BY MIN CHEN
In November of 1982, a woman steps onstage at The Haçienda in a dress of raw meat. She was enraged and her choice of outfit, she later explained, was a form of “revenge.” At that point in time, the Manchester venue, yet to become that delirious nexus of Madchester, was still an experimental, often empty hulk of a club, largely visited by Factory Records’ stable of post-punk bands. Mostly, as she noted, it was a “male preserve. They were showing lots of soft porn and they thought it was really cool; repetitive reels of pornography presiding over the dancefloor. Pornography can never be casual and without consequence, at least not in my world.”
So when Linder Sterling arrived with her group Ludus to play the club, she had her managers adorn every table in the venue with a paper plate, stacked with a red-colored tampon and a stubbed cigarette. Then she took the stage in a dress “exquisitely crafted” with the discarded parts of chickens (collected from a Chinese restaurant), woven into black net. Underneath that, she wore a black dildo, which she revealed at the end of the band’s set. “I remember the audience going back about three feet,” she recalled. “And that was a crowd who thought: nothing can shock us, we see porn all the time, we’re cool. When that happened, when they stepped back, I thought, that’s it. Where do you go from there?”
Photomontage had its roots in the mid-19th century, but it came into its own as a medium during the First World War, when a group of Berlin Dadaists empowered it with motive and message. In particular, George Grosz and John Heartfield repurposed newspaper headlines and clippings into collages that underscored the devastation of warfare. Circulated all over the city, these political works, so-called “Photomontages of the Nazi period,” put Grosz and Heartfield directly in the crosshairs of the Gestapo and SS (both eventually escaped to America). Characterizing what Grosz once deemed its “thorny yet successful road,” the form he and Heartfield popularized would later be wielded by Russian Constructivists, European surrealists, and Spanish Civil War activists, before making its way into the bedroom of a Manchester Polytechnic student.
In the time before 1976, Linder Sterling was producing figures and landscapes on paper as any art school student would. But after 18 years of what she called her “relentless mark making,” she’d grown weary and in an extreme move, “shifted to the scalpel and destroyed all my drawings.” Armed with that pointed tool and a head of feminist theory, she began create surreal photomontages, harvesting depictions of femininity from domestic and pornographic magazines and radically rearranging them to explode mainstream notions of gender and sexuality. She termed the results “cultural monstrosities.” Trailing the medium’s tempestuous roots and thorny road, Linder’s first and following cuts were no timid acts. The severing and transformation of meaning, after all, calls for violent and resolute gestures to engender new, revolutionary visions. As she put it to The Guardian in 2014: “With collage, you make things wrong to make them right.”
She was not alone in her early efforts to conjure creation out of destruction. As punk arrived in her town, shadowing The Sex Pistols’ catalytic gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976, she found herself in a creative circle of like minds, including designer Malcolm Garrett, and Howard Devoto (who she dated) and Pete Shelley, members of Buzzcocks and organizers of the Pistols’ aforementioned debut in Manchester. “My practice chimed with the moment,” she’s said. Indeed it did: she and Garrett began creating posters and flyers for Buzzcocks gigs—her aesthetic echoing the band’s sharp and compact sound. “In 1976, we had to make things quickly and cheaply in order to be seen and heard,” she recalled in 2013. “Everything was ‘spikey’ in our attempts to puncture the culture that we found ourselves in.”
Beginning in 1978, Linder’s practice included writing music and fronting Ludus, which had its own spikey way with jazz, pop, and post-punk. Here’s how she described her music making: “Using my voice, writing words, and finding musicians was simply the method to produce the raw material for the sound cut-ups. The songs were the glue.” Like her art, her music was made with less pencil and more scalpel: “One is making a visible mark and the other has more to do with subtraction; cutting away to reveal something else.”
But also, as she told Morrissey in 2010: “The trick that follows is to find the gesture that returns newness to the familiar… I restore the implicit to the explicit.” Ergo, her meat dress; and years before that, her sleeve for the Buzzcocks’ 1977 single “Orgasm Addict,” and her most recognized piece of work. It featured a naked female torso with an iron where her head should be, the entire thing glazed in electric hues of blue and yellow (the record company would only print the cover in two colors). “The iron came from an Argos catalogue and the female torso came from a photographic magazine called Photo,” Linder recalled. From those quotidian, familiar sources (the kitchen and porn) was born an immediate visual statement that effectively captured the single’s keen, concise, and yes, cheeky form—both of which, like any good punk artifacts, came ready to puncture culture.
In 1981, Ludus released their six-track EP titled Pickpocket. Packaged along with the cassette was a fanzine titled SheShe, consisting of a series of images shot by photographer Christina Birrer, depicting a dramatically made-up Linder in various odd poses. In some, her head is wrapped and draped in a plastic sheet; in others, she obscures the bottom half of her face with a strip of paper, on which is printed the jawline of another woman.
Their form and content is recognizably Linder: to illustrate the suffocating and silencing effect of portrayals of women, she creates a montage, a cultural monstrosity. Except, this time, there is no iron from an Argos catalogue; she is all material—“I have always treated myself as a found object,” she’s insisted. But as always, what is cut and subtracted, reveals. “I paint lines and shapes / On paper and on face,” as Ludus’ 1981 track “The Escape Artist” went. “When there is less of me / People see more of me.”