This month, Kate Garner is selling her portraits of the performance artist – here, alongside her images, the photographer remembers her friend and the way he inspired
The larger-than-life presence of legendary performance artist and nightlife impresario Leigh Bowery saw him become one of Lucian Freud’s greatest muses, collaborate regularly with choreographer Michael Clark, and be posthumously immortalised in a West End musical written by Boy George and titled after his infamous club night, Taboo. Yet behind Bowery’s confrontative performances and chameleonic appearance lay a political undercurrent, informed by the growing inequality of Thatcher’s Britain and the looming threat of the AIDS epidemic – and there are few who understand this better than his friend Kate Garner, a painter and then-photographer who shot Bowery regularly over a period of almost a decade.
Ahead of the anniversary of his passing on New Year’s Eve 1994 of an AIDS-related illness, Garner is auctioning off a series of five limited-edition prints from her archives featuring Bowery in all of his colourful magnificence, with all proceeds going to The Terrence Higgins Trust in support of those living with HIV and AIDS today. Speaking to AnOther from her home in California, Garner reminisces on her time spent in Bowery’s magnetic presence, the impact of the AIDS epidemic on her creative milieu, and how radical art can guide us through dark times.
“I can’t remember the first time I met Leigh, as he was just part of the crowd that I was in, but I do remember going to his apartment for the first time. It was a council flat in deepest south London, and the interiors were just as you would imagine: pretty intense. It was a very dour high-rise council block, but when you went through his door you were in Leigh’s wonderland. He was very brave, because it was a really rough area and he had his door smashed down on numerous occasions by thugs that didn’t approve of him.
“I do remember going to his apartment for the first time. It was a council flat in deepest south London, and the interiors were just as you would imagine: pretty intense” – Kate Garner
“I probably photographed Leigh around five times, and he always came prepared: it was more or less like photographing a moving work of art. All you had to do was point the camera and get it in focus and light it properly, and that was it. You didn’t have to tell Leigh how to move or anything, it was almost like being a journalist and just capturing it. I’ve photographed politicians and movie stars and some of them are tremendously insecure, but Leigh didn’t suffer from any of that. I’m sure he had his demons, we all do, but he wore them out in public. It’s our demons that are hidden that cause us damage.
“Leigh wasn’t the only person that stood out. I remember going to the squat in Warren Street where a lot of that crowd was living: John Maybury, Stephen Jones, the Bodymap guys, Boy George. Again it was this decrepit house, then when you stepped through the front door there was this wonderland that they created. Out of hardship comes great art and London was suffering at that point – and it’s probably about to again, or it might already have happened. But from that hardship comes great art, I think, because you have no alternative except to go to more extreme places.”
“When the AIDS epidemic began it was terrifying. It affected so many free spirits, people who were brave enough to live their lives outside of conventional society. It just seemed so unfair, and society’s attitude at that point was very much a wagging of the finger, an ‘I told you so’ attitude. It just felt hopeless. I remember meeting one of my friends outside – I’d been to see some environmental disaster movie – and I was saying, ‘Oh my God, what’s happening to the planet.’ And he said: ‘I don’t care, I really don’t care anymore. I’m dying and there’s nothing to help me.’ There was a real sense of fatalism at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, where people just had to accept that there was no help.”
“The last time I saw Leigh was at a Lucian Freud exhibition – I bumped into him on the street, and he was very plainly dressed for him, but he still had a lot of piercings all over his face – he always looked remarkable. I think Leigh’s inspiration continues, and now on Instagram it’s a whole new world, where people who don’t fit a certain gender or way of being can express themselves. It’s an amazing thing about social media – it gives people who might be stuck in the depths of Missouri or wherever a chance to realise there are other people who feel like them.
“[Leigh] added brightness and hope and spontaneity and mystery and imagination during a difficult period of time” – Kate Garner
“Everyone needs to read a book called Frederick the Mouse. It’s about a little mouse who wouldn’t go out and gather grain with the other mice, because he was too busy singing and writing music and painting. So when they were hibernating, the other mice would only give Frederick the minimum amount of food. It was a very long and difficult winter, and the mice were depressed, and then Frederick got up and sang them songs and told them stories. I think that is what artists do, and what Leigh did. Along with all the other people who were part of that culture, he added brightness and hope and spontaneity and mystery and imagination during a difficult period of time. I think anybody can learn from that.”
Throughout the month of December 2018 Kate Garner is selling an exclusive limited edition run of Leigh Bowery prints to raise money for Terrence Higgins Trust AIDS Charity. The prints are 11x14’’ edition of 30 printed on Hahnemuhle archival fine art paper. They are £500 each. To order email firstname.lastname@example.org