Leigh Bowery, peripheral in the notion of art practice by combining dandyism and body art, reconstructed his image while performing ...[he] uses the expression of the 'other' to create a form of cultural lip-syncing transvestism.Leigh Bowery was born in 1961 in the Melbourne suburb of Sunshine, Victoria. He often compared his early life there to a cultural wasteland in which he did not fit well. He was a sensitive and multi-gifted child in "macho" surroundings and as a teenager discovered a whole new world by reading about the London new romantic scene from British fashion magazines such as i-D. This inspired him to reinvent himself at the centre of the avant-garde art world in London. His family was conservative and he often reflected on his parents who were actively involved in the local Salvation Army. He was the older of two children, his sister Bronwyn being several years younger. He described his father as kind but macho and had a particularly close relationship with his mother from whom he inherited a love of dressmaking.
After attending Melbourne High School, and one year of a fashion design course at RMIT, he abandoned Australia and moved to London for good in 1980, initially to make his career as a fashion designer. Although this was a financial failure, it did garner him a small cult following and media interest. Eventually he was making a name for himself by dramatic performances of dance, music, and extreme exhibitionism, while wearing bizarre and very original outfits of his own design.
He befriended two leading clubbers: Trojan (Guy Barnes), later a painter, and David Walls – later of the design team Gallagher Walls. Bowery moved in with them to a houseshare in Ladbroke Grove, and the two men became the first people in London to wear Bowery's creative designs. Collectively they were nicknamed the Three Kings. They were unemployed for several years and living on benefit, which was common in those days, and were eventually rehoused on the Commercial Road in the East End in a three-bedroom flat high on the 11th floor of a council tower block in one of the poorest and bleakest areas of London. All three would experiment with drugs (mainly downers), but within the year and after a huge fallout, David Walls moved out, leaving Bowery and Trojan to live together. At this time Bowery and Trojan briefly became lovers, but split on Trojan's insistence.
At this time, Margaret Thatcher was in power and, although they were making a reasonable living, times were hard for them. The only escape for them was in the secret underworld of often polysexual or gay nightclubs.
Up until 1986 Bowery would describe himself as a fashion designer and club promoter. Although his early fashion career is often ignored, he had considerable artistic success and it included several collections in London Fashion week, shows at the ICA, The Camden Palace, New York, and Tokyo.
In January 1985 he started the now infamous polysexual Thursday disco club night "Taboo". Originally an underground venture, it quickly became London's Studio 54, only much wilder, extremely more fashionable, and without the masses of celebrities – although these came flocking in later. For everyone stepping through the doors it was a truly unforgettable experience.
Over the coming years he was invited to host numerous club nights in New York, Tokyo, Rome, and elsewhere.
Contrary to popular belief, Bowery was not part of the New Romantic movement that was popular in Britain during the early 1980s. Though perhaps he is more properly placed within the context of early fashion clubs such as Cha Cha's at Heaven and the "Hard Times" movement, he was always at the centre of the pansexual set of young and fashionable Londoners.
From being a plump, studious, and often bullied child, Leigh grew up to often be uncomfortable in his skin, and used his frequently bizarre designs as an armour for his insecurities. As he got larger he used his costumes to exaggerate his size, and the effect was frequently overpowering and unforgettable for those who encountered him, the more so because of his confrontational style. Bowery was not a wallflower.
In the early days Bowery felt comfortable with describing himself as "gay", although he had intense and passionate friendships occasionally of a sexual nature with women, often in the form of a sadomasochistic-type relationship, with Bowery firmly in the role of master puppeteer. With his bizarre looks Leigh often had difficulties attracting the men he was sexually attracted to, and he would often describe having sex in risky underground situations such as "cottaging", with unattractive individuals.
Unlike many of his club contemporaries Bowery was highly intelligent, widely read, and passionate about all forms of artistic expression. While he could be extremely witty and charming, he would often be a malicious fashion bully, intimidating friend and foe alike with his sharp tongue and accusations. These all reflected a sign of the times where "hardness" went hand in hand with the club scene.
Although Taboo was over by early 1987, Bowery was at the very heart of London's alternative fashion movement. But AIDS and hard drugs had influenced the scene, causing the death of his best friend and former lover Trojan, then of Taboo door whore and budding musician Marc Valtier. As a result Bowery experienced severe depression, which manifested itself in abusive unsafe sexual activities, often in cottaging and public cruising grounds. It was probably at this time he contracted HIV, although he kept this a closely guarded secret from most friends until days before his death. Being HIV-positive at this time was seen as a death sentence and there was much fear and discrimination to be faced – Bowery did not want to be described as an artist with AIDS, feeling it would overshadow any of his artistic achievements.
