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In London, a Temple Where You Can Worship at the Altar of Oscar Wilde

By Tom Morris

Peter McGough and David McDermott’s “Oscar Wilde Temple” takes over the space of the contemporary art gallery Studio Voltaire, which is located in a converted Victorian chapel in London. The altar features a statue of the playwright and poet made of linden wood.
 
Francis Ware
Peter McGough and David McDermott’s “Oscar Wilde Temple” takes over the space of the contemporary art gallery Studio Voltaire, which is located in a converted Victorian chapel in London. The altar features a statue of the playwright and poet made of linden wood.

“Who wouldn’t want to get married under the statue of Oscar Wilde?” asks the artist Peter McGough, standing in front of an altar that surrounds a wooden rendering of the 19th-century Irish playwright and poet. In 1895, Wilde was imprisoned on charges of sodomy and gross indecency, following accusations made by the father of his lover, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Wilde “stood up for himself in the courts, he went to jail and then he was destroyed,” says McGough. “What he went through was very Christlike.”

Opening this week in a Victorian South London church, the “Oscar Wilde Temple” is the first London show for McGough and his long-term artistic (and former romantic) partner, David McDermott. Originally mounted in New York, last year, the immersive installation takes over the premises of the nonprofit arts organisation Studio Voltaire — located in a former chapel — where it will remain for the next six months. “Why not let people find solace in a place where they’re not being condemned?” asks McGough.

Francis WareThe space features works from the 1980s, including “A Friend of Dorothy, 1943” (left) and “Advent Infinite Divine Spirit” (right).
The space features works from the 1980s, including “A Friend of Dorothy, 1943” (left) and “Advent Infinite Divine Spirit” (right).

Gay rights and the AIDS crisis have been constant themes in the pair’s work. While “Oscar Wilde Temple” is a camp high-five for progress, it is a politically charged indictment, too. The painting “A Friend of Dorothy, 1943” features slurs that the artists have been called. Another, showing a luminous spiral radiating from the centre of the canvas, bears the title “Advent Infinite Divine Spirit,” offering an alternate meaning for the acronym AIDS. Both works date from the ‘80s. There are also contemporary pieces: Displayed on either side of the altarpiece are 12 oil paintings of what McDermott and McGough identify as modern-day martyrs. These figures include not only icons of queer culture such as Harvey Milk and Alan Turing, but also lesser-known figures like Xulhaz Mannan, the founder of Bangladesh’s first L.G.B.T. magazine, and Jody Dobrowski, a London bar manager, both of whom were killed in hate crimes.

The artists have restored the exhibition space back to its former Victoriana glory, by adding purple votive candles, heavy chandeliers and geometric floral wallpaper from the 1880s. In addition to the hand-carved Wilde statue at the altar, the temple is complete with new stained-glass windows depicting sunflowers and green carnations (a nod to a key prop in Wilde’s play “Lady Windermere’s Fan'’). Paintings of archival newspaper cartoons of the author’s trial are displayed to mimic the stations of the cross found in a traditional Catholic church.

Courtesy of the artists.The artists Peter McGough (left) and David McDermott (right), who have worked together since the 1980s.
The artists Peter McGough (left) and David McDermott (right), who have worked together since the 1980s.

The idea for the shrine came about more than 20 years ago. But the duo’s history goes back further; they were boyfriends and mainstays of the art scene in early ‘80s downtown New York. For many years, the pair lived together in a townhouse on Avenue C that had been stripped of electricity and heating. They would wander Alphabet City and beyond, dressed not entirely dissimilarly to Oscar Wilde, in polished top hats and three-piece suits. For this interview, McGough arrives alone, dressed in a corduroy suit and natty wool cravat. Asked if McDermott is in town too (he now lives in Ireland, having renounced his U.S. citizenship), McGough says, “Oh, he’s here! But he went off to see a young fellow who makes clothes from the 1820s.”

Proceeds from the London exhibition will go to the Albert Kennedy Trust, a charity that helps the L.G.B.T. homeless (almost a quarter of the young people living on the streets in the U.K. identify as L.G.B.T.). The present might be an improvement on what came before, but to stand among the assembled artworks is to be reminded that the past still haunts us. “He knew how to stand up to the crowds mocking him,” McGough says of Wilde as he looks up at the statue. “He was the figure and the forefather of the gay revolution.”

Francis WareMcDermott and McGough's “The Stations of Oscar Wilde to Reading Gaol 1917, MMXVII” series, which are painted versions of newspaper articles documenting Oscar Wilde’s 19th-century trial.
McDermott and McGough's “The Stations of Oscar Wilde to Reading Gaol 1917, MMXVII” series, which are painted versions of newspaper articles documenting Oscar Wilde’s 19th-century trial.

The installation is more than an art show, however; visitors will be able to use the temple for L.G.B.T. rites of any kind, including marriages, vow renewals and transgender naming ceremonies. McGough and McDermott designed the space to be, above all else, a temple of love and acceptance. “I thought, let’s give some comfort to my kind and my community,” says McGough. “A celebration of who we are.”

The “Oscar Wilde Temple” is on view from Oct. 3, 2018 through March 21, 2019, at Studio Voltaire, 1A Nelsons Row, London, studiovoltaire.org.