The Oscar Wilde Temple at Studio Voltaire is a homage to fallen LGBTQ+ figures.
At a glance, the outside of Studio Voltaire’s Clapham gallery looks like an ordinary church, the waist-high white wall fronting the red-brick building matching the Studio’s inconspicuously monochrome logo, which sits above its black doors. Though this is a church, of sorts, the interior is far removed from the building’s simple shell, with ornate floral wallpaper, boldly framed artwork, and huge wooden beams spanning the room. At the centre, replacing the traditional alter, stands a statue of 19th century poet and writer, Oscar Wilde, to whom this shrine is dedicated.
Created by artists McDermott & McGough, The Oscar Wilde Temple is an immersive installation which sees the entire Studio Voltaire gallery space turned into a shrine, not just for Wilde, but in the name of LGBTQ+ martyrs, whose lives have been taken as a result of their sexuality. Images of Wilde’s persecution mount the walls, the chronological depiction of his trial and its aftermath playing on the traditional portrayals of Jesus’ final days, and portraits of prominent LGBTQ+ figures such as Harvey Milk, Alan Turing, Marsha P. Johnson, are positioned on either side of Wilde’s statue.
Aside from this visual installation, the space is also available for hire, accepting bookings to host LGBTQ+ weddings, naming ceremonies and more, with all proceeds going towards the The Albert Kennedy Trust, a charity that works to prevent LGBT youth homelessness, which also runs workshops in the space. We chatted to Nicola Wright, the exhibition’s curator, about the project.
What inspired you to open the Oscar Wilde Temple?
The Oscar Wilde Temple closely aligns to Studio Voltaire’s programmes; our sustained engagement with emerging and under represented artists. Also artists working between queer narratives, histories and identity; and our commitment to commissioning highly ambitious projects that might not be possible in larger institutions or commercial settings.
The premise for the Temple was entirely transformative, and offered an extraordinary opportunity to stage a project which has been 25 years in the making for McDermott and McGough. This is the first institutional exhibition of their work in the UK. The artists’ practice has engaged with issues surrounding queer identity since the early 1980s and their work, in particular their “time machine” experiments, represent a truly radical re-imagining of history.
Why was Oscar Wilde in particular chosen as the main subject of the exhibition?
For McDermott and McGough, Oscar Wilde represents an extraordinary forebear of gay liberation: commemorating Wilde and telling his story inscribes him as both a martyr and champion for the LGBTQ+ community.
McDermott and McGough’s have also depicted twelve LGBTQ+ people from the 20th and 21st Centuries whom the artists have identified as martyrs in the same tradition as Wilde. While some are internationally known figures , such as Alan Turing, Marsha P. Johnson and Harvey Milk, other less known figures include Xulhaz Mannan, the founder of Bangladesh’s first and only LGBT-themed magazine, and Sakia Gunn, a young gay women murdered aged 15 for disclosing her sexuality.
How important a statement is it to have the exhibition designed as a church?
The church setting underlines Wilde’s status as a martyr for the artists. McDermott & McGough have specifically appropriated from the architecture, dressings and staging of a church, from the use of stained glass windows (sunflowers and green carnations, both flowers associated with Wilde, appear in the windows and throughout the Temple), church chairs, lecterns and incense. They make explicit use of religious statuary and iconography, as in the painting ‘C.33 A Holy Family’ (1918/2018) – which portrays the ‘trinity’ of Wilde, his mother Speranza and lover Bosie in a triptych recalling altar paintings – or the painting series ‘The Stations of Reading Gaol’, which directly references the format of the Stations of the Cross.
Beyond this, The Temple plays an important role in the project’s function as a setting for LGBTQ+ marriages, blessings, re-naming ceremonies and commemorative events. The Temple serves as an explicitly queer space for those wanting to mark meaningful moments and celebrations which they don’t feel are served by conventional religious or secular institutions.
How key was it for you to give the space a practical use (by making it available to LGBTQ+ groups) as well as being an art exhibition?
It was incredibly important to offer out the space to the LGBTQ+ community: the “real life” functionality of the Temple was a key aspect of the project as envisioned by McDermott & McGough. The Oscar Wilde Temple is intended as an entirely safe space for the LGBTQ+ community – one that might simply offer space for contemplation, remembrance or reflection, but also as a practical resource for groups who might not have regular access to meeting space.
Equally, our partnership with the Albert Kennedy Trust is a central tenet of the Temple’s function. As part of this partnership, we are implementing a six month programme of workshops, events, mentoring and professional development for their young people, in partnership with leading artists, writers and fashion designers, as well as fundraising for their incredible work.