Linder Sterling at the British Art Show 8: Collages, Carpets and Collaborations

by Ann Barrass

Linder Sterling - Diagrams of Love : Marriage of eyes

Ann Barrass takes in a conversation with punk artist Linder Sterling at the British Art Show 8 in Leeds. 

Linder Sterling is a collage artist with roots in the punk scene in Manchester in the 1970s, who came to fame with her artwork for the Buzzcocks’ single “Orgasm Addict”. Her use of pornographic images in her collages spans her entire career. I’ve never really engaged with her work, finding the somewhat simplistic use of porn jarring, but went to see her in conversation as part of the art jamboree that is the British Art Show 8 (BAS8) in Leeds.

The British Art Show happens every five years. This year’s show is the eighth, and it brings together 42 artists who are considered to have made a significant contribution to contemporary art in the UK over the past five years. One of its themes is the changing role and status of the physical object in an increasingly digital age. It’s taken over the whole of Leeds Art Gallery before the majority of the gallery closes for some heavy duty roof repairs, so I’m keen to engage with it as much as possible before we’re denied this space for a year or so.

Pictured above, Linder’s physical object for BAS8 – Diagrams of Love: Marriage of Eyes – is a gorgeous, sumptuous, lush, louche, multi-coloured, multi-textured round mat that whirls up into a spiral carpet. It seemed to me to be quite at odds with her earlier pieces, which have felt to me rather lacking in complexity. So I listened with open ears.

Linder wasn’t the brash punk I’d expected. She quietly explained that her 1970 collages of nude women were a feminist reworking of the way women were routinely depicted by the press at that time. Her work, by her own admission, is minimal; she considers “images are fragile… constructed”. Here I realised why I don’t engage very well with her work; I like a lot of visual complexity to give me some kind of challenge in what I see. Linder was simply not aiming for that goal. I began to understand her and warm to her.

So how did she get from the collages to the carpet?

Linder had stayed at apartments in London which had been preserved and set aside for artists to use. They were carpeted in original 1960s and 70s-style carpets, which she linked to her mother’s dementia, sadly and continually locked in the past.

Alongside this, she already had a very large body of research work on the sculptor Barbara Hepworth and the St Ives set, produced as a result of a residency she’d undertaken at Tate St Ives.

The Edinburgh carpet studio, Dovecot, had been experimenting with how to push the rug as an art form, and approached her to collaborate. Using collage techniques on designs from the London carpets, plus the party atmosphere of the 1950s St Ives set, Linder worked with the Dovecot tufters to produce a “hallucinogenic shapeshifter” of a rug that shifted shape to a spiral carpet… which Linder had already identified as a component in a new ballet.

Linder Sterling - Diagrams of Love : Marriage of eyes

So how did the carpet get to the ballet?

At this point in the evening, Linder was joined in conversation by the choreographer Kenneth Tindall (“Kenny”), a former principal dancer with the Northern Ballet, and the musician Max Sterling. Kenny and Linder had collaborated before, and it was clear from Kenny’s effusive words and body language that he really bounced off creative her ideas.

The ballet had developed, based on Linder’s research, as a live brief also incorporating Kenny’s dancers, plus Max – a graduate of Leeds College of Music, Skyped in from his base in LA, providing music that changed beat and didn’t lend itself to ballet. Oh, and of course the carpet, which Linder had conceptualised it as an item that could be both static and choreographed.

The carpet never “dances” the same way twice. But rather than shying away from all these challenges, Kenny used them to push both his dancers and what ballet itself can do.

The carpet isn’t the only complication. Linder decided that the costumes should be pieces from the sportswear-inspired collection of another associate of hers, fashion designer Christopher Shannon. So the dancers had to contend with bulkier clothing than they might otherwise expect to wear in a performance. However, this may have stood them in good stead; the ballet premiered in the cold Tiled Hall of Leeds City art gallery, so their muscles must have needed to be warmed up a little more than normal.

Listening to Linder, Kenny, and with Max chipping in, I was glad I’d opened my ears and my mind to the conversation. For someone who’s dabbled with collage as an art form, it was good to see how other creative people have broadened their practice outwards and how the “whole” created by the three of them – plus, of course, Dovecot and the carpet – was much greater than the sum of its parts.

A version of this piece originally appeared on Ann’s MA Creative Practice Blog.