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The One That Got Away: McDermott & McGough ‘The Oscar Wilde Temple’

At Studio Voltaire, London, the artists have transformed the former chapel into a wild Wilde Gesamtkunstwerk

Like its namesake, ‘The Oscar Wilde Temple’ is not shy of the limelight. It comes clad in extravagant florals. Gilding abounds, lights sparkle and the décor is nothing if not de trop.

Like its namesake, too, the Temple knows language as both weapon and armour. ‘Cocksucker Mary Faggot Queer Homo Fairy Femme Nellie Pansy’ reads one of its devotional panels. The words cascade in a flourish of mismatched swirls. Flamboyance steals some of the sting, and ‘Mary’, picked out in large red letters, rules over all: our holy mother of camp. This is the painting A Friend of Dorothy, 1943 (1986) an early work by American artists McDermott & McGough, the artist duo responsible for this wild Wilde Gesamtkunstwerk.

David McDermott and Peter McGough started working together in New York in 1980. In that decade they dressed as dapper Edwardians and lived in an East Village building returned to the candle-lit splendour of the era it was constructed. Their art – as far as you could separate it from their lives – explored the mores, imagery and techniques of decades past. Notably: mannered portraiture rendered in cyanotype.

In the artist’s secular Temple, housed in the former Victorian Methodist chapel which Studio Voltaire calls home – Wilde’s likeness stands carved beatific in honeyed wood before the altar. Behind him, a painting of a green carnation – his decadent buttonhole – inscribed C33, the number of his cell at Reading Gaol. Portraits of victims of homophobic violence ranging from anonymous street kids to high profile campaigners flank Wilde. At the back of the Temple, a book of remembrance is open for those lost to the AIDS crisis.

The Stations of Reading Gaol (VI. Oscar Wilde in Prison), 1917, oil and gold leaf on linen 61 x 46 cm

McDermott & McGough, The Stations of Reading Gaol (VI. Oscar Wilde in Prison), 1917, oil and gold leaf on linen 61 x 46 cm. Courtesy: the artists and Studio Voltaire, London

A dozen panels illustrate Wilde’s arrest, trial and incarceration: Stations of the Cross for a martyr to public hysteria and to rage wearing the culturally convenient mask of homophobic intolerance. It feels grotesque that this Temple, inspired by events in the 1890s, with its roots in the sex wars and AIDS crisis of 1980s New York, should come to its fruition in a year when such rage and hysteria are ever more evident, ever more normalized, on the global stage.

A sign in the entrance hall reels off a list of phenomena the prohibition of which, some five years ago, would have seemed implausibly over the top:

No
Homophobia
Transphobia
Bigotry
Misogyny
Racism
Fascism
Neo-Nazism
White Supremacy
Anti-Semitism
Anti-Immigration

Only Love Here

So this is a sanctuary. There is melancholy here, and pause. But the Temple is also a site of glory and warmth. The transformation of Studio Voltaire is total. As well as passionflower-patterned wallpaper reproduced to a design from the Aesthetic movement, McDermott & McGough have installed wood panelling, stained glass windows, brass candelabras, and have raised the height of the floor. (The floorboards are those installed earlier this year at Chisenhale Gallery for Lydia Ourahmane’s ‘The you in us’.)

McDermott & McGough, ‘The Oscar Wilde Temple’, Studio Voltaire, London. Courtesy: the artists and Studio Voltaire; photograph: Francis Ware

McDermott & McGough, ‘The Oscar Wilde Temple’, Studio Voltaire, London. Courtesy: the artists and Studio Voltaire; photograph: Francis Ware

Facing off against all the bold-print bigotry on the international stage, 2018 has felt riven by lower-level intolerances that recast binary Christian notions of sin in the mode of liberal sanctity. Raising Oscar Wilde as a martyr consecrates the Temple as a site to glorify the complicated, conflicted, proud, mercurial, moody, ravenous, sexual, confused, intoxicated, flamboyant, rude, infuriating, flawed and human among us. We who are mysteries also to ourselves.

‘The Oscar Wilde Temple’ runs at Studio Voltaire, London, until 31 March 2019. It can be booked for events.

Hettie Judah is a writer based in London, UK.

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