Financial Times: The Second Coming of Linder — the Punk Artist on Her Erotic Feminist Fantasy

January 25, 2019

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The Second Coming of Linder — the Punk Artist on Her Erotic Feminist Fantasy

Forty years on from her heyday, Linder is again riding the crest of a wave

Linder sounds scarily cool. This is a woman who has designed cover art for Buzzcocks, sung live at Manchester’s legendary Haçienda club — wearing a dress made from chicken flesh and sporting a dildo — and counts Morrissey among her circle of close friends.

Once at the heart of Manchester’s punk scene, 40 years on she is, like so many female artists of a certain age, riding the crest of a wave. After a recent solo show at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2013, she has just completed a commission for Art on the Underground outside Southwark Tube station in London, while next week she opens a solo show at Stuart Shave’s London space Modern Art.

In person Linder is indeed cool, yet in the cosiest, least intimidating way. Currently based in a temporary studio in Southwark, she greets me with a full-wattage grin that barely fades for our entire conversation. With long, dark hair falling either side of a central parting, big eyes and generous mouth, she still channels rock-star glamour. But her below-the-knee padded coat, less punk than après-ski Milan signora, betrays a pragmatic streak (the studio is freezing). No one should be surprised; this, after all, is a woman who has not only survived but thrived in the aftermath of her fruitfully misspent youth.

“All I can offer you is an obscure herbal tea,” she says with an irony-laced giggle. Before she brews up, she takes me on a tour of her Southwark Tube commission. Right outside the studio, covering 85 metres of billboard display, this is a photomontage to warm the chilliest commuter. Imagine Bonnard let loose in a studio with up-for-anything models, foodstuffs, flower petals and his trademark Mediterranean pigments, and you have an idea of the kinky, exultant lushness of the work she has called “The Bower of Bliss”.

“I just wanted a container where all sorts of creative accidents could happen,” Linder explains of the four-hour shoot, in which she worked with women and trans people who were either personal friends or employed by London Underground.

“Look!” she exclaims, still enamoured by the results. “I’ve never seen a woman’s nosehairs photographed before.” Indeed, “The Bower of Bliss” is a tour de force of candour, with the protagonists shot in close-up, usually smothered in radiant goo. Yet it’s also bewitchingly abstract as materials and bodies mesh, divide and dissolve in an erotic feminist fantasy.

Sex and power have always been raw ingredients of Linder’s oeuvre. But “The Bower of Bliss” is far more unambiguously celebratory of sensuality than the bittersweet photomontages that made her one-word name.

Born Linder Sterling in Liverpool in 1954, Linder came of age, as she puts it, “when Tammy Wynette was number one with ‘Stand By Your Man’ ”. Such uncritical submission was never going to suffice for a young woman who was bold, restless and hungry in mind, body and soul. Her route to her signature images — surreal, uneasy, jangled couplings between naked women and foreign objects — began along traditional pathways. A childhood passion for drawing was fuelled by the lack of television until she was 10 years old, “and then it was black and white”. Linder spent her time “drawing imaginary worlds. I never questioned it. That’s what I did every night.”

By the summer of 1976, her crush on line and plane had burnt out. “I was so bored by drawing; I [felt like] I’d had a lifetime of it.” But Linder’s world was changing. Manchester, where she was studying graphic design, was the chrysalis of an emerging punk scene kicked off by a Sex Pistols concert in June 1976. “Music changed abruptly. It became cut up, spiky. The cut became very important,” she recalls.

Inspired by this jagged new mood, Linder cleared “everything away that had a mark”. With her new tool — “a Swann-Morton surgeon’s scalpel with a number 11 blade”, she started to cut out images from magazines. Thus she discovered the pleasure of an “abstracting mark rather than an adding one”. Was it love at first snip? “Oh yes!” She swoons at the memory. “It was so clean, so forensic.” Her early oeuvre saw her plunder magazines across sectors including fashion, pornography, cars and lifestyle. The meticulous collisions that resulted — a pouting nude with a lipstick phallus; a ballerina with a plate of cookies for a head; a perfect couple compromised by the fork with which the woman is about to put out her eyes — illuminate the appetites that advertising works so hard to keep separate and exploit for profit.

In Manchester’s urban arcadia, boundaries were felicitously shaky. “The gap between audience and stage was just a hop, skip and a jump. You just picked up a guitar or a mic,” recalls Linder as she recounts how she began performing. In 1978 she sang on stage for the first time with her band Ludus at The Factory, then a concert venue. Four years later, “on bonfire night”, she sang with them again at The Haçienda.

Performing, she said, offered a “viscerality” that countered the “very controlled” nature of her art. “It was about being heard. I loved word-play, I loved puns. I often worked with found words.”

After a period during which she concentrated more on performance and photography, she has now returned to photomontage. Her show at Modern Art includes new images of pornographic models — women and men — juxtaposed with splashes of enamel paint, or cutouts of roses, which she observes are “still our shorthand for romance”, or household objects. The bizarre extras, emblems of unbelonging, mutely highlight how vulnerable human bodies become when subjected to porn’s alchemy of commerce and display.

These photomontages are the children of those 1970s forebears. Yet their vintage context lends them a tender, nostalgic resonance. Indeed, Linder had to scavenge for her source materials as the domination of the internet means that pornographic magazines are now in decline.

So why does she shy away from found digital images? “I have this love for the printed image,” she confesses, adding that she loves her old magazines for their “tears, rips and stains — I don’t inquire too closely! — that are the markers of humanity”.

Even if she prints a “1958 image from the internet”, she will still have to experience it through “contemporary dyes and pigments”. Her words could be a response to Walter Benjamin’s despair for the original work of art in an age of reproduction. In Linder’s world, some reproductions are more original than others.

It is also true that the internet is a darker reality than the newsagent’s top shelf. “To be honest, I don’t look at much contemporary pornography,” she admits. “I feel I would need a guide for that underworld. It is a kind of pixel maze, and who knows what monsters lurk behind it?”

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