Soon after, he collaborated with the famous 1980s dancer Michael Clark, after having been first his costume-designer before eventually joining the company as a dancer. He also participated in multi-media events like I Am Kurious Oranj and the play Hey, Luciani, with Mark E. Smith and the band, The Fall and on 15 July 1987 flew to Paris with the cult British band You You You to host their concert at Le Palace. In 1989, he hosted a special one-off Ball held in a massive disused West London warehouse starring Big Bang as part of their Arabic Circus Tour that featured Danielle Dax and Jayne County as supporting artists.
In 1988 he had a week-long show in Anthony d'Offay's prestigious Dering Street Gallery in London's West End, in which he lolled on a chaise longue behind a two-way mirror, primping and preening in a variety of outfits while visitors to the gallery looked on. The insouciance and audacity of this overt queer narcissism captivated gallery goers, critics and other artists. Bowery's exquisite appearance, silence and intense self-absorption were further accentuated by his own recordings of random and abrasive traffic noises which were played for the show's duration. The very intimate and private was flung in the face of the public complete with a "street life" sound track, hinting perhaps at something still darker. In some outfits he appears like some strange roadside creature, like a cat that finally got the cream (of art world attention); in others he is the "Satan's Son" that he would whisper, years later, on his deathbed.
For all his art world exposure and contacts it seems peculiar now that no one suggested to Bowery that he might adopt the very viable strategy of Gilbert and George – an earlier generation's living sculpture – and derive an income from selling images of himself rather than rely on occasional commissions, modeling work for Lucian Freud, or design consultancy for Rifat Ozbek. In the later years of his life the advantages of having an independent income started to become more obvious and Bowery looked to music, in the form of art rock/pop group Minty, to possibly provide this independent income stream. "I have a profile," he confided to former flatmate and fellow Australian Anne Holt, "but I have no money." Minty, he hoped, would provide a solution to this crux, although this wish eventually proved to be unfounded.
He later excited the fashion crowd with a performance at SMact, a short-lived SM Night at Bar Industria. Using Nazi costumes with a lesbian friend named Barbara, they turned concentration camp experimentation into SMart. The readers of Capital Gay, the London weekly newspaper, turned on fellow performer Berkley, who had played the victim, and Barbara and Bowery weathered the storm.
In 1993 Bowery briefly formed the band Raw Sewage with leading clubbers Sheila Tequila and Stella Stein. They performed nude with their faces blacked up, wearing 18" platforms and merkins (pubic wigs), to the bemusement of audiences in London clubs and at the Love Ball in Amsterdam. But the collaboration ended in personality clashes. Bowery went on to appear as the "Madame Garbo" in "The Homosexual (or the difficulty of sexpressing oneself)" by Copi at Bagleys Warehouse in London's King's Cross.
In 1993 Bowery formed the band Minty with friend and former 1980s knitwear designer Richard Torry, Nicola Bateman and Matthew Glammore. Their single "Useless Man" "Boot licking, tit tweaking useless man..." which was remixed by The Grid, "Plastic Bag" Which was preserved by the movie I Woke Up Early The Day I Died along with their twisted onstage scatological performances caused The Sun to describe them as the "sickest band in the world", of which Bowery was very proud. The single became a minor chart hit in The Netherlands, although friends felt that he had lost his true artistic self to cheap and obvious shock horror tactics, none of which were new.
During 1994 Leigh performed the "Fete worse than death" in Hoxton Square. Bowery and Nicola Bateman (later, Nicola Bowery) presented their classic "Birth Show", a homage to John Waters' "Female Trouble", in which Bowery "gave birth" to Bateman, who was held under his costume and upside down using a specially-designed harness. Bowery would appear to enter the stage alone but toward the middle of the song birthed his partner who appeared as a very large baby covered in placenta. The performance was revised for Lady Bunny's Wigstock event and captured in Wigstock: The Movie.
In November 1994 Minty began a two week show at London's Freedom Cafe, including audience member Alexander McQueen, but it was too much for Westminster City Council, who closed the show down after only one night. Minty was a financial loss and represented a low point in his colourful career. A spin-off band called Offest later formed including artist Donald Urquhart.
Bowery was the nude subject of several of Lucian Freud's later portraits, and travelled internationally to the opening events of his exhibitions. This modeling work provided him with a modest income of sorts for a period and he certainly relished Freud's connections to the British establishment.
Glimmers of the influences of film maker John Waters and artist Andy Warhol can be seen in his keen appreciation of bad taste, truly outlandish self presentation and a deep desire to shock and confuse. "I want to be the Andy Warhol of London" he once said. "Dressed-up," he was obviously "Modern Art on legs" (as Boy George commented), but in daytime attire the badly-fitting, obvious, disturbing wigs are a nod to Warhol's self-presentation strategies that has thus far seemed invisible to both critics and friends alike.
