Art

A Gleaming Shrine for Oscar Wilde

David McDermott and Peter McGough have built a shrine to Wilde in the basement of a church in Greenwich Village.

David McDermott and Peter McGough “Oscar Wilde Temple” (2017) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

A shrine in the basement of a Greenwich village church is honoring Oscar Wilde until early December. Artists David McDermott and Peter McGough have a long history in white cubes, so it’s a twist to see their work in a church space. The space is fitting because Wilde was deeply inspired by Catholicism throughout his life. McDermott and McGough’s Oscar Wilde Temple — fusing gay and liturgical symbolism — invites you into Wilde’s inner paradoxes and honors the stand he took against hate and homophobia.

So why visit this church basement when you can read Wilde’s biography online? Let’s clarify: visiting a shrine isn’t about absorbing facts. That’s what Wikipedia is for. Rather, this shrine wants you to deeply contemplate his story.

Wilde once quipped, “Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. In the treasury-house of your soul, there are infinitely precious things, that may not be taken from you.” The various objects in McDermott and McGough’s shrine are stepping stones into Wilde’s story, and his understanding of the soul’s guarded treasures.

McDermott & McGough, “Oscar Wilde Temple, 1917, MMXVII” (2017) (installation view), Russell Chapel, the Church of the Village, New York (photo by Elisabeth Bernstein, © McDermott & McGough)

A linden wood statue of Wilde is the space’s focal point. The sculpture is based on a photo of him by Napoleon Sarony, which was taken on New Year’s Eve in 1881. Underneath the statue is a label with the number “C.33,” which was his number when he was imprisoned for being gay.

Napoleon Sarony “Oscar Wilde, full-length portrait, standing, facing front, leaning against a wall, hands together in front. No. 16.” (1881) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

McDermott and McGough retell the story of Wilde’s arrest, trial, and imprisonment with a series of seven small, blue-and-gold paintings on the surrounding walls. They echo the Stations of the Cross, which relay the story of Christ’s crucifixion. Wilde gets a golden halo in each work, casting him as a saint and martyr. The light cast down on each work glimmers on the golden paint, Wilde’s halo glistening in particular. Lord Darlington exclaimed in the Importance of Being Earnest (1895): “No, we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” That quote hangs on a wall in the space. This witticism materializes in the swaths of golden paint that shine like stars in the dark.

Comparing Wilde to Christ is an audacious and ambitious move, but there are neither wall tags nor a catalogue to explain the significance of each vignette. Visitors are left to fend for themselves. Not everyone is equipped with enough working knowledge of Wilde’s biography to immediately get “the stations of Oscar Wilde,” but it’s worth unpacking each painting’s imagery.

McDermott & McGough, “The Stations of Reading Gaol (I. Arrest of Oscar Wilde.), 1917, MMXVII” (2017)

The first painting shows Wilde’s arrest. In Victorian England, gay sex was criminalized. Men typically denied it when accused, lest they go to jail. Against the counsel of many friends to just leave England, Wilde stayed put and dared the authorities to put him on trial. Perhaps he foresaw how a literary celebrity’s trial could be a poetic act in exposing homophobia’s lunacy. Perhaps he didn’t know what would happen, but knew that the absurdity of the status quo had to be challenged.

McDermott & McGough, “The Stations of Reading Gaol (II. Sale of Oscar Wilde’s Household Effects.), 1917, MMXVII” (2017)

The second painting shows how Wilde’s art collection was auctioned off to pay for his legal expenses. The trial was a costly poetic act. Wilde was a writer with a fluctuating income and his father left him very little, so he didn’t have deep enough coffers to foot his legal bills.

McDermott & McGough, “The Stations of Reading Gaol (III. The Morning. “His admired locks fall), 1917, MMXVII” (2017)

Wilde loved his long hair. The third painting shows a barber cutting it off in prison after the guilty verdict. It was part of the process of shaming him.

McDermott & McGough, “The Stations of Reading Gaol (IV. Oscar Wilde in Prison), 1917, MMXVII” (2017)

The fourth painting shows Wilde alone in prison. He loved to party and to make conversation. This confinement was particularly brutal for him. But he channeled the pain and wrote letters criticizing the prison complex that were widely circulated.

McDermott & McGough, “The Stations of Reading Gaol (V. Oscar Wilde on the stand), 1917, MMXVII” (2017)

The fifth painting shows the trial when Wilde took the stand and was asked to respond to evidence of his dalliances with men. There was laughter in the room at some moments as Wilde responded with wit and humor to deflect. But there was also anguish and consternation as Wilde went on to defend the love that dare not speak its name in a now famous speech.

McDermott & McGough, “The Stations of Reading Gaol (VI. Oscar Wilde taking his constitutional), 1917, MMXVII” (2017)

The sixth painting shows Wilde taking his constitutional in prison, which is an old expression for a walk. Prison aged Wilde, caused him health problems, and sent him into a depression.

McDermott & McGough, “The Stations of Reading Gaol (VII. Oscar Wilde secretly released from Prison), 1917, MMXVII” (2017)

The final painting shows Wilde’s release from prison in May 1897. Sadly, whatever excitement he felt upon his release was short-lived. He left England and lived the remainder of his life in France. He never recovered physically, emotionally, psychology, or financially from the trial. He died sick and weak in a hotel room in Paris in November 1900.

Wilde is not the only person who has ever suffered for not being straight. McDermott and McGough have set aside some space for other stories. On the wall at the back, hang small portraits of Alan Turing, Harvey Milk, Marsha P. Johnson, Brandon Teena, Xulhaz Mannan, and Sakia Gunn, among others. While this was the artists’ attempt to be more inclusive, the display inevitably creates two tiers, with these secondary portraits not having the same level of opulence. These other heroes deserve just as much gold as Wilde.

Still, after more than a century, Wilde stands out for daring the authorities to carry out the absurdity of a buggery trial, enduring prison for it, and never financially recovering. The press covered the salacious scandal and it became a watershed moment for breaking the silence and openly acknowledging homosexuality in public. In the aftermath of the trial in 1897, George Cecil Ives organized the first homosexual rights group in England, the Order of Chaeronea.

Revisiting Wilde’s claim that real riches cannot be taken away becomes more haunting after considering how much he lost, and how his courage paved the way for the gay rights movement to come.

David McDermott and Peter McGough’s The Oscar Wilde Temple continues at the Church of the Village (201 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village, Manhattan) through December 2. The Temple is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 7pm, and on Sundays from 12:30pm–3:30pm. 

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