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LONDON — Disco terrorist. Queer monster. Modern art on legs. Impossible to pin down, Leigh Bowery was a monument to his own great, self-willed perversity. He turned his hulking body into a living canvas, onto which he transferred the wild contents of his head. Fergus Greer’s photographs attempt to capture Bowery’s many metamorphoses: a life lived as a look.
Greer’s photos of Leigh Bowery, on view now, tell the story of the artist’s work. Bowery crashed like a glitter-ball from outer space (in reality: Sunshine, Australia) onto early 1980s London, a city run amok with the grim, greyed-out forces of Thatcherism, corporate greed, and AIDS (which claimed him in 1994, aged just 33). He was a reaction — and very much a physical one — against a vacuous culture obsessed, paradoxically, with authenticity.
“My favorite fabric is flesh,” he once said. In one image, blue paint drips down his skull, his face made up into a kabuki-like mask. His ‘tits’ — the product, he gleefully explained, of masking tape and ‘will power’ — spill out of a green feathered emu outfit.
He delighted in eliciting the ‘wrong’ response in his audiences: embarrassment (which he called the ‘unexplored emotion’) and discomfort. Inventing confusion as its own aesthetic category (“That’ll spook ‘em!”), Bowery defied the reigning fashions of both New Romantic prettiness and the macho clone look of the gay scene. He knew that to be repulsed by something requires its own kind of sick infatuation; he found the line marked by good taste and trampled all over it in eight-inch platforms. (Blackface, swastikas: nothing was off limits.)
Indeed, Bowery was less interested in objectifying the body than using it to terrify. In one photo, he’s mummified from head-to-toe in black latex: a sex doll complete with club foot. He revelled in the idea of deformity as beauty; the allure of the disturbing. In another, he’s dressed like the madam of a Russian brothel: a fur-trimmed leather pantsuit with matching hat. Any possible eroticism is warped by a face-blurring mask, his mouth like a vacant glory-hole, with golf-ball cheekbones. Bowery’s idea of a pin-up pushes us squirmingly into an uncanny valley of visceral sensations.
There was a strange genderlessness to Bowery’s art. He often looks more alien than human. In a series of photo negatives, his features are smudged by a pair of tights over his head, his throat cinched with armor. Hugging his arms across his massive chest, he looks both odd and oddly vulnerable. From the same session, we see Bowery teetering in hooker heels, his wife Nicola Bateman (whom he married in a piece of camp performance art shortly before his death) strapped upside down to his body, echoing their infamous ‘birth’ performance.
Even his more ‘natural’ looks are off-center, a puzzle. (His infamous ‘daytime’ outfits included natty wigs and high heels worn inside trainers with long trousers, giving him the appearance of a child molester on day release.) In one black-and-white shot, he stares down the camera, face scrubbed free of make up, wearing rimless glasses and a steel military helmet. His cheeks are dimpled with two safety pins — a nod to the punk movement which first lured him to London’s clubland.
How far can you embrace artifice before you stop being human? In a series of shots from 1989, we see Bowery reconfiguring the body as a kind of geometrical abstraction. A giant puffball obscures his head, his proportions rounded out by cube-like padding and blocky shoes — more sculpture than man.
Half a century later, London feels more grey and colorless than ever. We’ll never see Bowery again in the flesh: his true medium. But Greer’s vital document lives on: a blueprint for a new generation of club kids and freaks tracing their evolution.
Fergus Greer, Leigh Bowery, Looks is on view at Michael Hoppen Gallery (3 Jubilee Place London, SW3 3TD) until April 27.