Almost exactly a year ago Stuart Shave, proprietor of London’s Modern Art gallery, approached design studio A Practice For Everyday Life (APFEL) to work on a monograph dedicated to the work of British artist Linder Sterling (known simply as Linder).
The 200 page book – a “giant magazine with text pages tipped in on a tinted paper” – is now designed and due to be published this spring but working on it has led APFEL to collaborate further with Linder on the design of a major retrospective of the British artist’s work from the mid 1970s to present. This show is set to open in February at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
It was during a meeting arranged to discuss the design of the Modern Art monograph that Linder revealed to APFEL’s Kirsty Carter and Emma Thomas that she was a fan of their work on the design of the V&A’s Postmodernism: Style & Subversion 1970–1990 exhibition (September 24 2011 – January 15 2012).
“Linder told us that she had loved the Postmodernism show that we’d worked on, both in terms of the atmosphere it created and also the graphic approach,” explains APFEL’s Emma Thomas. “She then described what would be in the exhibition in Paris and we got to talking about how the visitor would feel experiencing her work and how we could effect that with the exhibition design, by revealing and concealing, creating intimate spaces, as well as displaying some work on a really large scale, enlarged like billboard posters. We spoke about flesh colours, textures of paper, textures of fabric, typography in 70s magazines, porn, macaroon packaging, sickly sweet things. She spoke to us about the imagery she uses in her work, about her collections of roses [themed ephemera], and 70s pornography, of the contrast of beauty and ugliness, some early dark days in Manchester and then of her friendship with Morrissey. She was so generous and enthusiastic in that meeting, it felt like we’d known her for ages.”
A week later the Musée d’Art Moderne got in touch with APFEL suggesting a more formal meeting with Linder and also the curator Emmanuelle de l’Ecotais to talk further about their ideas for the exhibition design. “We asked the architects Carmody Groarke who we’d worked with on the design of the Bauhaus: Art as Life exhibition at the Barbican (May 3 – August 12, 2012), to join us,” says Thomas, “and shortly after that meeting we were commissioned formally by the museum to work on the exhibition design and an accompanying publication that would be about Linder’s work and take the form of a fanzine,” she continues. “Both Linder and Emmanuelle were excited about the idea of the fanzine as a collaboration, more like an artist’s project than a catalogue as such.”
To help inform the design of the show fanzine, Linder sent APFEL two distinct packages of source material, precisely the kind of printed ephemera the artist still uses when creating photomontages. “One package was full of images of nice things like roses and cakes,” recalls Thomas, “and then the other one was full of 70s porn mags.” These magazine layouts, particularly the typography in them and the way images bleed over the edges of the pages, have informed the look and feel of the exhibition publication. “The fanzine, rather like these old porn magazines, will be all black and white apart from a central section of glossy colour plates,” explains Thomas. “Linder had also shown us a piece of work that was made using an old Escort magazine cover so it had the red Escort masthead across the top. We changed the masthead to read ‘Linder’ in a similar typeface and that then developed to the fanzine cover for which Linder created a new piece of work featuring a girl with an image of two scoops of sorbet covering her breasts.”
Linder’s work and ideas have also informed various aspects of the exhibition design. The typeface APFEL has created especially for the show, for example, is based on the type that appears on the cover of Buzzcocks’ debut single Orgasm Addict. The cover was actually designed by Malcolm Garrett in 1977 after Linder introduced him to the band, but it features a photocopied image of a Linder photo-montage of a naked female torso with grinning mouths instead of nipples and a household iron instead of a head – probably the artist’s most famous image.
In terms of the development of the layout of the exhibition and the way it functions architecturally, Linder herself explains how a conversation with Carmody Groarke’s Andy Groarke sparked the approach taken.
“When APFEL introduced me to Andy Groarke, I found out that his father had had a textile business in Manchester which, like lots of other textile businesses at the time, had gone into decline during the 1970s,” says Linder. “We could immediately see that using textiles in a metaphorical way within the space at the Musée could hint at the origins of my practice, ie the early collages were created as Cottonopolis was deliquescing [breaking up]. We were all mutually intrigued by the possibilities of punning on the very fabric of the city in which I made my early work.”
Linder, APFEL and Carmody Groarke then explored the idea of paralleling the refining process of Manchester’s cotton mills from its Cottonopolis period with the development of Linder’s artistic practice over her career.
“I had a friend who had worked in the cotton mills when she was very young and she described the raw cotton coming in through what was known as the ‘devil hole’ at the base of the mill,” says Linder of the origin of the idea. “She said that it was filthy and loud, quite intimidating, and it seemed a perfect description of a Buzzcocks concert at Rafters in 1976,” Linder continues. “The refinement process of cotton is subtly played with throughout the space at the Musée, as we move from darkness to light, from velvet blacks and moth greys, to full blown colour.”
Fabric isn’t just alluded to metaphorically, but is a crucial part of APFEL and Carmody Groarke’s solution to guide visitors through the exhibition. “We’re actually using fabric divider curtains throughout the exhibition,” says Thomas, “so that they’ll change and affect the very fabric of the show. Rather than just having white walls, there’ll be snaking curtain dividers of various colours and opacities that fall to different heights, allowing visitors to see beyond the space they’re in or see through to artworks and audiences beyond. For example, before you arrive into the space where a film of Linder performing with her band Ludus will be back-projected, you’ll be able to see shadows of people already in the space through a slightly transparent curtain. The idea is that these fabric dividers (which will get lighter in colour the further through the exhibition you travel) will also play on the recurring themes in Linder’s work of concealment and revelation.”
“With this idea cooked up with APFEL and Carmody Groarke, we take the curtains from the bay windows of the north of England to Paris and elevate them, literally, then refine them, spin them out over the space,” adds Linder. “It’s a metaphorical visual language that’s also very reined in, very focused and, at times, very subtle. The use of textiles, light, colour and sound, thwart the visitor’s ability to get straight to the point, as do the large curved walls of the Musée’s interior. Just like real life, you never quite know where you’re going and why. Life is never linear.”
Linder Femme/Objet runs at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris from February 1 to April 21, mam.paris.fr. As well as collaborating with architects Carmody Groarke on the show’s design, APFEL has designed an accompanying fanzine.