancient Delphi, itself derived from the Greek word pytho, or snake, which had supposedly been slain there by Apollo. Seductive and unsettling, it is an utterly characteristic image by Linder – this modern mythologiser, occultist and weaver of tales.