PRINT February 2004


Bob Nickas on Leigh Bowery

“IT WAS A BIT LIKE GOING to the zoo and watching Guy the Gorilla in drag.” That’s how Cerith Wyn Evans recalls Leigh Bowery’s weeklong London performance at Anthony d’Offay Gallery in 1988. Bowery, each day in a different costume of his own design, appeared behind a one-way mirror, with an Empire divan on which to perch, pose, or recline. Visitors saw him, but he saw only himself, performed for his own reflection. Footage of the event figures prominently in The Legend of Leigh Bowery (2002), Charles Atlas’s recently unveiled documentary, and the spooky, otherworldly spell that Bowery casts is undeniable. The zoo reference nails it. With rivulets of iridescent purple glue spilled like blood from the top of his shaved head and a silky lime feathered bodice, Bowery appears to be an ostrich in human form. Black-spotted faux fur covering his face and upper body, he is transformed into an alien snow leopard. Bowery’s uncanny ability to visually disorient the senses remains unmatched, his reinvention of costume as sculpture groundbreaking. From the tripped-out tribalism of Forcefield and the psychedelic erotics of Christian Holstad to the work of designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Alexander McQueen, his vocabulary, punctuated by about a million sequins, resonates to this day.

The Bowery moment we’re going through now is testament to an unfolding fascination for an artist who continues to be rediscovered. In addition to The Legend, he is the subject of a Broadway play, Taboo, based on the notorious club he ran in London in the mid-’80s, and a major retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, on view through March 7, featuring nearly eighty extraordinary costumes and accessories. Although a decade has passed since Bowery’s death in London on New Year’s Eve in 1994 (he checked into the hospital under the name John Waters!), his work has lost none of its strangeness or power to shock. As seen again in The Legend, his appearance at Wigstock in ’93 is a reminder of how jaw-dropping his public appearances could be. Arriving onstage in Tompkins Square Park in a blimp-size dress, he sang along to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” Standard fare for the dragfest. But then, as he began to suffer an apparent attack, he leaned back on a table, spread his legs for the audience, and a slimy, bald, blood-smeared thing burst from between his thighs. It was in fact his wife, Nicola, who had been balled up in a harness under the dress the whole time.

Born in Sunshine, Australia, in 1961, Bowery fled for London at age nineteen. Within a few years he had shown fashion collections in New York and Tokyo and befriended Boy George and choreographer Michael Clark, with whom he would forge an almost telepathic collaboration as costume designer and, later, a member of his company. Clark’s dancers may on occasion have complained it was impossible to dance in these costumes, but as seen in Atlas’s Hail the New Puritan (1985) and Because We Must (1989), Clark’s choreography, often to the shambolic music of the Fall, was deeply influenced by Bowery’s visual wit and extravagance. Bowery could have made money from fashion—his jigsaw-puzzle pattern is as close to genius as a pantsuit gets––but it pained him to see other people wearing his designs. He wanted it all to himself and much preferred to be out in public than at home behind the sewing machine. In an interview conducted for The Guardian in ’93 (though never published), when asked, “How would you like to die?” he replied: “By firing squad on stage at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.”

The art world readily recognizes Bowery as Lucian Freud’s model, the subject of some of the painter’s more celebrated works. Get inside the psychology of them and it’s clear that Bowery had little regard for the passive role of sitter; Bowery performs in these paintings. Freud may have said, “I want paint to work as flesh”; it was Bowery’s idea that the portraits of him be nude. When Wyn Evans speaks of Freud’s aim to “show the person as a human animal,” the corpulent form of Bowery comes immediately to mind. He was an artist in his own right and not afraid of one-upmanship. Eyeing a mountainous pile of painting rags in a corner of Freud’s studio, Bowery asked for them, took them home (some say he stole them), and proceeded to stitch them together to form a grid portrait of Hitler.

Personality is at the heart of every great artist’s work, and Bowery’s had a very wicked streak indeed. “His idea of a perfect dinner party,” his friend Rachel Auburn recalls, “was to invite six people who hated each other’s guts.” Wyn Evans zeroes in on Bowery’s expectations for art with the quote, “I saw that exhibition, I saw those paintings . . . but where’s the poison?” Toward the end of his life, Bowery focused on music with his bands Raw Sewage and Minty. The Raw Sewage video, a pantomime of Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way,” was done at a make-your-own-video booth. The trio teeters on fourteen-inch platform heels, naked from the waist down. The technicians were so incredulous they forgot to push the record button, and it had to be redone. Bowery had a softer side: “The more stupid it could be, the better.” In The Legend there’s a scene with Bowery bounding nearly out of control at Taboo, his considerable bulk covered in peacock plumage, his head encased in a Bart Simpson rubber mask; the crowd wisely steps aside.

Bob Nickas is a critic and independent curator based in New York.