Linder Sterling: The Ultimate Form
UK premiere, Hepworth Wakefield
11 May 2013
Review by Chloe Reith
As performance continues to find new relevance in contemporary visual arts, new facets are constantly being opened up within the gallery. However as a live art form, dance is less frequently encountered in the gallery. Aside from certain permitted exceptions it seems that dance and the visual arts typically coexist on the peripheries of one another, operating in parallel but rarely coalescing. The same could be said of the unlikely alliance between Linder, the late Barbara Hepworth, and contemporary ballet, but in ‘The Ultimate Form’ - Linder’s new performance work which received its blustery open-air premiere at The Hepworth, Wakefield last week - all three have collided in a ‘living collage’ of choreographed dance, music and costume.
‘The Ultimate Form’ is the second of Linder’s ‘ballet collages’, a form she has been experimenting with in recent years together with collaborators Stuart McCallum of The Cinematic Orchestra and fashion designer Richard Nicoll. In 2010, the trio presented the visceral thirteen-hour performance ‘The Darktown Cakewalk’ at Chisenhale Gallery, and this latest production includes additional collaborators, choreographer Kenny Tindall, and professional dancers from the Northern Ballet. This particular collage, however, marks a pointed departure in form for the artist, whose magazine cut-ups and subversive performances continually juxtaposed the mundane with the profane, and tirelessly confronted body politics, gender identity and feminist concerns.
The evolution of Linder from punk performer to the world of ballet is hard to assimilate, but this performance and accompanying exhibition represent a synthesis of three years research into the life and work of Hepworth who, Linder admits, has become something of a totemic figure for her. The new body of work, then, attempts to draw out apparent parallels in these two formidable artists who share strong connections to Northern England and have always dealt in some way with femininity in male dominated spheres. Particularly resonating with Linder’s practice was the movement, musicality and latent performativity embedded in Hepworth’s sculptures, as well as lesser known aspects of her oeuvre including costume design for the stage. Despite these parallels though, it is hard to find parity in these artists’ work, particularly as this alignment seems to have resulted, for Linder at least, in a radical departure from her own approach.
Channelling Hepworth, Linder’s infamous collage work has assumed a certain propriety. Her new lightbox collages are delicate and graceful as opposed to essential or arresting. These illuminated archive photographs depict ballerinas and stage actors; romantic scenes overlaid with foliage, birds and insect wings. These kitschy, charming arrangements can hint at irony but are for the most part without enquiry or critique. Agitation and political comment is nowhere to be found.
‘The Ultimate Form’ delivers an essential vitality missing from these two-dimensional collages. The performance incorporated a multidimensional musical score complete with live percussion and the ‘Octobass for the 21st Century (Version I)’ a towering sculpture-cum-instrument constructed in direct homage to Hepworth’s stringed sculptures, that when played omitted a low frequency, less heard, than felt, gutturally. This rare instrument conceived a voice for Hepworth’s sculptures, imagining their aural expression and its powerful presence evoked Hepworth herself as well as the weight of Modernist tradition.
Inviting the elements and surrounding landscape to provide a dramatic staging, the dancers performed a series of movements which wholly embraced Hepworth’s formal expression. Responding to the electronic score and unshakable reverberations of the octobass, male and female performers translated abstract forms, curving shapes and the grace of solid structures. Shifting fluidly in and out of formation, their actions expressed what is often underplayed in Hepworth’s work; its sensuality, vitality and expressive sexuality. Through Linder’s notion of the living collage, the performance was subtly framed within recursive thematic layers which mirrored, looped and repeated. The dancers performed movements inspired by Hepworth’s sculptures which were themselves inspired by movement and dance, and as they performed, their costumes re-presented imagery of dancers (taken from Linder’s collage works) across their bodies. In this way ‘The Ultimate Form’ was caught up, not simply in a celebration of art, movement and music but in a self-reflexive mise en abyme of performance, staging, interior and exterior.
Throughout both the performance and exhibition it was disappointing not to engage with Linder’s more antagonistic provocations but she has recently indicated that ‘punk’s mercurial action now has to be reversed and set into slow motion, to rally against a present-day culture of acceleration’ which suggests that Linder is now seeking to apprehend a new response from the viewer.