The Oscar Wilde Temple, a public installation work, is the latest in a vein of exhibitions that posthumously indemnify Oscar Wilde and commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of homosexuality’s decriminalization in the United Kingdom. Following his scandalous arrest and imprisonment, Oscar Wilde’s notorious aesthetic existence was overshadowed by discipline and punishment. In 1895, the prolific writer and societal provocateur was tried and found guilty for “gross indecency” under Section II of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885, which criminalized male homosexuality in the UK. Sentenced to two years of hard labor in a highly publicized trial, Wilde was incarcerated in various prisons throughout London. Due to injuries resultant from his labor sentence, he was transferred to Reading Gaol in the winter of 1895, where he spent the majority of his remaining sentence in solitary confinement. There, Wilde composed De Profundis, a monumental epistolary depiction of suffering and survival, and upon his release and exile in France, he produced The Ballad of Reading Gaol, an epic poem that fiercely condemned the traumatizing experience of imprisonment and capital punishment.
On ViewChurch Of The Village
September 12 – December 11, 2017
In 2016, Artangel staged Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, which consisted of a group exhibition, commissioned writings, and public readings in Reading Gaol (later known as HM Prison Reading). Tate Britain held the landmark survey Queer British Art 1861–1967 this year, which examined queer relations and sexual subcultures from the Victorian era through decriminalization and their influence on the formation of modern art. In one compelling installation, the door of Wilde’s prison cell at Reading Gaol was exhibited alongside Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington’s full-scale portrait of Wilde. The placement of Wilde’s idealized and delicately painted body next to the brutality of his prison cell door movingly compounded the cruel degradation of Wilde’s punishment.
While Artangel and Tate presented the physicality of incarceration in attempts to appropriate, subvert, and re-signify the specters of its enduring violence, David McDermott & Peter McGough’s The Oscar Wilde Temple in New York departs from the use of the prison as the frame for narrating Wilde’s life. Produced in collaboration with The Church of the Village and The LGBT Community Center of New York City, McDermott & McGough have articulated a vision of public space by transforming the inside of the church’s Russell Chapel into an immersive Victorian temple. A wooden sculpture of Oscar Wilde stands at the front of the dimly lit shrine, but the multilayered installation also consists of paintings, altarpieces, books, and interior decoration, which together evoke the aestheticism and decadence of which Wilde wrote and even embodied. Through its meticulous stylization, the Temple draws the viewer back in time to the America that Wilde would have encountered during his tour of the country in 1882 and ‘83. In doing so, it engenders a “touch across time,”1 a queer fantasy of historical contact between bodies of the past that remain with us in the present.
In the seven-painting series The Stations of Reading Gaol, McDermott & McGough depict moments of Wilde’s life, from his arrest to his release from prison. Presented in sequence on the walls of the Temple, these intricate paintings combine the aesthetic of Victorian newspapers with Stations of the Cross iconography in a palette of Limoges blue and gold. Wilde’s gilded halos throughout these paintings juxtapose visual motifs of the sacred with the stylized frame of the newspaper and thus uphold Wilde’s dignity amidst the public humiliation of his trial and imprisonment.
This depiction is doubled architecturally by the wooden sculpture of Wilde at the front of the chapel. Realistically carved in linden wood, Wilde stands where one would find the Crucifixion in a Christian church. Wilde’s positioning and contrapposto pose mimic Jesus in the chapel’s stained glass window directly behind him. The Temple’s spatial and symbolic alignment of the wooden Wilde to the stained-glass Christ foregrounds the consecrated spectral presence of Wilde in the space of his contemporary beholders. McDermott & McGough’s queering of sainthood to affirm historical attachment is underscored by the resonances that emanate from Wilde’s forward-looking gaze: sorrow, contemplation, and compassion.
McDermott & McGough’s Temple presents Oscar Wilde as a patron saint of queer freedom, consecrated for his refusal to hide his sexuality and for his outspoken indictment of violence within an era that far preceded any public and collective struggle for gay liberation. The artists draw on a hagiographical impulse central to queer culture, wherein Christian iconography and rhetoric are appropriated from their often-exclusionary institutions in the service of subversive canonizing and sanctifying, as well as for activist, satirical, and iconoclastic ends.2 McDermott & McGough’s turn to hagiography is two-fold: it recuperates Wilde’s queer politics and reorients the intermixing of past and present desires across queer history.
