Goodbye To The Boy From Sunshine
The lionising of a deceased public personality is a remarkable process to observe at close quarters, especially the way those who had little good to say of the person in question when they were alive, suddenly shower them with praise when they have gone.
Death also brings out the scavengers sniffing around for big financial pay-offs, who front up to press offices in their droves to scream out their offers of the last interview and the last photo shoot, in return for a nice fat fee, please.
All this and more happened upon the death of Australian-born art and club world icon Leigh Bowery on the 31st December 1994. No sooner had the British press reluctantly dragged itself into work on the cold, cold morning of the 3rd of January, than the phone lines into the top style, fashion, art and gay magazines started running hot enough to melt the snow off, with spurious deals demanding to be made.
The editor of The Face, the not inconsiderable Sheryl Garratt, was so overwhelmed by the non-stop telephonic assault that her fellow staffers reported she was quivering close to tears. Then she told all and sundry, including the piranhas in their feeding frenzy, where to get off.
In fact, Australia's Black+White magazine was the only publication anywhere that managed to commission the last photograph and interview, early in November 1994, and at that time nobody including Bowery himself had any inkling that this was to be anything other than a progress report on Leigh Bowery as self-created performing art object.
I had originally been asked to write on him prior to a rare Bowery flying visit to Oz, mid-1993. Along with 20 or so other performance artists, he was to appear in a festival sponsored by an on-campus gallery of a Sydney art college, when he had enigmatically suggested being interviewed by fax rather than phone.
This challenging concept never came off however, and my plaintive calls to Bowery's East London flat went unanswered. As he revealed late last year, Bowery had suddenly jetted off to Melbourne for a final vigil at his mother's bedside, and so failed to make the Sydney art event that followed later. This combination of death, vanishing and sudden reappearance was a harbinger of events the next year.
A sudden ringing of the studio doorbell shocked me out of a mid-Saturday afternoon's musings, encouraged by the unusual heat of the warmest November for 180 years. On running down all eight flights of stairs to open the front door, I was confronted by a sight few people in this world can claim to have seen: Leigh Bowery minus makeup and costume, with a much, much smaller young woman hovering behind his right elbow.
A goofy grin enwreathed his deeply dimpled face as he apologised for arriving a little late, but he had been posing for the painter Lucian Freud, and had only just remembered the appointment at my studio. My eyes were inexorably drawn upwards to Bowery's head where a comic sand-coloured mop-like wig resided, as I reminded him that our meeting was actually for the next day.
Then it became clear that the dimples were in fact cheek piercings sealed with transparent plastic plugs. He had, Bowery explained, given away Sunday to someone else anyway, so I could only have him and Nicola for the next two hours.
The shoot was brief and in the studio rather than the roof against a Mayfair skyline as planned, due to sudden rain, and Bowery's replies to my questions glossed over the real motivations to his work and life. It was as if he was inventing a blander, more acceptable life story for himself. It would be up to me to dig deeper in other ways.
After Bowery's death was announced in The Guardian of 4th January, I followed an impulse and phoned his flat. Nicola Bateman, the young woman with Bowery at my studio, answered and a few hidden truths began to pour out. She and Bowery, it transpired, had married last May in a "private ceremony more a personal artwork performance", after being friends and co-workers for over ten years.
Nicola went on to tell me how, when she was finally allowed to visit Bowery during his hospitalisation with meningitis, she was shocked to find herself in an AIDS ward. "For three days and three nights," she said, "I never left his side, until he died." Just before Bowery drew his last breath, he told Nicola that, "My lights are still on, you know."
Bowery first came to public attention as a leading light of the early '80s London club scene. By the time the boy from Sunshine, Victoria, arrived in London in 1980, Punk had petered out to be followed by the Cult With No Name.
Bowery described his attraction to the New Romantics. "It was like Punk but maybe it wasn't so aggressive," he said. "It was completely theatrical in a way, the very opposite of what you were expected to look like on the street. It was confrontational, and there was this sort of gender blurring."
He went on to reminisce about the club years: "Initially the scene seemed to be the best place to get in touch with people whose work I was interested in. Then I found the whole process of going to clubs and getting drunk and dressed up very exciting, and spent five or six years doing that exclusively." By dressing up, Bowery meant much more than just donning his Sunday best. It was a way of life he was to turn into work, and the cause of his notoriety.
In 1985, Bowery was offered his own nightclub, and so Taboo was born just off Leicester Square. Mine host Bowery and best friend Trojan Name tottered about the premises in anything from baby-doll nighties, elephant ear collared 1970s disco shirts, kilts with frilly underwear, blouses and tights, above multi-coloured patent leather platform-soled shoes.
To top off the look, Bowery took to extremes of makeup, wigs and hats, from a curly yellow-blonde coiffure with face painted in huge red polka dots, to a tiny policeman's helmet perched above a face made up to resemble a herpes scab infestation. Making the most of his very oversize girth and height, Bowery then shaved his head, poured black molten wax over it, wore two-inch white false eyelashes, and painted his face and cheeks in grotesque imitation of a kewpie doll.
Bowery had become a walking cartoon parody of humanity, two dimensions inflated into three in the midst of a chaotic drug-soaked decadence. After the OD deaths of flatmate Trojan and another famous Taboo identity, and the subsequent demise of the club itself, Bowery diverted his energies into the arena of live performance with live music and dance.
