The Wild(e) Colonial Boy

Leigh Bowery edited Robert Violette published Editions Violette/distributed by Thames and Hudson $89.00 238 pp colour and b&w illustrations

David Malouf's short story A Traveller's Tale explored the trope-ic ironies of expatriate Australian artists. 1 Alicia Vale rose, mysteriously, inexplicably, from working-class rural Australia to become a Diva, playing legendary femmes fatales and courtesans both on and off the European stage. Particularly emphasised was the disconnection between the far-away career, those overseas triumphs, unreal, unverifiable, unknown at home and the sordid ordinariness of the Australian homeland. Malouf played out issues of truth and pretension, home and away, but not in an expected pattern, through the contrast of the effete Australian "opera queen", an obsessive researcher of the forgotten star, and her perversely ordinary daughter living (again implausibly) in rural far north Queensland. In the 1980s Leigh Bowery followed the same glittering, impossible trajectory, making the leap from a nobody in the working class Western Suburbs of Melbourne to internationally acclaimed artist.
Involving narratives of both camp and expatriation, Malouf's A Traveller's Tale explored the comfort and consolation offered by such legends, the poetics of knowing that out there, somewhere, is a transcendentally famous 'Australian' artist. Such was the life of Leigh Bowery. When he died of AIDS in 1994, relatively few of the Australians he left behind knew much about this "performance artist, fashion designer, nightclub sensation, art object, aspiring pop star and above all an icon whose influence traversed the music, art, film and fashion worlds". Thus Bowery is described on the back cover of the Editions Violette/Thames and Hudson monograph devoted to his life and work, texts and photographs compiled by Robert Violette. Turning to an earlier Thames and Hudson monograph on an Australian artist - one no less self-consciously symbolic and provocative than Bowery - Franz Philipp's study of Arthur Boyd maps the vast, unpredictable changes in acceptable margins of art and art discourse in Australia over the last three decades. 2
That an 'Australian artist' such as Bowery with virtually no presence in either public gallery or academic constructions of Australian art history could be the subject of a monograph suggests the strange distortions imposed by the self-centric values of conventional Australian art discourse. The breathtaking name-dropping and stunning range of photographs (by outstanding late twentieth century photographers such as Annie Leibowitz) proclaims that Bowery never needed to pander to a local art market, which assigned him a negligible profile. The one Australian show mentioned in this book, Melbourne Town Hall February 14th 1987, was marred by the petty constrictions placed upon him by Australian arts bureaucrats, who tried to prevent him from showing the costumes produced for the Michael Clark dancers. Leigh responded by emphasising the sexual content in the performances, with the perversity that characterised his career.
The obvious question for an Australian reader is whether Bowery, born in Sunshine, state-school-educated, with a continual bent towards iconoclasm, affronting accepted moral and political narratives, his concentration upon fashion and club scenes, would have achieved the same degree of fame in Australia as he did overseas. That Bowery slipped through the sieve of local patronage and discourse of an artworld that frequently and ecstatically congratulated itself in the applause concluding a rousing Keating-Watson or Cheryl Kernot address offers food for thought. Perhaps we are not quite so capable and mature as we like to claim. The sentimental social realist aspects of Australian culture have never been particularly tolerant of other visions. Yet not only Australian prejudices haunted Bowery's life. Surely the ultimate put-down of expatriate Australian artists was spoken at the opening of his memorial exhibition: "Leigh's coming from Australia was slightly more horrible than coming from Canada". Soon after arriving in London, Bowery assumed an English accent and made no obvious reference to his Australian origins.
The push-pull effect, those quintessential Martin Boyd-esque dualities of expatriate experience (and of course Boyd was another camp Australian exile) were never far away from Bowery's life. If he were indeed the "vomit on Oscar Wilde's velvet" suit, then his traditional Australian identity as uncouth larrikin colonial was loudly proclaimed. At the same time Bowery's reinvention of the British dandy aesthete was Australia to the rescue of the British avant garde: the Boer War and the Whitechapel show all over again, as his exploits attracted audiences in Holland, Japan, the United States. I would argue that aspects of Bowery's career were inextricably tied up with his Australian experiences. At the risk of invoking that pernicious and racist myth - so popular today - that the calibration of one's cultural sensitivity and perception is dependent upon one's ethnic origins, certain images in Violette's scrapbook are best decoded with local knowledge: the lush and banal membership pledge of the Gould League, (prefiguring Bowery's divination of surreal power in the obviousness of suburban taste) the Royal Life Saving certificate, the department store photographs with Father Christmas. For an Australian reader these relics demonstrate Bowery's suburban origins and his seemingly mysterious apotheosis.
Yet Bowery's suburban origins count more than first suspected, intimations of vernacular Australia of the 1960s and 1970s abound in his oeuvre: Star Trek wallpaper, Holocaust and World War obsessions, awkward combinations of tawdry surfaces and textures, the peculiar and eerie ugliness of traditional clown make-up (before circuses were political cabaret), fake furs, cheap and gaudy nylons and polyesters, old ladies' synthetic nighties. Many of these surfaces or looks have moved from alternative to mainstream in the last decade. Bowery, our man in London, was causal to developing an aesthetic where bri-nylon is high fashion and eighteen year olds listen with pleasure to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. Also Australian was Bowery's determined cynicism, his ongoing, structural distrust of everything pious and fixed from Burger King to definitions of gay identity - it was no accident that he intruded both a birthing narrative and a 'real' heterosexual woman (his no less remarkable and unexpected wife Nicola) into a transvestite performance venue. Perhaps Australia too has grown more to resemble Leigh Bowery, freewheeling, suspicious of known texts, the Australia of the minor parties: 'a pox on both your houses'. I would argue that Bowery embraced one of the more far-ranging visions of Australian suburbia, entirely without moral judgement (save that of revenge and iconoclasm) and unbounded in its possibilities. That which was marginalised in Australia occupied the centre of what another hauntingly ambiguous and stylish Australian boy on the make, Arthur Streeton, once called "the Heart of Empire".
1 In Antipodes: Stories by David Malouf, London, Chatto and Windus/Hogarth Press 1985 130-135
2 Franz Philipp Arthur Boyd London, Thames and Hudson 1967