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Kunsthalle Wien presents XTRAVAGANZA. Staging Leigh Bowery

Kunsthalle Wien presents XTRAVAGANZA. Staging Leigh Bowery, on view October 19, 2012–February 3, 2013.

“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 stirred up London’s subculture of the 1980s in the wake of post-punk and New Romanticism.

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.

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.

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 makeup 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.

Leigh Bowery’s art clearly differs from the designs, presentation patterns, and distribution channels of fashion designers. 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. He disparaged unequivocal gender definitions and transcended their socially informed attributions—Gender Trouble: everything was a look.

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.”

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.

Featuring: Leigh Bowery & Peter Ashworth, Charles Atlas, Nicola Bateman, Robyn Beeche, Bruce Bernard, Boy George, David Buckland, Ole Christiansen, Michael Clark, Cerith Wyn Evans, Avram Finkelstein, Lucian Freud, Padhi Frieberger, Alex Gerry, Fergus Greer, Richard Haughton, Dick Jewell, Nick Knight, Jean-Claude Lagrèze, Martin Margiela/Marina Faust, John Maybury, Minty, Elena Muti, Catherine Opie/Ron Athey, Werner Pawlok, Mr. Pearl, Kembra Pfahler, Pierre Rutchi, Johnny Rozsa, David Swindells, Sue Tilley, Trojan, Donald Urquhart, Baillie Walsh, John Waters/Divine, David Wojnarowicz, a.o.

Curator: Angela Stief
Assistant curator: Martin Walkner

Kunsthalle Wien
Museumsplatz 1, 1070 Vienna, Austria
Hours: Daily 10–7pm, Thu 10–9pm