27
Jan
13

Exhibition: ‘XTRAVAGANZA. Staging Leigh Bowery’ at Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna

Exhibition dates: 19th October 2012 – 3rd February 2013

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I can die happy now that I have had the opportunity to do a posting on this amazing man. He challenged social stereotypes turning his body into an every changing, ever challenging work of art. He used his body as a canvas and inscribed narratives upon it. He used these narratives to challenge the dominant discourse, offering himself as material evidence to facilitate new perspectives. His body became a performance, the self as performance, one that was not fully pre-determined, for you never knew what he would do next, what social outrage he would offer up.

Through masks, makeup, wigs and body modification, Bowery confronted the viewer with an/other field of existence, one that promoted an encounter with the face of the other, causing an emotional response in the audience, the viewer. As Wendy Garden observes, “Being faced with another provokes a reaction: it makes an appeal, demands an engagement.”1 We cannot look away for we do not know what Bowery will do next. He used his large body, its bulk and presence to bringthe viewer face-to-face with an/other. The magnification of his size and the emphasis and manipulation of his face, especially the mouth and eyes, rescales his presence in front of the viewer – at his performances, in the photographs of Bowery. For example look at his creation Evening Wear – Andrew Logan’s 1986 Alternative Miss World (1986, below). Impossibly high and luridly coloured boots, leggings, a bustled and bedazzled jacket/skirt combo, crash helmet and the most maniacal black and white face you will ever see. Bowery unbalances the fixity of the single perspective and through his transgression destabilises the mastering gaze.

I was living in London at the time Leigh Bowery, Boy George, Marilyn and Divine were strutting their stuff in the nightclubs of London town. What a time. Maggie Thatcher (and I can hardly bring myself to type her name) was Prime Minister of a right wing Conservative government from 1979-1990, a period of social oppression of minorities, the breaking of the trade unions, the beginning of HIV/AIDS. Think Boy George’s famous song No Clause 28 that protested against a local government act that “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” Bowery was a child of his time, a prescient, sentient being who was out there doing his thing, challenging the dominant paradigms of apatriarchal society. He burned like a comet, bright in the sky, and then was gone all too early. But he will never be forgotten. What a man.

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Many thankx to Kunsthalle Wien for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Installation view of 'XTRAVAGANZA. Staging Leigh Bowery', Kunsthalle Wien

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Installation view of XTRAVAGANZA. Staging Leigh Bowery, Kunsthalle Wien
Foto: Stephan Wyckoff
Kostüme Leigh Bowery
Kostümpräsentation: Klaus Mayr
Courtesy Estate of Leigh Bowery

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Installation view of 'XTRAVAGANZA. Staging Leigh Bowery', Kunsthalle Wien

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Installation view of XTRAVAGANZA. Staging Leigh Bowery, Kunsthalle Wien
Foto: Stephan Wyckoff
Kostüme Leigh Bowery
Kostümpräs: Klaus Mayr
Courtesy Estate of Leigh Bowery; Cerith Wyn Evans, In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni, 2008
Courtesy Cerith Wyn Evans und White Cube

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Installation view of 'XTRAVAGANZA. Staging Leigh Bowery', Kunsthalle Wien

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Installation view of XTRAVAGANZA. Staging Leigh Bowery, Kunsthalle Wien
Foto: Stephan Wyckoff
Kostüme Leigh Bowery
Kostümpräsentation: Klaus Mayr
Courtesy Estate of Leigh Bowery

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Charles Atlas. 'Teach' 1992-98

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Charles Atlas
Teach
1992-98
Video-Still
© Charles Atlas, Courtesy Vilma Gold, London

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Werner Pawlok. 'Portrait Leigh Bowery 3' 1988

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Werner Pawlok
Portrait Leigh Bowery 3
1988
Courtesy Werner Pawlok

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“”I think of myself as a canvas,” fashion pioneer Leigh Bowery once said about himself. If there were a formula to describe this enfant terrible who refused all categorization throughout his life, this would be it: turning oneself into a work of art. Presenting himself in the most garish ways that defied all conventions and stylizing himself as a walking work of art, Leigh Bowery, who was born in Australia in 1961, stirred up London’s sub-culture of the 1980s in the wake of post punk and New Romanticism. Being friends with stars of the scene like Michael Clark and Cerith Wyn Evans, he continuously reinvented himself on the manifold stages of the metropolis.

