The Legend of Leigh Bowery

Leigh Bowery by Fergus Greer

Performance artist, muse, fashion designer, model, club promoter, actor, pop star; Leigh Bowery was all of these things and yet transcended description to become a true iconoclast and one of the most enduring legends of the 80s. In this amazing documentary many of Bowery’s intimates are interviewed including Bella Freud, Boy George, Michael Clark, Damien Hirst, Mr. Pearl, Rifat Ozbek and Leigh’s family. The result is an in-depth portrait of a fascinating man.

Starting off as a fashion designer, Leigh found himself hampered by the fact that he didn’t want anyone else to wear his clothes! This decision led him to become a performance artist. Bowery’s intention was to push his own boundaries and see where that took him. His greatest interest was in the human body, in its appearance, in the way it can be changed, in its ability to shock, intimidate, amuse, provoke and express the intent within. He used his body and his appearance as his art form. It can be seen most clearly in Fergus Greer’s book which documents forty of Bowery’s looks.

New Romanticism was more about the process of getting ready –  putting together a look took days of planning – not so much about going out. Leigh of course did both. He was the forerunner of Michael Alig’s club kids, and of the club kids in Shoreditch, springing up in Antisocial, Trailer Trash and Family in the mid 00s. His influence is even felt today; anyone who thinks Lady Gaga is original should look up Bowery and see where her main source of inspiration comes from. But whereas recent iterations have been more style than substance, with Leigh there was an intention, a thought behind the look. For Leigh the nightclub was a space to perform, a space to create and to be inspired, not merely a place to get fucked up.

The documentary gives an insight into the man as well as the artist. His capacity to shock and provoke extended beyond performing and dressing up. He loved to embarrass people and one interviewee says that, “His idea of a perfect dinner party was to invite six people who hated each others’ guts.” Conversely he is described as very mannerly, polite, charming, loving and caring. It seems Bowery was a perfect bundle of contradictions.

Bowery became accepted by the establishment starting with an exhibition in Anthony d’Offay’s Dering Street Gallery and culminating with Lucian Freud’s portraits. I was lucky enough to see one of these in Freud’s 2007 exhibition in IMMA. I was awestruck by the work, Leigh’s larger than life persona exaggerated on canvas. Freud’s genius was evident in painting him nude, stripped of costume and artifice, laid bare for the first time for all the world to see.

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