Reviewers described the first version of Linder’s performance piece ‘Bower of Bliss’ as ‘remixing history’, surely a working definition of anachronism. That was already an apt description of her 2018 film in which powerful women of the 16th century, Bess of Hardwick and Mary Queen of Scots, encountered each other in the house and grounds of Georgian Chatsworth. This latest instance of ‘Bower of Bliss’ was performed at Murray Edwards College in Cambridge on March 14, 2020, as part of the Linderism exhibition at Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard, and added further layers of multi-temporal myth-making to a rich and provocative performance.
Linder’s layering of time and place is emphatically multi-sensory. Louise Gray’s costumes mixed historical elements, notably the Tudor elements of the queen’s costume, with textures and layers reminiscent of eighties street fashion. Under the college’s brutalist dome, relit in spring green, Linder re-created her bower as ‘an improper architecture’ (a phrase used by critics of this women’s college modernist buildings) using music, lighting, scent – the House of Helen scent created for her Kettle’s Yard exhibition, sprayed into the audience by dancer Kirstin Halliday – and flowers and blossom from the college gardens. Maxwell Sterling and Kenichi Iwasa provided a shifting soundscape, from electronic drone to acoustic instruments and percussion. Elements from Linder’s visual art reappeared in performance, her critique and subversion of the domestic; a sieve is passed between the dancers to become a handheld mirror in the past and a phone for selfies in the present.
The phrase ‘bowre of blisse’ appears in Edmund Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’ (Book II, Canto XII, stanza 42), an epic poem from 1590 which explores the power of women in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and which Linder interprets as ‘a critique of irresponsible femininity’. Spenser’s bower of bliss is the ‘wandering isle’ home of Acrasia, a personification of female pleasure, and both delightful and dangerous; eventually it is destroyed as masculine power trumps the feminine. Akrasia is a canonically classical vice, the weakness of will and the triumph of desire over reason; for Plato, that is the outcome of education which empowers the rational part of the soul to command the lower desires. Feminists have long questioned the gendering of desire and reason in philosophers’ models.
Spenser’s description of the bower further invokes classical exempla through description and ecphrasis, the depiction of Jason and Medea on its gate, and the nod to ancient poetic descriptions of gardens such as that of Alcinous (Homer, Odyssey 7.112-32). Linder’s complex web of allusion acknowledges Spenser and his sources, but also reaches from the classical past through the northern club cultures of post-punk music and Northern Soul to the contemporary reality television of Love Island. In this anachronic Bower of Bliss, women explore and express their distinctive identities and allegiances through clashing dance styles from the formality of classical ballet to the vitality of Northern Soul.
As daffodils were strewn across the floor to create the bower, Linder opened up and reclaimed another past, her own part in England’s post-punk heritage as friend and muse to Morrissey, whose early performances with the Smiths featured him strewing daffodils across the stage as fans surged on to it. Full marks to Lillian Wang for dancing on pointe amid the petals, as Linder’s characters reframed the often-masculine experience of the stage invasion as female delight.
Linder also opposed the academic and institutional context of this bower through sound. The Inter Alios choir, students from Murray Edwards and Churchill Colleges, circled the performance space, their black academic gowns a stark contrast to the colourful dancers. The eclectic and contemporary soundtrack made way for a sombre choral version of ‘Dido’s Lament’, from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, linking back to Virgil’s Aeneid, another classical text in which female experience and pleasure is suppressed and denied, before the choir provided drones and chants for Maxwell Sterling’s soundscape.
In Linder’s reimagining of the Bower of Bliss, her women characters create a space in which they can express their desires. The temporary installation and performance of the bower upends and replaces the usual order – even in a women’s college, traditional academic hierarchies are usually upheld. The transformation continues in the Linderism exhibition, which features imagery from the project, screens the film, and transforms Kettle’s Yard into a feminine space even to the extent of re-gendering the Kettle’s Yard House website.
In engaging with the distant literary and artistic past, Linder also re-examines her own often transgressive and provocative past as artist and performer, as when she fronted her band Ludus wearing a dress made of raw meat and a dildo in a 1982 performance at Manchester’s Hacienda, a performance intended to criticise artificial conventions of femininity, restrictions on women’s role in the music world, and the macho culture of the Manchester scene. Her performance in the Bower of Bliss was no less provocative, yet completely of the moment. There had been some debate as to whether the performance on March 14 should go ahead at all, as arts organisations began to respond to the arrival of coronavirus. Linder and the musicians performed in dark surgical masks, and Linder turned her opening song into the most transgressive sound of the present moment, the cough.
A couple of days later, Kettle’s Yard followed the other University museums in closing its doors. Linder’s intervention in the Kettle’s Yard house, opening up a small door through which Jim and Helen Ede communicated between the floors of the cottage, was left in place. As Sarah Victoria Turner notes, Linder’s engagement with Kettle’s Yard and particularly with Helen’s Room ‘necessarily looks to the past’ as part of her ‘retrospective practice’ of ‘making invisible women visible’. Linder’s Bower of Bliss envisions an anachronic world in which women’s emotions are revalued and their presence in the past is revealed.
- Kettle’s Yard has now released a video of the performance on March 14.
- Edmund Spenser (2007), The Faerie Queene, edited A.C. Hamilton, London.
- Amy Tobin (2020) ‘Linderism: the red period’ in Linderism, edited A. Tobin and A. Khakoo, London, 39-48.
- Sarah Victoria Turner (2020) ‘Raising Old Ghosts: Linder’s Conversations with the Dead’ in Linderism, edited A. Tobin and A. Khakoo, London, 65-71.
- Images from the Bower of Bliss is also installed on billboards at Southwark tube station until May 2020. A version has also been displayed at Glasgow Women’s Library.