Linder, Jonathan Basile
LET ME GO WHERE MY PICTURES GO
Situated at the overlap of the punk and art scenes in late seventies Manchester, Linder Sterling created a body of work ranging from the immediately recognizable and palpable images of feminist protest in her photomontages to the haunting, esoteric, and serenely beautiful music of her group Ludus. She recalled her conversion to feminism coming at age sixteen, with the publication of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch in 1970. “In the small village where I lived,” Linder later wrote, “this turned out to be a solitary calling.” Greer’s book put forth a number of ideas that would become commonplace in feminist thinking, and central to Linder’s artwork, attacking the debilitating shame with which women view their own bodies and their docile dependence on men. These doctrines carry within them the idea of certain absences – of a woman from her body, of her agency in a misogynist society – absences out of which grew the strangely mangled figures and mysterious personae Linder has created.
At the Sex Pistol’s first concert in Manchester, when the city’s punk movement was born, Linder met the Buzzcocks for the first time, beginning a collaboration that became definitive of the scene. Her first published photomontages were for the band’s fliers and their ‘Orgasm Addict’ single, which made use of an image that is now her most recognizable, a lubricated female nude with an equally sleek iron in place of her head and two smiling, cherry-lipped mouths for nipples. Linder’s many chimeras of the period were composed of similar elements, found images from the strictly delineated men’s and women’s magazines of the time. She set the female bodies from men’s sport, car, and pornography magazines to breed with the desiderata of women’s fashion and household magazines: the food, appliances, and carefully decorated interiors. The resultant offspring disrupt the clean, placid face of the housekeeping images, allowing the dirt of male sexual fantasy to intrude on the space of the neat-freak, who shares her ultimate desire with the celibate, to remain unsullied. In this sense, Linder’s photomontages appear unexpectedly lifelike, as male and female fantasy collide in what one might call a more literal fashion than they ever would otherwise, only to prove sadly, mutually exclusive.
In 1978, Linder and rock critic Jon Savage independently published a zine of their collages alongside writings and interviews of Manchester bands. The only willing publisher consented on condition that he be paid in cash, no receipt, bringing The Secret Public out to the few vendors who didn’t ban it from their stores for its sexual content.
The centerpiece was one of Linder’s untitled 1977 photomontages, picturing a couple in a living room of mahogany furniture with television sets for heads touching the equipment that has replaced their genitals. A machine-man with the dial from a timer over his heart, ticking off the seconds until he’s done, reaches over to literally push his partner’s button. This obliteration of the organs of sense is common to Linder’s works, in which the mediation of sexual desire through lifestyle commodities emerges as in a nightmare, revealing simultaneously the commodified nature of the female body. These senseless female forms are ciphers for the distance between a woman and her body, having been overwritten by the desiring eye of culture.
The method of photomontage keeps a similar distance from its author. Rather than beginning with the blank canvas, upon which the traditional artist builds an identity as though it were unmediated by the outside world, a bricoleur like Linder begins from her own typology – manipulates her own stereotype within her culture. Like the Dadaist innovators of the form by whom Linder was consciously influenced, and her contemporary Martha Rosler, Linder turns existing symbols of her culture against themselves, revealing their underpinnings. If these found images give her voice, it is only through the acknowledgement that all her speech is mediated by the concept of a woman that she may find room to play within, but certainly never chose for herself.
In 1977 Linder formed the post-punk group Ludus beginning her singing career as a way to let the principles of her visual art be “extended to finding other creative solutions, such as using my own body as palette and process.” The band’s diverse music, a blend of Manchester punk with influences ranging from avant-garde jazz to pure pop, was accompanied by often confrontational performances, and Linder’s contortions of her own visage. The 1981 single ‘SheShe’ included frightening montages and manipulations of Linder’s own face from a series she titled “Myself as a Found Object.”
One now infamous performance at the Hacienda in 1982 found the band at its most confrontational. Linder, despite being a devoted vegetarian, sewed the offal from a butcher’s shop into a dress of black netting she wore on stage, while friends passed raw meat wrapped in pornography out to the audience and tied bloodied tampons to the club’s banisters. The performance was intended as a form of revenge on the club and its patrons for its frequent screening of porn films between acts. If they thought themselves hip for that, Linder reasoned, they should see if they could handle the conclusion to her act: whipping off her skirt to reveal a dildo pointed at the audience. “I finished singing the last song to absolute silence.” Success.
While protests such as the Hacienda show may lack in subtlety, the band’s music was far less straightforward. A friend of the band described their recording Danger Came Smiling as “a very inhuman record...in popular music the personality dominates over the work itself...yet, in non-popular forms, the work has an autonomy, an independence from the artist...That’s why DCS leaves you with a feeling of the impersonal, the absent, the insecure.” Indeed, despite the often central presence of
Linder’s versatile voice, one experiences more a series of masks than a single, definitive persona, her identity hidden as it was among the images of her photomontages. The 1982 song “See the keyhole” addresses this masking directly, casting it as an escape from the expectations of a patriarchal culture; as the instruments shift rapidly in tone and rhythm underneath her, Linder sings to an unknown interlocutor, “See the keyhole / Do you have key? / Would you like to unlock me? / Come stick your head well into me / Push into my smallest part / I have one of many voices / Hear me as I change my cue.”
At times even her grammar seems too contorted to produce a normal speaking subject, as in “The Escape Artist,” “My thoughts play hide and seek / I tongue twist easily / If words I cannot see.” The extreme of this identity loss comes in “Howling Comique,” a song that features only disheveled drumming and saxophone, and eerily contorted laughter from Linder. Such an otherworldly composition denies all communication with its listener, creating a mystery at its heart, an absence where its central persona might be.
“How High Does the Sky Go?” seems to presage much of Linder’s later career with its oceanic setting and spiritual tone. The drums roll like breakers underneath a wash of tremolo guitar, gently buoying Linder’s voice above its surface, as she rises almost two octaves in an amorphous, wordless melody that recalls the modal cadences of early church music. After Ludus’ dissolution, Linder returned to the small villages of England near her birthplace, composing a world she named Linderland among the coastal cliffs and empty harmony of the land. She collected images of Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, a mystic from Manchester who thought herself the second coming of Christ. In Widnes she created the Salt Shrine, 42 tons of industrial salt filling a classroom in an abandoned Catholic school, an uncertain image suggesting the cloistering purity of the religion, but capturing strange beauty as the sunlight glanced on the minerals. She destroyed the vast majority of her Linderland creations, explaining that, “it was too powerful...too articulate...a neurotic, negative cleansing, and with it a sense of loss...It took me half a century to return to the things that happened to me when I was three. The not-letting-out influences everything; everything you do is permeated with the impulse of hiding.” Whether she intended this as a comment on the many masks she wore in her youth, it speaks to the conundrum of her artwork, of the worlds she confronts and composes, in which she is as much lost as found.