Ex-Punk Linder Sterling Is at Home with Opulence
The one-time Buzzcocks house artist becomes "a demigod of the printed page" in her residency at England's Chatsworth House.
Work by Linder Sterling. Courtesy of Stuart Shave/Modern Art, London, copyright the artist
2018 is already a huge year for Linder Sterling, with two major exhibitions in England—one at Chatsworth House (the historic seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, where she's currently artist in residence) and the other at Nottingham Contemporary—and a significant contribution to Glasgow Women’s Library as part of Glasgow International Festival. It's all a long way from her punk beginnings as the maker of the Buzzcocks infamous "Orgasm Addict" sleeve, the result of a serendipitous meeting with the band at the Sex Pistols' legendary Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall show. GARAGE caught up with Linder recently at Chatsworth.
GARAGE: You’re the first artist in residence here. It feels like quite a turnaround from your background in underground publishing. How are you finding it?
Linder: I’m loving every moment! The house and the landscape yield one delight after another. I also find myself traveling further and further back in time with little intention of rushing back to the present day. I had no idea that history could be so seductive.
Your primary form is photomontage, and you’ve mentioned before that you were inspired by Hannah Hoch. Does cutting out shapes make you feel omnipotent?
Making a photomontage, I become a demigod of the printed page, wielding scissors and glue until I make an image that articulates something greater than the sum of its parts. So yes, there’s a temporary omnipotence via the engineering of the halftone dot. But I come down to earth again as soon as I put the glue stick away.
At Chatsworth, history is beguiling. What’s it like applying your scissors and scalpel to something as physically intangible as the past? Are you creating a new history or staying within the existing narrative?
I have access to all of the collections here. Chatsworth isn’t just a receptacle of precious objects though—it’s also a treasure trove of ideas. Even picking up a small thimble yields a fascinating narrative about who sewed what, where, when, and why. I’m also using scent and sound to create a soft architecture so that incense and voices will snake through the corridors and state bedrooms of the house. Existing narratives will become as aerosolic as smoke, inviting the visitor to reimagine the past in a new and polysensory fashion.
There are mystical and spiritual layers to your work, parallel energies and moments.
As a child I was fascinated by the prospect of a world beyond the everyday; fairy stories have a lot to answer for! There’s something very fairytale about Chatsworth, and peculiar things happen here with time. You get glimpses of parallel worlds that sometimes seem more substantial than the 21st century. There’s a free-floating allure that refuses to be analyzed and pinned down. Chatsworth flirts with the eternal whilst we mortals keep track of time on our dumb smart phones.
You began your career as a feminist punk artist. How does that translate into this setting?
The female lineage at Chatsworth is at times incredibly potent. The duchesses were often ahead of their time politically, socially, and sexually. A perfect example of this is Georgiana Cavendish, who helped to campaign for the abolition of slavery. She lived in a menage a trois with her husband and their shared lover, Lady Elizabeth Foster. Duchess Georgiana also breastfed her babies, rebelling against the aristocratic fashion of using a wet nurse. So even in this one 18th-century biography, we encounter a feminist sensibility coupled with the shock tactics of punk.
A lot of my work is predicated on ephemeral imagery found in books and magazines printed between the early 20th century and the present. I make cut-outs and reconfigure them so that new meanings are generated that are far removed from the original. It’s been quite a leap to be able to consider Chatsworth as a found image, though. I’ve established an inner democracy so that the Thomas Gainsborough painting of Duchess Georgiana carries the same weight in my psyche as a cut out of a pop star. As soon as the sense of awe is siphoned off, the imagery at Chatsworth becomes more malleable.
I take it you haven’t applied your scalpel to anything too precious? How are the layers of Cavendish family history affecting your practice?
The old masters have yet to be interfered with, but there's still time! The first house was built at Chatsworth in 1550 by Bess of Hardwick and her husband William Cavendish. Bess is at the root of everything here, far more so than her four husbands. Under the instruction of Elizabeth I, Bess had to detain Mary Queen of Scots under intermittent house arrest here over a 15-year period. Bess and Mary spent a lot of time creating ambitiously scaled embroideries and each motif that the two women sewed carried great weight symbolically. Boredom generated ingenious craft; their private language is still being decoded today. I’m working on these same embroidered codes with prisoners at Fine Cell Work. Curiously, 98% of the prisoners who embroider are male.
You mention boredom as vital to creativity. Or are you just paraphrasing the Buzzcocks line?
I find myself turning into a ventriloquist more and more. Why try to paraphrase something when someone else said it so much more eloquently so many years before? B’dum, b’dum!
As well as exhibiting here at Chatsworth you’re also curating The House of Fame at Nottingham Contemporary, including in it several interesting female artists working with surreal and spiritualist elements. Is curating a form of collage for you? Will the experience of the show be like walking into one of your artworks?
The show at Nottingham Contemporary is an intricate weave of all that delights my ear, my nose, and my eye right now. We’ll encounter the artist ventriloquizing herself through other artists here too. Each visitor will add their own meaning to the weave, crack their own code. There are no wrong answers in The House of Fame.