Why Two Artists Have Erected a Temple to Oscar Wilde in South London

Why Two Artists Have Erected a Temple to Oscar Wilde in South London

Dean Mayo Davies for Another Man - 11 October 2018

American artists McDermott and McGough have transformed Studio Voltaire into a space honouring the 20th-century poet – here, McGough explains why

If you’ve never visited south London gallery Studio Voltaire, you’d be hard pressed to wonder what it looks like usually. Today it stands transformed into an immersive, secular space honouring Oscar Wilde, the 20th-century poet, playwright and gay rights precursor whom even his string of bon mots couldn’t save. 

Wilde’s wit was notoriously divorced – and claimed – from the practising homosexual after he was thrown in (Reading) Gaol, and ultimately on the scrapheap, dying in bed at Paris’ Hôtel d’Alsace, aged 45. That peripeteian tragedy is backed by another one: that somehow being gay was viewed as a new world threat by society when instead it’s an extremely traditional predilection. There are none more historic than the ancient Greeks.

Covered in Aesthetic movement wallpaper, with stained glass and a statue of Wilde up front, The Oscar Wilde Temple runs until next March, conceptualised by American artists McDermott and McGough and curated by ex-Guggenheim/Pompidou/Palazzo Grassi talent Alison M. Gingeras.

Drawing on the building’s history as a Victorian Chapel, it follows a version of the work in New York last year at Church of the Village, and is the occasion of McDermott and McGough’s first show in London. Beginning their collaboration in 1980, faithful to late 19th and early 20th-century techniques, the duo have realised a body of work exploring time, their identity, performance and the art of living. (Sidenote: it’s perfectly apt or not at all that McDermott was born in Hollywood, 1952, as the curtain drew on its golden era).

Tributing Wilde as an icon and addressing both historic and enduring inequality experienced by the LGBTQ+ community, the temple is available for ceremonies, marriages and meetings, with all proceeds from private events, as well as public donations, supporting The Albert Kennedy Trust, a charity for LGBTQ+ youth at risk of homelessness. It will also host a programme of events.

Peter McGough met Another Man at the space to talk controversy, community and green carnations.

The Oscar Wilde Temple addresses – and redresses – history. Not many figures go from jail to having their own temple. Can you tell us about the project?

Peter McGough: Well, [David] McDermott wanted to start a religion 25 years ago. I had this book, The Oscar Wilde File, which had a green carnation on the cover; an ugly, cheap book that had imagery from the press of the day of him being arrested. We began talking about The Oscar Wilde Temple and kind of forgot about it until the [same sex] Marriage Act passed in Ireland, and in America under Obama. I saw outside my apartment window the Stonewall Inn being landmarked by Cuomo, performing a ceremony with a same-sex couple.

I’d met Alison Gingeras, [François] Pinault’s curator, who was a curator at the Pompidou and I called her up and told her our idea – she was, like, ‘Oh my god, this is so good.’ We went about it but it was cancelled in Europe because some local had felt we were making fun of the Catholic church. Alison said: ‘Let’s not forget about this, I don’t want it to die.’

So she contacted [film producer] Dorothy Berwin, and Dorothy Berwin brought it to the LGBT Centre [in New York]. I said, ‘If we’re going to do it there, I want LGBT homeless youth to participate in the funds we raise.’ We did it with the church across the street that had the first Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians that a mother had started. It was fantastic. Then Alison suggested it to Joe [Scotland], Studio Voltaire’s director and he said yes. They went above and beyond, I am so thrilled what it looks like.

They’ve borrowed these paintings of ours – Queer which we painted in 1986; Cocksucker; and A Friend of Dorothy. Alison said these words were very radical for the time. Queer is such a hateful word and I think we were at the beginning of changing it. Now it’s Queer Cinema and Queer History, so I’m kind of taking some credit – I was there and I did it. Because I was just sick of it.

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Courtesy of the artists and Studio Voltaire. Photography Francis Ware
Courtesy of the artists and Studio Voltaire. Photography Francis Ware