Other art historical parallels include an early 80s attempt at Vincent van Gogh type ear-cutting with friend Trojan (in an attempt to out do nightclub rivals), and as a result inflicted facial perforations that he was warned would not heal (reminiscent of Warhol's weeping wounds). Bowery made a full auto-couture appearance at the 1986 Warhol show Success is a job in New York at London's Serpentine Gallery with Nicola and an unknown assistant.
He became known to a wider audience by appearing in a Post-Modernist/Surrealist series of television and cinema and commercials for the Pepe jeans company, MTV London and other commissions such as stage work for rock band U2. He also appeared regularly in articles, vox pops and as cover star in London's i-D magazine. Bowery was also Art Director for the famous video for Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy".
As a character he featured in the stage musical Taboo that was based on the New Romantic movement. It also featured actors playing Marilyn, Boy George, Steve Strange and other stars of the early 1980s. The musical, which was written by Mark Davies with music composed partly by Boy George, was a London West End hit. American media star Rosie O'Donnell financed a much- altered version for Broadway, but this was not successful.
Johnny Rozsa's photographs of Bowery have been exhibited in several museums, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, the Kunsthalle in Vienna, and the Kunstverein in Hanover.
Although Bowery always described himself as gay he married his longtime companion Nicola Bateman on 13 May 1994, in Tower Hamlets, London, 7 months before his death from AIDS-related illness at the (now closed and redeveloped) Middlesex Hospital, Westminster, London on New Year's Eve 1994, after a five-week battle that only a handful of friends were informed about.
Reportedly one death bed pronouncement "Tell them I've gone pig farming in Bolivia", illustrates the gallows humour and dark irony that can be traced in much of his work. Among his last requests was that his middle name be unknown.
The character Vulva in the British TV comedy series Spaced is based on Leigh Bowery.
Boy George recorded a tribute song on his 1995 album, Cheapness and Beauty. The track is called "Satan's Butterfly Ball" and in his Taboo musical, the Leigh Bowery character sings tracks like "Ich Bin Kunst" and "I'll Have You All".
- "Hobo": New York Fashion Week. 1982.
- "Pakis from Outer Space": Camden Palace for London Fashion Week. 1982/83.
- "Mincing Queens": Institute of Contemporary Arts 'Performing Clothes' for London Fashion Week and The Hacienda Club, Manchester. 1984.
- "Disease / Spastic": Riverside Studios and Earls Court for London Fashion Week. 1986.
Models: Models for these shows included old friends such as: Trojan (aka Gary Barnes, died 1987), David Walls, Peter Hammond (aka Space Princess, died 1993), Marc Vaultier (Mark Golding, died 1987), George Gallagher, James Payne, David LaChapelle, Jim McGuire, Robert McGuire, Sandra Cosijn, Dezi Campbell and Malcolm Duffy.
Leigh Bowery Looks by Fergus Greer
Paperback: 176 pages
Publisher: Violette Editions; First Edition Thus edition (August 15, 2005)
Amazon: Leigh Bowery Looks
Leigh Bowery is back. In just a few years, Leigh Bowery Looks rose to the status of being the definitive and indispensible guide to the unique looks designed and, in these photographs, worn by Bowery. This paperback version shows one of Britain's most heroically ambitious yet underappreciated designers and performance artists. Bowery remains an inspiration to many contemporary fashion designers, though few are willing to admit it. Leigh Bowery Looks contains 300 photographs of Bowery--an extraordinary body of work that was the outcome of his collaboration with British photographer Fergus Greer between 1988 and 1994, the year of Bowery's death. Here the range of Bowery's many looks is most evident, as are the ways in which he has influenced the world of fashion today.
Paperback: 136 pages
Publisher: Kehrer Verlag (May 1, 2009)
Amazon: Leigh Bowery
With Australian artist Leigh Bowery (1961–1994), this richly illustrated catalog devotes itself to one of the most colorful border-crossers of the London and New York club, fashion, and art scenes of the 1980s and 1990s. Bowery made his sexuality a means of aesthetic expression, and he consciously used his own body in excessive abundance as an artistic media.
Leigh Bowery’s influence reached through the fashion, club, and art worlds to impact, amongst others, Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Boy George, John Galliano, the Scissor Sisters, and David LaChapelle. He also inspired some of Lucian Freud’s most fascinating nude paintings.
Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon by Sue Tilley
Paperback: 276 pages
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (June 1999)
Amazon: Leigh Bowery: The Life and Times of an Icon
Bowery's closest friend, Sue Tilley recounts the life of Leigh Bowery, the costume designer and performer who posed for the painter Lucien Freud. The biography follows Bowery's life from his arrival in London in 1981 to his death from AIDS in 1994 and was written with the co-operation of his friends and family.
More Fashion Designers at my website: http://www.elisarolle.com/, My Ramblings/Art
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