In the latter part of the 1980s, he began collaborating with the post-Punk ballet dancer Michael Clark, becoming a moveable member of his company after having designed the costumes for several years. Most notably, Bowery took part in multi-media extravaganzas like I Am Curious, Orange, and Hey, Luciani, featuring Mark E. Smith's band The Fall.
Bowery explained his move away from clubland: "Michael liked the idea of how some movements and shapes looked on an untrained body, I didn't have a classical dance background, and I was very open and eager. I began doing more performance rather than just the look of things, spending more time on the context in which the look is placed." Just then, for later that November, Bowery was anticipating a return to live multi-media shows with a week-long residency at an upstairs club in Wardour Street, Soho.
On the poorly attended first night, which Bowery regarded as more a dress rehearsal than actual show, officials of the Westminster City Council were in attendance. They may have been prompted to do so by reports of an earlier stage show where Bowery ran around spraying the results of a self-administered enema onto his audience. The Soho performance was closed that first night, pending legal proceedings.
Bowery was inducted into the mainstream art world in the late 1980s via the most prestigious contemporary London art space, the Anthony d'Offay gallery, off New Bond Street. In a performance piece over several days, Bowery sat, preened and posed into a two-way mirror lit only on his side so he could see just his own reflection, not the audience.
He wore a succession of costumes, wigs and makeup effects, attempting to become woman, child, cat-like animal, blue-skinned Hindu god/goddess, at least on the mirror's surface. It was a slow-moving study in purest narcissism. One regular visitor fascinated by this spectacle was the painter Lucian Freud.
Shortly thereafter, the Pepe jeans company invited Bowery to appear in a series of cinema and TV commercials. In a Post-Modernist/Surrealist cut-up, he posed, and repeatedly posed the question of "Wears Pepe?" in a sound-effected trill. Suddenly General Public knew who and what Bowery was.
This widespread recognition was further enhanced when he agreed to pose naked for Freud, who after the death of Francis Bacon, was being proclaimed the foremost English figurative painter. Bowery told me that he had "always liked Lucian's work and his subject matter, the way he uses the human form - very psychological and very majestic - and kind of worn out in the way people come out."
Freud showed his last painting of Bowery as a towering and entirely naked figure in full frontal, showing evidence of strain on his face, in a memorial exhibition on Bowery's life and work late January.
One reviewer wrote of Leigh Under The Skylight: "Certainly there is something increasingly brutish about this Freudian nudity. I would advise little girls and old ladies of a nervous disposition who have wandered into the gallery expecting Van Dyck and Gainsborough not to look up at Freud's naked behemoth too attentively. His sole pictorial task is to show it like it is, to appear large and lumpen."
Bowery discussed his work with the professional ingenuousness of those artists who prefer more attention be paid to the artwork than the reasons for its making. He would stymie interviewers with bald statements that he was merely interested in this, or excited by that. Even his old collaborator and new wife Nicola was as much in the dark about his real intentions as she was about his HIV status.
Put Bowery's imagery together with the facts of his immense physique, sexuality and huge sexual appetite (he admitted before his death that his biggest regret was "having unsafe sex with 1000 men"), and his work becomes a demonstrative monologue on the conflict between how our bodies are and how we believe them to be. The further western society grows away from easy intimacy with the natural world, in search of a totally artificial environment, the more anti-nature (or Au Rebours, to cite the title of Bowery's favourite book) it becomes.
Attesting to how much we have chosen to live inside our fantasies rather than deal with the facts of the Real, the vast majority of Bowery's "looks" were about delicacy and extreme femininity. Yet, as Freud's portraits show, he was tall, bald, fat and had legs like tree trunks.
Although he could never be described as light on his feet, Bowery hatched the idea of being a ballet dancer. And, this man who never failed to attract attention to himself whether in performance drag or not, sincerely believed that he stood out on the street just as little as anyone else.
As a completely "out" homosexual, Bowery chose to ignore the facts of his own gender and the construction of the male body, to use an organ formed for the expulsion of faecal matter as stand-in for an organ of procreation. That his work was about contradiction, outrage, challenging the idea of the normal, surely stemmed from this fundamental and original conflict.
Like many other homosexuals, Bowery turned to fashion early in his career and this allowed him to play with cloaking the facts of his maleness with a fantasy femaleness, a second and removeable skin of fabric, feathers, glitter and extreme colouration.
Given how loudly Bowery's masculinity broadcast itself even from his younger days, those early attempts at dressing up must have looked ridiculous, even absurd, leaving him the choice of either accepting his gender unvarnished, or to deny it through costume and makeup.
Being an essentially honest man, as I believe he was, Bowery chose to shout out loud his homosexuality, and out of this he made a life and a body of work that could never belong to any other period than the 1980s and any other place than London. Those inspired by his example, such as the late Peter Tully of Sydney, simply appeared somewhat tragic by comparison. Leigh Bowery was the groundbreaker and sole true owner of the Leigh Bowery tradition.
He died in a London hospital in the early hours of New Year's Eve, 1994, of pneumonia and the side effects from antibiotics prescribed for a previous bout with meningitis. Bowery left a wife, Nicola, and he was HIV positive.
Written 1995. Copyright Karl-Peter Gottschalk 1997.