In the documentary, The Legend of Leigh Bowery, (Dir. Charles Atlas, 2002) the brilliant life of Leigh Bowery—artist, fashion designer, performer and above all pioneer—is explored from youth to until his unfortunate death in 1994 through the words of friends, family, colleagues and the artist himself.
Leigh Bowery was an artist who, by merely entering a room, created a “performance.” His physical stature alone (over seven feet) was enough to part the crowd, but the incredible art that he wore upon his body changed the nature of how we conceive of androgyny. Leigh dressed not necessarily in what one could call drag (although he often wore extravagant dresses), but in a style more closely akin to something otherworldly, a hyperbole of what an imagined “multi-gendered” futurist fashion persona could be. Often concealing his face and hair entirely with masks or elaborate makeup, he gave his face a new set of overly big eyes and exaggerated mouth, sometimes with attached “wigs” or hair pieces, making him look female—but far beyond pin-up feminine. At times his face and body looked so cartoonish, so animated, that he was nothing short of a hyperbole of society at large.
For Leigh, a skirt would be slit not just to the ankle, nor to the knee, but would be cut all the way up to the breast line. If he were to accentuate the stomach, he would envision and enact a diving board sprouting from his abdomen. He often used glitter, gaffer tape, extreme body paint, platform shoes and even enormous body suits that covered him head to toe to create his costume for the evening. The ability to use the bathroom or even breathe properly never seemed to be an object in his performance.
Born in Sunshine, Australia, Leigh was raised by two religiously pious members of the Salvation Army; his father is described by his sister as a real “man’s man.” From an early age, it was clear that Leigh was not—he was interested in sewing, fashion and openly exploring his budding and active queer sexuality. He eventually chose to study fashion design in university but it didn’t take him long to realize that school didn't allow him to experiment with fashion the way that he really wanted to. What captivated Leigh were “ideas,” and fashion design alone was too limiting to those broad ideas to keep him interested. Art —fashion, performance, makeup design — these were his way of investigating those ideas. As Leigh puts it, “in art one finds the most freedom.”
He made his way to London and quickly to the fashion scene that was criss-crossing the worlds of music, art, and dance. Though he clearly loved attention and often did street performance (indeed, a simple stroll down the street in one of his creations drew crowds) for most of his career, he was focused on the art of simply going out to the clubs and parties that he loved, and/or created, like his own infamous club, Taboo. Dancing on the dance floor in his latest work of art, which he literally wore on his body, was his ultimate realness. But as one historian puts it, Leigh was just as interested in getting ready as getting there, a process which was tantamount to creating a painting, or molding a sculpture. Once the work of art was finished, going out and showing it off was just icing on the cake.
Leigh liked to surprise—by showing up in an outfit no one else in the room could create and twice everyone’s height, or by creating a sudden spectacle. One of his most famous “guerilla” performances was performed with his artist wife, Nicola Bowery, who he carried around upside-down at a club for several hours on a harness he’d constructed under his dress. Then suddenly and spontaneously he “gave birth” to her in the middle of the party throwing a wild, unexpected labor.
It wasn’t until Leigh began working with the choreographer Michael Clark that Leigh began officially “taking the stage” in a place circumscribed by “performance.” His collaboration began with costuming for dancers, which Clark says actually molded the choreography itself. But eventually the collaboration led to Leigh taking the stage himself, in his own creations—often upstaging the other dancers with his almost alien appearance.
Leigh’s art has touched many contemporary artists and designers, who, as he was, are fascinated with creating these larger-than-life, disproportionate body-altering costumes that test the lines of color and texture. Leigh’s influence can be seen in the work of designers Gareth Pugh and John Galliano, artists like Bjork and Mathew Barney, the young Fruits of Japan, and even to the aesthetic focus of MAC Makeup, whose bright colors and water-based paints are no longer reserved for just the stage.
Leigh was an artist who lived and breathed hyperbole and excess into sex, food, art, dancing, and life itself. As his sister speculated, Leigh sought immortality. And as his influence becomes increasingly far-felt, he certainly has achieved it.
Kathryn Fischer (aka Mad Kate) is a writer and performance artist living in Berlin, Germany with her partner and performance accomplice Juan Chamié. Combining elements of dance theatre, spoken word, vocals and fashion, she has performed her queer-alien-burlesque-theatre extensively around Europe since moving to Berlin seven years ago. As a contemporary improvisational dancer Mad Kate integrates techniques from Ballet to Afro-Cuban to Butoh, pioneering a style uniquely her own. She is front woman for the punk-rock-cabaret band Kamikaze Queens and a proud member of the Bonaparte circus. Mad Kate's performance work has been featured in several documentaries and films, including Emilie Jouvet's Too Much Pussy: Feminist Sluts in the Queer X Show, Cheryl Dunye's Mommy is Coming, Ivan Arrenega's Berlin Manners: Burlesque in Berlin, and Jess Feast's documentary Cowboys and Communists. She also plays the lead role in Julia Ostertag's film, Saila. Mad Kate can often be found inside the caverns of Carni Closet, located in the back of the Berlin boutique, EXIT.
Kathryn holds an MFA in Writing and Consciousness from the New College of California and a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies with an emphasis in Gender and Sustainable Development from the University of California, Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in Z Magazine, Bitch, Other , Off Our Backs, Art XX, ExBerliner, SexHerald, Exodus, Sojourn, Sexflies: R rated stories 4 the uncanny, Tea Party Magazine, Brew City Magazine and Controlled Burn, an anthology of short fiction by New College Press. Her work is currently being featured in the online exhibit, Imagining Ourselves: A Global Generation of Women, a project by the International Museum of Women. She self-publishes The Fabricated Love Affair Art Project, a feminist, mixed media 'zine.