Radical Artist Linder on Liverpool, Music and Feminism

Posted on 6 November 2019 by Liverpool Biennial

Linder. Photo: Gabby Laurent

Linder. Photo: Gabby Laurent

Internationally renowned for her radical feminism, Liverpool-born artist Linder uses photography, collage and performance to critique past and contemporary gender roles, specifically the representation of women. Fashion, music and performance are important features in her work, inspired by her background in the 1970s punk and post-punk scene. We sat down with Linder on her recent LB2020 site visit to talk about her history with the city and the key cultural moments that influenced her practice.

On Liverpool

I was born in Broadgreen Hospital in 1954 and I lived in Liverpool for the first ten years of my life. The first decade is often the most formative time; it’s when one’s character begins to take shape. For me, a vital influence was growing up in Liverpool and it not being a landlocked city, it was a port to the rest of world. My grandfather was a docker, my mother worked in Vernons Pools and my father worked in the Barker & Dobson sweet factory – my childhood was full of stories of 1940s Liverpool.

At the same time as I was growing up, Pop happened – that is, if you date the beginning of pop music to the release of Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel in 1956. I was birthed at the same time as pop music began and I will no doubt die as it ends. Pop was also happening within the arts. In autumn next year, after the Liverpool Biennial, I’ll have a retrospective at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle where Richard Hamilton et al ushered in British Pop art. Pop music is absolutely key to the DNA of Liverpool though and as a small child I was immersed in the sounds and fashions of Merseybeat.

Another seminal influence at that time was watching protest marches in the city and seeing beatniks at close quarters. As a young child, I wondered what all the marching, shouting and banners were about – I still get a thrill when I see a protest march. Liverpool’s not a passive city; it’s very vocal in both its opposition and support of issues that matter. I think all cities go through flash points when they suddenly get really exciting politically and/or creatively. My first decade was a key time for the city of Liverpool and something very vital happened culturally on an international scale in those ten years. It was therefore a complete culture shock when my family moved twenty miles away to a small mining village in 1964. The villagers didn’t have any of the speed or wit of Liverpudlians, women were often referred to as wenches and there was certainly no sense of pop. I missed Liverpool deeply.

At 65, with the luxury of hindsight, the more relevant those ten years in Liverpool become. I’m so glad I had my formative years in this city, they helped to make me who I am. I was lucky to be born into a golden period of music and prosperity here and it was such a wonderful moment when I was asked to participate in the next Biennial. I’ve never been asked to have an exhibition here or to make site specific work that relates to the city so I’m indebted to Fatoş and Manuela that I can create a series of new works for Liverpool Biennial 2020.

As I’m walking through the city now, I can see the ghost of old Liverpool, despite the changes in the city over the last half century. I have so many fond memories of being here with my family so it’s a good feeling to return and to reminisce. There’s something creative in the DNA here – in the tap water – that is unique. You can’t put your finger on it. It’s elusive, like quicksilver. Liverpool is so special. 

On Music

My parents were of the generation who used to go dancing every night in Liverpool. They met in one of the many massive ballrooms, such as the Grafton or the Locarno [now Liverpool Olympia]. In the mid-1950s, the film Rock Around the Clock was shown in Liverpool. My dad went to see it amidst reports in the national press of people going “wild in the aisles” and tearing up cinema seats. My father was a Teddy Boy and very much a part of that generation, it was the first time that youth culture, the notion of a teenager, had been defined.

We always had music playing at home, my mum and dad loved pop so much, it was a huge part of our lives. Merseybeat was incredibly important because up until that point, mainstream music always seemed to be happening beyond Liverpool, often in America.

Linder, Three Realms of the Unconscious (detail), 2011. Courtesy the artist and Modern Art, London

I went on to become part of the next generation who in 1976 helped to create punk. It was equally as liberating as my parents discovering rock ‘n’ roll and similar shock tactics were used. The tabloid media ventriloquised shock and horror from older generations but my parents had seen rock ‘n’ roll unfold so they were more bemused than anything else. Punk happened pre-internet, pre-social media, pre-mobiles phones – unimaginable to many now, how national and international histories can be created with such slender means. None of us had phones so lots of letters had to be written!

I now study and practice Indian music, I play two instruments, the taus and the dilruba. My son, Maxwell Sterling, is a film composer as well as being a solo artist in his own right. We have heated cross-generational debates and he constantly introduces me to newness. I spend a lot of time talking about and listening to music with my son, as well as by myself. It’s a major part of my life – major and vital – it keeps me alive and it keeps me curious. 

On Feminism

In 1968, just after the news on a Wednesday evening, there was a TV show called Nice Time. It was a satirical sketch programme and the presenters where Kenny Everett, Germaine Greer and Jonathan Routh. Initially, Nice Time was only shown in the North West. The female presenter, Germaine Greer, was very funny and very witty. My first introduction to a feminist icon then was in her guise of a satirist. In 1970, at 16 years of age, I saw Greer’s name on a book cover alongside the title, ‘The Female Eunuch’. The cover of the book was very striking and I immediately recognised Greer’s name so I bought the book and read it at high speed. At 16, I didn’t know what had hit me! The book was extraordinary, it completely rewired my brain and it changed my life. Apparently Greer hates it when people say the book changed their lives, but it changed mine. It taught me how to look at the world around me, to question the roles of men and women and to realise that they were far from natural, that it was all a construct and that we were all playing prescribed roles. Because of convention, we’re taught that men and women have to look and act in certain ways, but we know now that that’s simply not true!

The Female Eunuch and other books following hot on its heels during the second wave of feminism made me look at the world in a radically different way. I read all of Germain Greer’s contemporaries at the same time – rather like if a new movement is happening in music, you want to hear every album and single. I was fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time and to witness the birth of pop, second wave feminism, and punk. 

Linder, The Goddess Who has Arrows, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Modern Art, London.

It was through Germaine Greer, then, that I discovered feminism. In the early 1970s I suddenly saw her and other feminists being ridiculed in the media because whether it was punk, feminism or pop, the tabloids try to devour, ridicule and diminish anything that’s different. That’s their raison d’être. But I first knew of Germaine Greer in a very different persona as she critiqued culture alongside Kenny Everett and Jonathan Routh on prime time television. Academics now know almost everything about the roots of British feminism but they rarely acknowledge the comedic side of Germaine Greer – very few outside of the North West know about Nice Time –a period that tethers her to the North West.

I’ve always been very open about saying I’m a feminist, it’s just like saying I’m a Sagittarius, it’s just a fact. It’s not that big a deal. It almost feels more of a big deal now as feminism is yet again being critiqued or is seen by some as confining. As a young woman, the concept of a woman’s liberation movement – i.e. politics being in flux and not static – really excited me.

I hope as long as I live, British culture – and the culture of the North West in particular – will always create newness, dissent, satire and joy.

Linder is one of the 50+ international artists who have been commissioned for Liverpool Biennial 2020: The Stomach and the Port, taking place 11 July – 25 October.