The Temple’s Victorian pastiche illustrates what McDermott & McGough characterize in their art practice as “performative time travel.” This phantasmic immersion into the feeling of an historical moment via aesthetic anachronisms responds to “desire issuing from another time” that places “a demand on the present in the form of an ethical imperative.”3 McDermott & McGough’s art practice frequently enacts performative time travel to the Victorian era, referencing its homoerotic subcultures and repressive politics. Performative time travel not only responds to the emanation of past desires in the present, but also effectuates a “temporal drag”4 that projects our own desires back into the past. It ratifies our belonging to structures of feeling that are both queer and historical. This cyclical motion of desire and its inherent complementary effects—loss and mourning—structure the loaded encounter of the past and the present that figures the Temple’s sanctification of Wilde.
“Where there is sorrow there is holy ground. Some day people will realize what that means,” Wilde wrote in De Profundis. McDermott & McGough are among these hypothetical people that Wilde imagines, and it is the praise of sorrow and the loss inherent in desire that makes the Temple such a compelling installation. The artists extend their figuration of sainthood in painted portraits of contemporary queer “martyrs”—Alan Turing, Harvey Milk, Martha P. Johnson, Brandon Teena, Sakia Gunn, and Xulhaz Mannan—who, in various ways, contributed to a struggle for liberation amid homophobic and transphobic violence. A second altarpiece is composed of a “Book of Remembrance” and a painting of a rainbow vortex overlaid with the words of its title, Advent Infinite Divine Spirit—the artists’ own acronym for AIDS. In the book, visitors are invited to write down the names and memories of those who died of AIDS and its related complications. In doing so, McDermott & McGough extend a genealogy of queer life histories from Wilde to AIDS as an ethical demand of the past on the present. This impetus is as pedagogical as it is memorial and aesthetic. By positioning Wilde as a figure of a queer history that connects Victorian oppression to victims and survivors of AIDS to those of us born “after” the (still-ongoing) crisis, McDermott & McGough open the possibility for a present-day affirmation and response to the desires and losses that emanate from the past.
Inasmuch as The Oscar Wilde Temple performs time travel to engender explorations in queer history, it is equally an endeavor set in dialogue with contemporary society. In a moment where sexual freedom and security continue to function as targets for right-wing populists and authoritarian regimes worldwide, where the persecution of queer populations continues at an alarming rate (in Chechnya and Uganda, for instance), and within a political landscape that continues to make queer lives precarious and threatens to erase them, McDermott & McGough’s recuperation of Oscar Wilde as a figure for reexamining queer history establishes an ethical imperative to address these issues. The Temple’s invitation to create and participate in shared rituals of celebration and mourning potentiates the space for an intergenerational queer community, while opening onto critical questions of how queer histories remain to be felt, desired, represented, and written.
- Carolyn Dinshaw theorizes the concept of queer history as “the touch across time.” She writes, “Since I contend that queer histories are made of affective relations, I aim to make such histories manifest by juxtaposition, by making entities past and present touch.” See Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), 12.
- This is evident ubiquitously, for instance, in works by Pier Paolo Pasolini, Francis Bacon, Derek Jarman, David Wojnarowicz, Kenneth Anger, Andres Serrano, Ernesto Pujol, Elmgreen & Dragset—to name a few. However, these hagiographical tropes lack an inherent stable meaning and are context-specific according to each artist’s practice.
- Carla Freccero’s definition of queer spectrality aptly describes the effect of McDermott & McGough’s “performative time travel.” Quoted from Carolyn Dinshaw et al, “Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies (13: 2007), p. 184. See also Carla Freccero, Queer/Early/Modern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
- Elizabeth Freeman’s concepts of “temporal drag” and “erotohistoriography” characterize queer relations as in excess of the present, which make possible the encounter of obsolete and emergent historical constructions. See Elizabeth Freeman, “Time Binds, or, Erotohistoriography,” Social Text (84–85: 2005) and Time Binds (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).
CARLOS KONG is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail