Retrospective for performance artist, arch provocateur and 80s club kid Leigh Bowery hits London

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 ( Leigh Bowery, Le Privilège, Paris 1988)
( Leigh Bowery, Le Privilège, Paris 1988)

Leigh Bowery, the designer, performance artist, icon of London nightlife and arch provocateur is to be celebrated with an exhibition at The Fitzrovia Chapel.

In his short life, Bowery morphed himself into a work of art. He stitched body contorting outfits (think morph suits stretched over two feet platforms) and masqueraded through Soho; he was a regular at the fabled Blitz club in the 80s, and ran the infamous and marvellously debauched nightclub Taboo. Attendees knew his expectation: ‘dress as though your life depends on it, or don’t bother.’

Bowery caught artist Lucian Freud’s attention in 1988, during a series of live performances at Anthony D’Offay’s gallery and so became a muse out of costume as well. Freud painted colossal and captivating portraits of Bowery, rotund and nude.

Leigh Bowery at his club night Taboo, February 1986 (Dave Swindells)
Leigh Bowery at his club night Taboo, February 1986 (Dave Swindells)

Onstage, he shone amongst the Blitz and New Romantic movements of eighties London, enacting fake births and real enemas. He dressed those in the Michael Clark dance company through to Boy George, as he became a fixture of the London scene that had attracted him in 1981 from the Melbourne suburb he was born in.

The all-original garments he donned mutated nightly, and have inspired greats. His white painted face, with sex-doll style red lips, was transposed onto models at Alexander McQueen’s ‘The Horn of Plenty’ collection, AW09. John Galliano, Martin Margiela and Jean Paul Gaultier have all joined him in paying reference.

Today, this influence maintains. Bowery is in the floral face masks of Richard Quinn. And Kim Kardashian’s head covering morph-suit and high ponytail for 2021’s Met Gala? Bowery was photographed in that look by Fergus Greer back in 1994.

Leigh Bowery and Nicola Bateman at Leigh’s home Farrell House in east London (Martin Gardner)
Leigh Bowery and Nicola Bateman at Leigh’s home Farrell House in east London (Martin Gardner)

What’s remarkable is that he did it all so fast. One month after that gimp-suit shoot with Greer, Bowery died of AIDS at the Middlesex Hospital. It was New Years Eve, 1994, and he was only 33. He kept his illness secret, but did confide in friend, artist and fellow Freud sitter, Sue Tilley. Rather than inform others of his death, he requested she “tell them I’ve gone to Papua New Guinea.” His phrase titles this exhibition, which is held in a golden mosaic, Grade II listed chapel. It is the remaining outpost of hospital where he passed away.

“I’m thrilled about it,” Tilley says of the retrospective. “It’s going to be so poignant to see Leigh’s clothes in the beautiful chapel, the only thing left of the hospital where he died. My time with him in the hospital is very dear to me. We spent so much time together chatting, gossiping and – despite the tragic circumstances – even laughing.”

Inside the small gilded Chapel, his garments sit like jewels. A fancifully embroidered figure wears an orange disc skirt standing parallel to another covered in ombré pink sequins. Both guard the alter, where Bowery’s feather headdress sits in glory.

Leigh Bowery and Boy George at Blitz Magazine Fashion Gala organised by Iain R Webb to promote the classic Levi denim jacket, June 1986 (Brendan Beirne/Shutterstock)
Leigh Bowery and Boy George at Blitz Magazine Fashion Gala organised by Iain R Webb to promote the classic Levi denim jacket, June 1986 (Brendan Beirne/Shutterstock)

A winged blazer, which he wore at the Blitz Magazine Fashion Gala with Boy George, is suspended with the angel mosaics of the domed ceiling, while a fully draped figure stands arms outreached looking down from the organ balcony. It is intimate, and in decadent surroundings. Alongside, a new short film of interviews from close friends including Tilley, Nicola Bateman, Boy George and Les Child, as well as Charles Atlas’ 2002 documentary The Legend of Leigh Bowery plays.

As Boy George said in his biography, Straight: “Leigh hadn’t even begun to tap into his creative potential at the time of his death. That’s why he has to be remembered.”

Leigh Bowery - Tell Them I’ve Gone to Papua New Guinea: Free to book, 7 Jan - 6 Feb, The Fitzrovia Chapel, W1T, eventbrite.co.uk

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