Linder Sterling

On Tuesday 26 February, the collector and Founder of Valeria Napoleone XX, Valeria Napoleone hosted us for an event in her Kensington home with artist, Linder Sterling. Linder spoke with writer, Charlie Porter all about: where her love of photomontage began; her appreciation of Indian music; her infatuation with incense; how she fell in love with Barbara Hepworth at Tate St.Ives; her hilarious experience of sex shops in the North and her favourite glue sticks (it’s not Pritt!)! Read on for more highlights …

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Can you talk about photomontage and how you first came to images?   

Linder: My generation, all of our parents had gone through the Second World War and the horrors of that and I think generationally we absorbed all of that anxiety. It was unconscious, the anxiety about war and survival. So, by the time you come to the mid-late 1970s, you have Britain again in grotesque unemployment, politics about to swing from left to right so it is quite a volatile time.

I went to study graphic design at university rather than at art school and I didn’t do painting – my parents had come through the Second World War and were very, very poor and for their child to a) not leave school at 14 was a very big step so I stayed in school and they were b) very anxious that I would always have a trade in my hands, that I would never be unemployed and always have some way of surviving. So I went to study Graphic Design, which I didn’t really fit.

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I got very proficient with mark-making, I just drew night and day. Then I got so bored of my own mark-making. And so I went to the newsagents, you still find now I always watch WHSmiths cause they are always on the front line, as they are in every station and it is a good kind of biopsy of what is happening in popular culture.

So, I just started to cut up women in every kind of magazine I could find. I used to cut up my mother’s magazines, in a loving way not a vindictive way. It was relatively innocent. And, of course there was pornographic image. There were only two sex shops in Manchester, one was called the Harmony Centre so I used to buy material from there. Whether I bought a dildo from the man there or magazines from him, he was always overly helpful. And I think that was the joy of working with piles of photographs of mass-media, taking little biopsies of how I as a woman could appear within pornography, how I as a woman could appear in fashion, within Family Circle, Woman’s Own and things like that. It was very clean, but with mark-making things could get very messy. Even to this day I work with a surgeon’s scalpel. Swann Morton Number 11 A blade.

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How did you find the tension between the images you were bringing together?  

Linder: There were huge, huge discrepancies between women in Vogue and women in Playboy. But now, I think fashion borrows from pornography quite often. I think then, it was very demarcated.

Charlie: We were talking before about how your work is actually about time, photography is presumed to be a short-term thing, but as time passes and that equipment is now obsolete or the way it is printed is now obsolete, it comes something very demarcated and your work becomes about this thing called time. And then also how you connect in other thoughts about time in terms of Barbara Hepworth and these women you connect with or think about and think about their lives. Can you talk about that?

Linder: Yes, maybe I’ll start with Hepworth. Because Hepworth had such a struggle as an artist, and very rightly refused to be seen as a woman artist, she had such a fight on her hands. And she was always anti-feminism, for good reason. Although she was always this sort of giant, she was always in my blind spot until I went down to Tate St Ives, they had a wonderful exhibition in 2009 called the Dark Monarch. I’d done a performance piece on the beach there on Halloween and after the performance I went to Barbara Hepworth’s garden which I’d never been to before, and it was very, very dark and it was raining and you couldn’t really see very much. We were encouraged to go through her garden and just touch and feel our way through. So it was the best possible introduction to Hepworth and it was very, very visceral and sensual. That’s when I fell head over heels in love with her.

Charlie: I should say, and we don’t really have time to go into it, but neither of us believe time exists - but I think a lot of Linder’s work is about these connections that time creates this barrier that makes us think Hepworth is in the past but actually Hepworth exists now and we exist then.

Linder: Exactly! And I think because my introduction to it was on a cellular level, that thrill, I didn’t want to lose that by doing too much research that would become far more intellectual, I wanted to keep that gut response to her work.

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You said before that when you’re making your photomontage, you feel no anxiety. Can you talk about that? Because I think most people experience anxiety when they create. I presumed that at the beginning you may have experienced anxiety but as time has gone on you have learnt how to work with anxiety.

Linder: No, it’s the opposite. I think for me, from being a tiny child, art and image making was always a sanctuary. I didn’t have a television until I was ten, no phones and there was no distraction. Even now, I can be really anxious about nothing in particular but as soon as I start making work, anxiety evaporates. It is the best thing. For me it’s good because my image making is easy, I can go anywhere in the world and make my work.


Q. Do you have a favourite glue stick?

A. I do, I do … And it’s not Pritt! My favourite glue stick is the WHSmiths glue stick, it’s gorgeous and silky. I’m obsessed, I’m always buying glue sticks, scissors and scalpels.

