Remembering Leigh Bowery and the charms of the exhibitionism

There couldn’t be a bet­ter time to get inter­ested in Leigh Bowery and ded­ic­ate an art­icle than artist’s 50th birth­day and the even­ing organ­ised for this occa­sion at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art). I admit­tedly just happened to be there, neither did I know who was going to speak, nor what topic it will be and why. It has become a tra­di­tion that each Friday after­noon I come to the ICA to sniff around and see what inter­est­ing is hap­pen­ing this time in the ‘Culture Now’ studio.

This time I was unex­pec­tedly sur­prised because once entered the room I real­ised that it is full of col­our­ful people, trans­vest­ites and young men and women wear­ing dis­tinct­ive and col­our­ful clothes and make up. I found Sue Tilley, woman shin­ing with self con­fid­ence and proud with her body and the fact that artist’s Lucian Freud paint­ing of her nude was sold for 34 mil­lion dol­lars (she didn’t get a single penny), to be very inter­est­ing. I hope that for those who already know about this fash­ion avant-​garde, per­form­ance, music and club cul­ture per­son this art­icle will remind once more about his cre­ativ­ity and his works that break the boundaries.

Remembering Leigh Bowery it is neces­sary to talk about the exhib­i­tion­ism. This per­son had such open­ness and expres­sion that most people called him an art­work him­self. His expres­sion star­ted with the col­our­ful and strange clothes that developed into some­thing even more per­vert and incon­ceiv­able. When together with a couple of friends he opened the one and only fash­ion and disco club for bisexu­als in the centre of London in 1980, the cos­tumes and the cat­walk demon­stra­tions became a real per­form­ance, fir­ing the audi­ence and encour­aging to look at your own body, your senses and ste­reo­types dif­fer­ently. This break­ing of the ste­reo­types was dir­ectly related to the under­stand­ing of the man-​woman body, the mis­in­ter­pret­ing of the can­ons and the nav­ig­at­ing between the aes­thetic and the dis­gust. The artist played with the audi­ence using ele­mental and impudent visual lan­guage that (as it often hap­pens for the sim­ilar artists focus­ing on sim­ilar sub­jects and themes) didn’t let him stay indif­fer­ent. There would always emerge two groups — fans and those that hated him; there was no middle sec­tion in the world of Leigh Bowery. This tra­di­tion still exists, there are people fas­cin­ated by him, people that copy him and cre­ate a cult and sub­cul­ture, and some narrow-​minded people that deny him.

Documentary about Leigh Bowery, very much recommended

The abil­ity to mes­mer­ise, laugh angrily and enjoy, is what fas­cin­ates me most about this artist and his works. When I watch these per­form­ances, the visual lan­guage he uses, the dom­in­a­tion of the inde­cent, rude beha­viour, which includes defec­a­tion, vomit­ing, demon­stra­tion of the gen­ital organs and other actions, make me feel the whole atmo­sphere and the per­son­al­ity of this artist and the ‘Taboo’ club, full of sexual free­dom, drugs, fash­ion and pulse, with the last line crossed. Club style routine and every day per­form­ances and parties were all part of Bowery’s life for six years. When try­ing to eval­u­ate this fact the nat­ural ques­tion is how do you man­age both — this kind of life and work? Bowery made all the cos­tumes for him­self, he was a per­fec­tion­ist, he also par­ti­cip­ated in many shows and musical per­form­ances with his own band ‘Minty’ and finally he reached the world of high art and the con­tem­por­ary art gal­ler­ies. All these pro­jects were ful­filled before he turned 33. Then he died of HIV.

Minty’ band performance

It is hard to ima­gine what we would have seen if he would be still alive, but the tem­por­al­ity, the pas­sion, the max­im­al­ism and the real­isa­tion of the ideas while fresh, new, ques­tion­able and evok­ing protests, seem inev­it­able in this scen­ario. An inter­est­ing moment was that after real­ising that he had HIV, Bowery devoted all of his time to work and make his ideas come alive.

L.Bowery poses for artist Lucian Freud

L.Bowery is admired for his inter­dis­cip­lin­ary prac­tice, his cre­at­ive work has con­trib­uted to devel­op­ment of a few areas in his­tory — fash­ion, per­form­ance, music, design. The influ­ence of this artist may be noticed in some works of younger or older con­tem­por­ary artists. It seems that even if it was 17 years ago, and for most of us eighties was just a bor­ing period without mod­ern tech­no­lo­gies and the Internet, L.Bowery some­how man­aged to cross the dimen­sion of the time and get into the minds of the con­tem­por­ary young people that seek brave­ness, inspir­a­tion and self expres­sion. I strongly recom­mend watch­ing the full doc­u­ment­ary about the author; a deep look is taken into Bowery’s per­sonal exper­i­ences, sexual life, friends and under­stand­ing of the style. This is neces­sary for those who really want to feel his spirit and the genius and irony of his thought.

Gintarė Žitkevičiūtė
About author:
Gintarė Žitkevičiūtė
Gintare Zitkeviciute is Art Pit’s thinker and doer. In her work practise, she values lean approach, creativity and quick decisions. She doesn't like working with random people and thinks that a team is a heart of successful project. For that reason, she carefully picks people she works with on everyday basis. She is mostly interested in innovatio... Read further >
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