The show highlights Leigh Bowery’s life and work between fashion, performance, music, dance, and sculpture by presenting rarely exhibited costumes, numerous films, photographs, music videos, talk shows, and magazines. It approaches Bowery by way of artistic descriptions, reflections, and documentations in the work of friends, supporters, and colleagues, whose source of inspiration, entertainer, and muse he was: Bowery’s performative enactments oscillating between masquerade and radical self-expression were captured by filmmakers such as Charles Atlas, Dick Jewell, Baillie Walsh, and John Maybury. It took Fergus Greer a number of sessions that stretched over six years to shoot the legendary photo series Looks. As Charles Atlas’s Teach shows, Leigh Bowery developed his unmistakable outfits, gestures, and poses in multiple forms of self-reflection under his companions’ critical eye. Bowery’s one-week performance in the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London (1988) involved a two-way mirror: while the public could watch Leigh Bowery changing his outfits for hours on end, he saw only his own mirror image and remained inescapably confronted with himself and his movements. Though Bowery claimed that he had had to fight his shame initially and hid his room-filling physique behind conspicuous materials such as tulle, glitter, paint, and satin, his performances were anything but embarrassing: “The rest of us used drag and make-up to disguise our blemishes and physical defects. Leigh made them the focal point of his art,” Boy George once remarked. The nightclubs of London provided Bowery with catwalks on which to flaunt his visions of himself and let him always come out on top in terms of maximum attention. Lucian Freud, the British prince of painters, took great pleasure in Leigh Bowery’s fascinating personality and the fullness of his naked body. Bowery became one of his most important models, and the artist depicted him as he could never be seen in public: natural, intimate, and vulnerable.

Leigh Bowery’s art clearly differs from the designs, presentation patterns, and distribution channels of fashion designers. With Trash and Bad Taste irony, Bowery, like his idol John Waters and his main actor Divine, abandoned all conventions and stylistic doctrines in a both cynical and humorous way. His craftsmanship in tailoring and his creative potential constitute the core of an expressive self-stylization which did not depend on encouraging the public through marketing strategies or offers of consumer goods. His vestimentary creations were based on the work with his own body, which he regarded as a malleable material and workable mass and which was to play an increasingly central part in his late oeuvre. Regarded as inexorably deficient, his body became the origin of those manifold appearances and kaleidoscopic diversifications that we find most astounding when confronted with Bowery’s work. He experimented with second skins of black latex, exaggerated the size and volume of his body with sweeping tulle attires, and made himself look taller with platform shoes. Bowery sabotaged glamorous, ornamental and transparent materials with steel helmets, toilet seats, and skulls. He fastened artificial lips in his cheeks with safety pins and wore flesh-colored velvet suits that transformed his body into a vagina. Using adhesive tape and a bodice, he shaped his flesh into an artificial bosom, and he concealed his member behind pubic hair toupees or overemphasized it as he did in one of the Michael Clark Company’s dance performances. He disparaged unequivocal gender definitions and transcended their socially informed attributions – Gender Trouble: everything was a look. By and by, Bowery turned into what has been called “the self as performance.”

Leigh Bowery’s existence was the epitome of extremes. He looked for exceptional emotional and physical states like pain and ecstasy that would release him from the mediocrity of everyday life, like in the performance The Laugh of No.12 in Fort Asperen on June 4, 1994. Suspended on one foot, stark naked, wearing a black face mask, and displaying some clothespins on his genitals, he swung through the air uttering a sprechgesang, before he smashed a pane of glass with his bulky body. Exposing himself to his vulnerability in his performances, Bowery overcame physical injuries by showcasing them. His sometimes sadomasochist appearances and provocative lifestyle culminated in an attitude that crystallized into a sociopolitical approach in his statement “I like doing the opposite of what people expect.” Far from nocturnal footlights and kindred spirits’ protection, he – who was “larger than life” in every respect – strained the social limits of propriety with his big and exalted appearance. He enjoyed causing offence and holding up a mirror to the dictatorship of conformism, unmasking its heteronomy.

After an excessive life, Leigh Bowery died from AIDS at the age of 33. He was more than an extraordinary peripheral figure making his mark in the urban arena of exhibitionism and voyeurism. His virtuoso works have influenced haute couture collections by such fashion stars as Rei Kawakubo, John Galliano, Walter van Beirendonck, and Alexander McQueen. In spite of its simplicity, the latest fall/winter collection of Comme des Garçons shows obvious parallels to Leigh Bowery’s designs.”

Press release from the Kunsthalle Wien website

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Robin Beeche. 'Evening Wear - Andrew Logan's 1986 Alternative Miss World' 1986

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Robin Beeche
Evening Wear – Andrew Logan’s 1986 Alternative Miss World
1986
Courtesy Robin Beeche

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Nick Knight. 'Untitled (Leigh Bowery with Scull)' 1992

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Nick Knight
Untitled (Leigh Bowery with Scull)
1992
© Nick Knight

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Ole Christiansen. 'Farrel House' 1989

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Ole Christiansen
Farrel House
1989
Courtesy Ole Christiansen

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Fergus Greer. 'Leigh Bowery, Session VII, Look 38, June 1994' 1994

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Fergus Greer
Leigh Bowery, Session VII, Look 38, June 1994
1994
Courtesy Fergus Greer
© Fergus Greer

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1. Garden, Wendy. “Ethical witnessing and the portrait photograph: Brook Andrew,” in Journal of Australian Studies Vol. 35, No. 2, June 2011, p.261.

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Kunsthalle Wien
Museumsplatz 1
A-1070 Vienna

Opening hours:
Daily 10 am – 7 pm
Thursday 10 am – 10 pm

Kunsthalle Wien website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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