Asked by prosecutor Charles Gills to define the “love that dare not speak its name” during his infamous trial for sodomy and gross indecency, Oscar Wilde responded, “It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.” In refusing to flee to Paris, hide or demean his sexuality, Wilde essentially made himself a martyr. Oscar Wilde died for our sins.
And it’s exactly this saintly suffering for the cause that artistic duo David McDermott & Peter McGough honor in their new installation The Oscar Wilde Temple at the Church of the Village. Curated by Alison Gingeras, The Oscar Wilde Temple is more than just a shrine to a singular preeminent decadent dandy. Instead, McDermott & McGough look beyond their quintessential 19th century gay aesthetic, full of pansies and fairies, to celebrate a host of other queer martyrs–both known and unknown. In so doing, the duo importantly portray the numerous individuals who laid their bodies, lives and reputations on the line in order that they–and others–can live openly.
I’ll admit, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, I haven’t been to a church in years. And entering the lush lace-curtained door of the temple, I wasn’t sure what to do. I wanted to approach the devotional sculpture of Wilde while groveling on my hands and knees. Should I say “Hail Mary!” and blurt out Wilde’s best witty one-liners (“A good friend will always stab you in the front,” “I don’t want to go to heaven. None of my friends are there,” “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”) as if speaking in tongues? At the very least, should I bathe his sculptural feet with my hair?
Covered in luxurious fabrics and heavy drapery that only a décor connoisseur like Wilde could admire, McDermott & McGough’s The Oscar Wilde Temple mirrors the highly stylized aesthetic of the Victorian era, harkening back to McDermott & McGough’s years devoted to living as if in that century. With a collection of Wilde’s books near the door, rather than Bibles, the central piece in the installation is the heavenly altarpiece, bathed in a golden light. Based on the famed photo of the writer by Napoleon Sarony, the sculpture portrays Wilde, casually and foppishly leaning back. Below the sculpture, McDermott & McGough paint C.33, which was Wilde’s prisoner number at Reading Gaol where he was imprisoned for two years after his conviction.
This transformation of the famed writer and flâneur into a dehumanized number is further explored on the nearby walls with a series of paintings entitled The Stations of Reading Gaol, which, like the Stations of the Cross, depict a parade of Wilde’s humiliations at the hands of a homophobic society. Culled from archival engravings from newspapers at the time, The Stations Of Reading Gaol narrate Wilde’s punishment from his arrest, the sale of his household effects, his admired locks falling and his inevitable secret release from prison, only to live penniless in Paris until his death. Despite their journalistic source material, the rich blue paintings resemble Byzantine icons as the duo highlights certain details, like the accents on Wilde’s clothing, with gold leaf.
In his own life, Wilde equated these trials and tribulations with the law, hard labor and imprisonment, depicted in McDermott & McGough’s paintings, in terms of Christ-like suffering. “Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one center of pain,” begins Wilde’s prison-bound letter De Profundis. Written during his two-year stint at Reading Gaol after being convicted of sodomy and “gross indecency,” De Profundis shows that Wilde learned a thing or two about suffering. “Out of my nature has come wild despair; an abandonment to grief that was piteous even to look at; terrible and impotent rage; bitterness and scorn; anguish that wept aloud; misery that could find no voice; sorrow that was dumb. I have passed through every possible mood of suffering,” he explains.
In true decadent fashion, Wilde continues De Profundis by musing about martyrdom and Christ. Of course, decadence and religion go hand-in-hand. Why just ask our Filthy Dreams role model Des Esseintes! There’s something just so queer about all the pomp and circumstance, as well as the sheer aesthetics of religiosity. I mean, just think of the dramatics! As Wilde himself said, “In a temple everything should be serious except the thing that is being worshiped.”
However, putting Wilde in the place of Christ or even a saint in a church might seem, at first, startling or simply, deliciously sacrilegious. While the Church of the Village is a notable exception, churches haven’t exactly been historically the most welcoming places for queers. Replacing Christ with a figure like Wilde, McDermott & McGough make a nonsecular temple of worship for those who have been cast out.
But, McDermott & McGough’s temple also accomplishes more than an inherent critique of religion and a deification of the dandy. Not only highlighting Wilde, who most view as the forefather of modern gay identity, McDermott & McGough’s temple pays tribute to other more contemporary queer martyrs with a series of paintings devoted to figures like Alan Turing, Marsha P. Johnson, Brandon Teena, Harvey Milk and Sakia Gunn, a 15-year old girl that was stabbed in the chest after defending her sexuality in Newark. These portraits work to widen the scope of the installation from a singular white gay figure, as well as map a continuum of queer bravery, homophobic backlash and the continual resilience of LGBTQ people.
In addition to these portraits, as well as two plaques with the names of Reverends Paul M. Abels and C. Edward Egan who were forced out of the ministry for being gay, McDermott & McGough also provide space of remembrance for those who aren’t as widely known, namely people who died from complications from AIDS. A corner of the temple features a stand of deep purple votive candles and a book where visitors can write the name of loved ones who died from AIDS-related illnesses. Nearby, a 1986 painting by McDermott & McGough reads “Advent Infinite Divine Spirit,” transforming the acronym “AIDS” into a reverential pronouncement of spiritual power. It turns a disease into an evocation.
With all of the various representations of Wilde and the other queer saints’ sufferings, you would think that The Oscar Wilde Temple would be depressing as hell. However, it’s not. Like Wilde’s quote (my particular favorite) represented in a painting in the temple, McDermott & McGough seem to be saying, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Despite reoccurring homophobic violence and suffering, there is still hope and possibility. And with all proceeds from the installation and ceremonies held within the chapel going to the neighboring LGBT Center’s programs for youth at risk of homelessness, the duo also personally participate in and contribute to this future.