LEIGH BOWERY: Decadence in the Dole Queue

Thanks largely to a crowd-pleasing musical, the crowd-panicking Mr Bowery’s name is forever linked in the public mind with Taboo, the fin-de-siecle drugs, sex, and dressing-up club in Leicester Square he captained in the 1980s – the decade in which the 20th century and possibly Western civilisation actually ended.

I however, will always associate him with a club called The Asylum, Heaven’s “alternative” night, where I often used to glimpse – in teenage terror – his enormous, corseted frame gliding and fluttering past like a hand-sewn battleship, Copydex-spattered head glowing under the UV light, lime-green nylon ruffs bouncing, black-lipsticked mouth pouting.

You see, just like most of the people who now claim they were there every week, I never went to Taboo. This was partly because I knew I’d get turned away as I didn’t wear enough astro-turf or cellophane, and partly because I knew that there was nothing I’d want to pull there. But mostly because I was scared. Like the majority of the young punters at The Asylum, I was doing my best to look alternative and individual, but not at the cost of looking unshaggable. Like Mark Lamarr and Mark Kermode, I tried, vainly, to say it with a quiff.

One of the fascinating, frightening things about Mr Bowery on the other hand – in addition to the fact that you could fit three or four Matt Lucases inside him – was that he quite clearly didn’t give a f***. He was going to make you look at him and he didn’t care if the looks he got were admiring or just appalled. It simply wasn’t your call – he would take your looks how he wanted. Unlike most of us who hung around that nightclub back then thinking ourselves the bee’s knees, he really was, but he didn’t seem to be interested in what kept the customer satisfied – something which made his famous week’s “residence” in a Tokyo department store window in 1988 even funnier.

The 1980s, you may remember, was the decade of the High Street when we were constantly being told by our prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, that there was “no alternative” – although, confusingly, every club had an “alternative” night. Nowadays of course “alternative” is just an internet chatroom, and whatever post-punk aesthetic energies it represented have been assimilated by fashion and magazine culture – but back then it could stand for a sincere and reckless rejection of normality and mainstream values, or at least a kind of decadence on the dole.

Leigh Bowery was one of the last and the most gorgeously talented decadents. He was born in 1961 in a town in Australia called Sunshine (no, really, it’s actually called that). After leaving school he studied Fashion Design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology for a year. He then ran away to London where he became part of the Blitz new romantic nightclub scene and worked as a designer on David Bowie’s kooky ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video. Unlike some of the other “alternative” weirdos who appeared in the video however, this was not the apogee of his career.

He was the subject of his own 30-minute documentary in 1985, worked with Michael Clark at the height of his powers and posed for Lucian Freud. He also pursued a performance art career that should have drawn a line under performance art, famously “giving birth” with lashings of offal, or having an enema on stage and spraying lucky audience members with the results.

However, as these astonishing pictures collected in Leigh Bowery Looks taken by the photographer Fergus Greer between 1988 and 1994, the year of Bowery’s early death, testify, this Australian bugger was witty and playful in a way which you had forgotten could be so intense, sharp and alarming. Since the 1980s “wittiness” and “playfulness” have been employed to sell all sorts of banal and toothless things to us… including twee musicals about the 1980s.

Bowery was more than performance art – some of his best work is better than much of contemporary art. He managed to combine conceptual art with a sense of humour (something that most “real” conceptual art, with more than one eye on the collector’s chequebook, cannot afford). His work was also truly and vividly ephemeral in a way that conceptual art these days increasingly goes out of its way merely to simulate. Oddly, for all its alleged unpopularity and difficulty, modern art is now sitting behind the department store window – but without the irony.

Bowery employs surreal spotted patterns and bizarre sartorial geometry, such as lacey spherical ruffs where his head should be, and asymmetrical clothing to break up the shape, form and outline of what we take to be human, rendering the familiar unfamiliar again – forcing you to realise how little you know the human body, and perhaps how little you want to. There’s a genuine queerness to these pictures, in the meaning of the word which obtained before the 1990s spoilt it. Bowery was an original “in-betweeny” – awkwardly positioning himself between fibre and skin, convention and improvisation, art and craft, male and female, humanity and commodity.

He even turns his own ample flesh into a kind of fabric, marshalling it with corsets and leggings that leave you wondering what’s surface and what’s structure, what’s inside and what’s out. As you might expect in a lad who liked dressing up, there’s more than a hint of a parody of monstrous femininity in his work: fake vaginas appear regularly. But with those pouting lips (on his face) it feels as if “sexiness” is being parodied more than femininity – his creations often resemble Dali doodling his ideal inflatable doll.

Leigh Bowery by Fergus Greer

Looking, sometimes between your fingers, at these exhilaratingly bold, ‘ballsy’ images, in a culture which is now completely aestheticised and lip-glossed to death, you’re reminded with a jolt of when aestheticism was still a rebellious, satirical strategy. What’s more, Bowery was never a “success”; he never launched his own label or got his own chat show. His death from Aids in 1994 saved him from that at least.

Leigh Bowery Looks, by Fergus Greer

As these pictures testify, Bowery prophesied, embodied and savagely deconstructed celebrity culture all in one outfit. In a particularly piquant photo, his head, styled charmingly as a turd, emerges, blinking, from a toilet seat around his neck.

Since his death, celebrity culture has backed up and overflowed everywhere, forcing us to wade through shits much less talented than Mr Bowery.

Originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday, May 5, 2002