Q. I was fascinated by the idea of sensory stimulus and I would love to know what you listen to.

A. I have a really wide range of musical tastes. And for the last ten years, I have been listening to and practicing Indian music. I really regret coming to it so late in life.

I always have different soundtracks for each body of work. It really can be anything. I tend to have one album, which sounds very archaic but I do listen to one album and stick to that. I have to find that soundtrack that has the mood of my work. I can’t break off from it, it has to be on loop.

I will also have a certain perfume or oil. Right now, I am using something called Nagarmotha, this incredible essential oil from India. It is so beautiful, it has such depth and you feel like you can just sink into it! I have it in my bag right now, we could pass it around!

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Q. It’s great to have your work here in London right now. And last year I saw your work at the Feminist Art Library in Glasgow and it was so awesome and so brilliant. I was wondering if you could talk about the differences, similarities and pleasures of working with textiles and working with collage in a 2D-way vs. on the body?

A. Thank you for that question! If you ever are in Glasgow, you should make a trip into the Glasgow Women’s Library, the last independent library in Great Britain. Glasgow Women’s Library has endured all sorts of cut-backs and it’s now really thriving. It was nominated for museum of the year award last year! As every women’s library closed in Britain, they gave their archive to the Glasgow Women’s Library. You must all go at some point!

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Glasgow Women’s Library wanted to have their own flag and they asked me to make their flag. I felt really honoured and the weight of expectation of making the first flag. I have worked in textiles before. My photomontages have been printed onto dresses, onto blouses and I loved seeing how an image that can hang on a gallery wall in a white cube, how you can put the same image onto a woman’s body onto cotton and that woman who is wearing it is animating this image. It is something very different.

I did lots and lots of research on flags. Looking at how flags are used more generally. The idea that flags are just a rectangle of fabric and you know, we see football fans draped in flags. We had to make six flags. So, we are going to do an event later this year which will be some kind of workshop and we will drape women in flags.

Q. I have a question about your source material. I wonder how often you buy magazines? are they new or old magazines? Do you ever see an image that you really like, but you think not quite yet and you put it away to use later?

A. The earliest material I tend to work with is 1930s and 40s up until contemporary imagery. I buy all the time, a lot of stuff. I’m not sure if I’ve got to the hoarder stage yet. I have different boxes labelled pink glossy lips, red matte lips, reptiles, birds of prey. So I do try to categorise them. I am always looking and I am always buying. Sometimes I buy a magazine and I can almost see the photomontage from there and I get very very excited and I run home. But sometimes I run home and it doesn’t happen, so I put it away. Then two years later I see it again and then it happens. I’m quite like a squirrel or a magpie, I buy things and then find somewhere to hide it for later. That’s why my labelling isn’t too accurate, because sometimes if I go into my birds of prey box and accidentally find a huge picture of a strawberry tart, I think hmm maybe that’s more interesting than the hawk.

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As I’m leafing through lots and lots of magazines and lots and lots of images I still can’t quite say why I select each image. It could be something tiny like the look in a woman’s eye, it could be something about the chair she’s sitting on, it could be just the colour, just the inks. I just think oh my god and rip it out. So I have all these magazines everywhere and as I work with them, inevitably I’m thinking I wonder what happened to this woman before and after this session, what was the photographer like, was he creepy? Did she get paid? Did she have to have sex? Where is she now? Is she dead or alive now? I have all these unanswered questions. There is always this speculation about them. And then I think if they could walk straight off that page, how would they walk? What would they say? What would they be like?

Q. I’d like to ask about Feminism and all you’ve lived and how you see women now, especially women as artists.

A. Wherever I go, there is often 12, 13, 14, 15 year olds turning up and they are always so amazing. There question is often what was it like, but I think they give me so much hope because they know something is missing but they can’t quite articulate it, so they want to know how other generations in the past have used other sorts of language, visual, written, choreographic language. Looking at that generation coming through, they are just so on it.

Occasionally, I go into Instagram and put in the feminism hashtag, and that is a really interesting thing to do to see how it changes and also how multi-faceted that word is. The imagery that is thrown up by feminism is such a wide range of imagery but maybe in the 1970s it was this stereotype of women without bras, no make-up and hair. The stereotypes were very tiny and were tight whereas now feminism is so generous and that’s because women are defining that term for themselves. And I feel very excited at this point, not just about feminism but about gender politics and it’s up for grabs for all of us. That is one good thing about social media, it is relatively democratic despite all the behind-the-scenes. We can all define feminism and keep it alive and invigorated.

Photography by Luke Fullalove.