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

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

By Tom Morris for The New York Times - 2 October 2018

The artists Peter McGough and David McDermott have built a shrine to the playwright and poet that will also host events held by the L.G.B.T. community.

“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 organization 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.

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 center 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.

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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.CreditCreditPhoto by Francis Ware. Courtesy of the artists and Studio Voltaire.
The space features works from the 1980s, including “A Friend of Dorothy, 1943” (left) and “Advent Infinite Divine Spirit” (right).CreditPhoto by Francis Ware. Courtesy of the artists and Studio Voltaire.
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.CreditPhoto by Francis Ware. Courtesy of the artists and Studio Voltaire.