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How Linder Sterling is challenging the norms, boxes, and hyper-sexualisation of gender

Linderism at Kettle’s Yard offers a 50 year retrospective on the multi-disciplinary artist, who sought to disrupt and juxtapose the society we live in

By Mattie O’Callaghan

Linderism at Kettle’s yard offers a 50 year retrospective on the multi-disciplinary artist Linder Sterling, who has sought to disrupt, juxtapose, and make uncomfortable the hegemonic power relations we survive in. Even changing her name from Linda to Linder is just one of the ways Linder challenges the boundaries of gender. Linder’s work creates a disconnect between society’s expectations and the way we perceive our bodies and our identities. Through juxtaposing images and words cut from lifestyle magazines and used in her collages, Linder offers a liberation from the norms, the boxes, and the hyper-sexualisation of gender.

Central to much of Linder’s earlier work from the 1970s and 80s was the use of collage, cutting out and gluing together images from magazines that represented both consumer culture and the pornographic sexualisation of women. Inspired by the women’s liberation movements, feminist politics, and magazines like Spare Rib, these ideas became increasingly prominent in her work and activism. In particular, her perspectives on heteronormative relationships really struck me in Untitled 1 (1977) and Untitled 2 (Romance) (1977), where the woman in each relationship had almost become an inanimate object of food, to eat and belong to the temporary masculine desires.

Photography by Mattie O’Callaghan

Linder takes inspiration from her involvement in the punk and post-punk scenes, which used style and image to revolt against the system. She attended the infamous Sex Pistols concert at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester and made cover art for bands such as Magazine. In this way, Linder’s work also has parallels in the way we treat our bodies and environments as objects to serve the endless capitalist system of growth and productivity. By using recycled materials from consumerist magazines in her photomontages and cutting them up to show their disconnection from reality and endless romantic ideals, Linder is taking an anti-consumerist stance. In this way, she shows us that endless self-improvement through our external image does not lead to connection and love, and that we need to move beyond following consumerist ideals in magazines, to find values in our bodies rather than our images.

"Through her images, Linder recognises and aims to reveal the ways in which gender labels can be detrimental."

Yet, through her images, Linder recognises and aims to reveal the ways in which gender labels can be detrimental. Linder’s photomontages show the ways in which men too are structured and confined to fulfil a western romantic ideal of ‘man’ in society, while their emotions must lay hidden. In contrast, in some of Linder’s performative work, such as Glorification de l’Élue (2011), where she has been covered in multi-coloured paint, shows how the image of the ‘crazy woman’ is confined by the complexities of gender and identity, and ignores the importance of expressing emotion without being stigmatised. In this way, bringing shocking pornographic images to mundane objects of food, flowers, and household, Linder makes the hidden power relations, complexities, and contradictions in which we judge each other more visible.

Photography by Mattie O’Callaghan

However, it is also easy to be misled and confused by Linder’s work, especially with its use of pornographic images and lack of explanation. Linder is strongly anti-pornographic in her message, yet uses the images often in her work as a way to disrupt the normality of their use. This can inspire interesting conversations for those who are familiar with her work and feminist theory, but for a general audience with less background, the gallery space adds little to contextualise her work. For a retrospective, rather than a themed show, this seems particularly important and her work would have much more prevalence if it worked more through a narrative than a collection of her work.

"With Linder’s work focused on liberation, disruption, and empowerment, she creates a space for everybody."

However, the house at Kettle’s yard offers an extra curatorial opportunity to fill the gap from the disconnection and shock of Linder’s work. The house was lived in by a couple, Jim and Helen Ede, between 1958 to 1973, who opened it up to the public in the afternoons to share their great love of art. Historically, Kettle’s Yard has focused on Jim’s role as a curator of the house (formerly Assistant at Tate, London) and Helen was just seen as Jim’s wife, while her role in collecting art, curating their house, and hosting visitors has been ignored, until now. In light of Linder’s alternative narratives and the absence of Helen, like so many women, this has led to the house being renamed the ‘House of Ede’, to pay homage to the power of untold female stories.

Photography by Mattie O’Callaghan

Linder also created new work for this House, which has been displayed in Helen’s bedroom. For me, this felt like moving from a place of shock in the galleries, to a place where I felt empowered. This comes from the idea that in public displays, women are expected to be modest and shamed if they expose their bodies. While in the house, in the privacy of the home, it felt more intimate, as the softness of the light and white walls offer a place of reflection, to find our own comfort and connection to ourselves through Linder’s work. The fear of challenging gender boundaries melts away as we become closer to accepting ourselves. Therefore, understanding Linder’s work in two different spaces made me realise how society judges where different people are accepted. Instead, we need to make spaces for our bodies and sexualities to be comfortable and empowered both at home, with ourselves, and in public. With Linder’s work focused on liberation, disruption, and empowerment, she creates a space for everybody.

Linderism is being shown from the 15 February to 16 April 2020 at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge.

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