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Linder Sterling

The high punk collagist chats about her love of ballet in this extended interview

Linder Sterling first hit the art world in the late Seventies with subversive collages for punk zine Secret Republic which she ran alongside Jon Savage. In 1977, she designed the album cover for the Buzzcock’s single Orgasm Addict and later created covers for Magazine. She continues the tradition today with her latest collages debuting at her Musée d’Arte Moderne retrospective next February. While in Paris, Linder will premiere a tour with Northern Ballet which travels to Tate St Ives and Hepworth Wakefield. In a Dazed exclusive, the feminist punk spared a few moments to tell us more about her new collages and ballet.

Your newest project is a ballet; how did this come about?
Linder Sterling: I’ve made lots of ballet collages over the last few years and as a dance form it’s always fascinated me. I’ve recently been working with Northern Ballet and a young choreographer there - Kenny Tindall. Kenny and I have been trying to find the meeting point between my work and Hepworth’s and the ballet, thankfully we’ve thankfully found several meeting points, so we’re very happy. Pam Hogg is designing the ballet costumes; she’s the only designer who understands the complexities of Spandex and the splits. These will be Pam’s first ever dance costumes, which is hard to believe; every one of her designs would have made Nureyev proud. Stuart McCallum is writing the score and it will feature an octobass, of which there are probably only five in the world, one of which I had made last year. The ballet, ‘The Ultimate Form” will premier at my retrospective in Paris in January, then happen again, on a far more ambitious scale, at Tate St Ives and the Hepworth Wakefield Gallery later in the year.

How do your new collages differ from your older work?
Linder Sterling: In the works from the late 1970s, I used photographs of domestic utensils - vacuum cleaners, irons, blenders, etc, and photographs of people getting up to things behind their closed doors.

With the new collages, everything is out in the open, literally. The bodies of the transsexuals are collages in themselves, a surgical and biological blend of male and female. I added images from nature - snakes, birds of prey, lizards, fungi, to add to the hormonal swirl.

How do you select found images for collages? What catches your eye?

Linder Sterling: Picasso said, “I don’t search, I find” and it’s true. It helps if you put yourself in the right place at the right time though, so I’m often to be found in secondhand bookshops next to piles of The Rose annual from the 1950s and 60s.

To me, the new collage series has a humorous undertone. Was this your intention?
Linder Sterling: I think that a lot of the humour is already in the original photographs, it’s already a crazy set up - two naked transsexuals, posturing in front of a horse, in the middle of nowhere. Of course the delight is then in amplifying all of this and adding clumsy Freudian symbols of poised snakes, overblown cacti and voluptuous jellyfish.

Has censorship in art changed much since you began practicing as an artist?
Linder Sterling: When I made my first collages in 1976, Rank Xerox refused to photocopy them. There were only two places in Manchester that you could get photocopies made and I’d already been turned down by the other one. I had to send the collages to Jon Savage, in London, where he managed to have copies made. I wouldn’t fancy my chances walking into Prontoprint tomorrow with the new collages and that’s fine, lines have to be drawn somewhere.

What artists inspire you?
Linder Sterling: My household god for the last few years has been the Modernist sculptor, Barbara Hepworth. For most of my life Hepworth stayed firmly in the shadows of my creative blind spot, generationally we not only wanted to kill the fathers but our mothers too. I’m only just able to see and fully appreciate Hepworth’s jaw droppingly complex and ambitious body of work.

Are you still influenced by music?
Linder Sterling: More than ever. I use music as other people use Prozac and/or Ketamine.

Where are you currently living?
Linder Sterling: My house and studio have been packed up for quite some time now, ever since my father died last year. I’m in limbo, between one phase of life and another. Losing my father was like losing the North Star, he was a constant that aided life’s navigation. I'm still waiting to recalibrate my emotional sextant before I make a move.

You used to live in Whalley Range. What was it like in the early Eighties?
Linder Sterling: Very grand architecturally and very seedy morally. Even buying a loaf of bread was quite complex - Whalley Range then was Manchester’s red light district - so at 8.00am you might be being trailed by a curb crawler in a Ford Capri, with a baby seat still in place from the nursery run. It put you right off your Mother’s Pride.

Have you ever had a near-death experience?
Linder Sterling: Yes, when spinning across three lanes of the M66 at 70 mph. An articulated lorry clipped my wing and off I went towards the central reservation. I somehow survived but life has never been quite the same since - you’ve seen how quickly it can all end, how savagely, and yet very banal too - “Linder killed on the M66”, it wasn't even Sunset Boulevard. Maybe it’s time to make a move after all.

What’s the longest you’ve gone without sleep?
Linder Sterling: Not very long. I never do drugs and rarely do caffeine. After midnight I’m like Alice’s Doormouse and if someone pinches me awake, I start talking about “...mouse-traps, and the moon, and the memory, and muchness - you know you say things are “much of a muchness” did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?” Well, did you?

Do you prefer coffee or tea?
Linder Sterling: See the above and make mine a Badoit. Up until the year I was born you could only buy it in pharmacies and anything that can still sparkle after having crawled through miles of granite must be good for you. Tea makes me gag and the after effects of coffee make me cry. 

Do you owe anyone an apology?
Linder Sterling: It’s probably quicker to think who I don’t owe an apology to. That’s all part of life’s rich tapestry though, isn’t it? That sometimes even our very presence offends? And those that we do love get neglected whilst we soothe the ruffled feathers of the emotionally injured. As Morrissey sang, “I’ve spent my whole life in ruins over people who are nice.”

If you could change one quality about yourself, what would it be?
Linder Sterling: To be able to sit in full Lotus without crying.

Linder discussed her collages in the opening pages of this month's magazine. Buy the mag now, and see her ballet if you can.