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Art

The taboo-busting legacy of Leigh Bowery

Leigh Bowery was perhaps the most influential performance artist of the modern era. Influencing everyone from Noel Fielding to the late Alexander McQueen, his pioneering steps busted taboo and defied social mores. Described by friend Boy George as “modern art on legs”, Bowery’s commitment to casting off labels helped to drag us from the past and into modernity.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, it would be after his move to London in his late teens where he would make his indelible impact on culture.

Not solely a performance artist but also a fashion designer, musician, director and club promoter, there was no art that Bowery didn’t try his hand at. As a performance artist, he first appeared at the Anthony D’Offay Gallery in London in 1988.

He would quickly make waves as the most alluring yet horrifying performer the city and the country had to offer. Onstage, he appeared in outlandish drag and other bizarre costumes, often distorting his six-foot three-inch and 17 stone physique to gargantuan proportions.

He sang and danced, and, often to the audience’s surprise, he would fall onto his back and simulate giving birth. A petite, naked young woman, his friend, assistant, and later wife, Nicola Bateman, would appear from his stomach covered in a high volume of fake blood and wrapped in links of sausages, while Bowery wailed like a mother giving birth. 

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He would then bite off the umbilical cord, and then the two would take a bow, and that would be the end of the show. Boy George saw it numerous times and said that it “never ceased to impress or revolt”. It was this commitment to shock that underpinned much of Bowery’s work. Despite all of that, he is probably most famous for his club, Taboo. Possibly London’s most debauched club of all time, it started off as an underground party before it transitioned to become a fully-fledged nightclub in 1985. Here, Bowery truly helped to undo binaries.

Drugs and alcohol were flowing, and aside from the dance scene it became known for, the club defied sexual convention. It actively embraced polysexualism, totally casting off any of the era’s still very medieval sexual mores, and it created a hedonistic atmosphere for attendees. It became the era’s most crucial nightclub.

It was at Taboo where Bowery met the iconic painter, Lucian Freud. They were introduced by a mutual friend and artist, Cerith Wyn Evans. Freud has actually witnessed Bowery perform at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery and was very impressed. The two struck up a friendship and found solace in the ethos of each other’s works. In 1991, Bowery posed for a number of large paintings that are considered to be some of Freud’s best works. Just like with his own performance art, Freud’s work exaggerated Bowery’s already larger than life stature. Freud said he found him “perfectly beautiful” and added, “His wonderfully buoyant bulk was an instrument I felt I could use, especially those extraordinary dancer’s legs”. 

Freud was also keen to note that Bowery was a shy and gentle soul by nature and that his pronounced personality was a partial result of accounting for his insecurities. Another way that he had a significant impact on popular culture was his response to the AIDS outbreak of the 1980s. In fact, his looks were often inspired by socio-political themes, which instilled his art with a palpable essence that many of his contemporaries could not achieve.

His friend, DJ Princess Julia, told the Guardian in 2018: “The dot face, for example, was a comment on Kaposi’s sarcoma.” This was cancer that caused the facial lesions that many Aids sufferers also had to endure in the 1980s as a side effect of the awful disease. “His work was about things like body image or illnesses – and those things haven’t gone away. It confronts you and frightens you and makes you think. It’s very disruptive, to use a word of the moment.”

Although some people, including his friends such as Michael Clark, criticised him for being sometimes too extreme, particularly with his ‘Pakis from Outer Space’ look, it was his commitment to radical satire and dispelling taboos that really marked him out as a pioneer. There was always a context to what he did, even if it made you uncomfortable. That was the point. 

During a 1993 interview with The Guardian, Bowery was asked what trait he most disliked in others. To which he famously responded: “The urge to categorise: if you label me, you negate me.” From the mouth of the man himself, that is the best and most concise summary of Bowery’s ethos.

Aside from performance art and his key understanding of the art of offence, Bowery also designed costumes for Boy George’s Culture Club, fronted the experimental band Minty and directed the iconic music video for Massive Attack’s signature anthem ‘Unfinished Sympathy’. 

Leigh Bowery created an artistic world of his own, and there will never be anyone quite like him. He helped to pave the way for Lady Gaga as much as he did RuPaul’s Drag Race. His influence pervades in music, haute couture and modern art. To have such a far-reaching and necessary effect on such a wide range of figures ranging from Vivienne Westwood to even new rave bands reflects just how wide-reaching his taboo-busting efforts were. Sadly, Bowery succumbed to AIDS on New Year’s Eve 1994, but he continues to live on in every nightclub worldwide. Let the implications of that sink in. Furthermore, through the efforts of his friends such as Boy George, who helped to pen the musical Taboo, based on the club, his spirit transcends borders, genders and aesthetics. It’s what he would have wanted.

Watch the man in action below.