More on “Oscar Wilde’s ‘Confraternity of the Faithless’”

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

My new article for OnlySky Media, Oscar Wilde’s ‘Confraternity of the Faithless’ discusses Wilde’s notion of “agnostic ritual” and its modern interpretation via the Oscar Wilde Temple art installation/secular ritual space:

More than a century after Wilde’s death, the artists David McDermott and Peter McGough opened a joint immersive art project/secular ritual space, The Oscar Wilde Temple, in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Inspired by the Aesthetic Movement of the late 19th century and subverting traditional Catholic iconography, the Temple evokes a kind of alternative reality in which Wilde’s suffering has consecrated him as a martyr/deity within a hypothetical queer religion. It invites visitors to imaginatively participate in a “faith” that might have been founded by Wilde himself, or perhaps by his friends and admirers, after his release from prison in 1897.

In 2016, Peter McGough described the project as:

…a temple to our god and martyr, Oscar Wilde, a place where unions of love can be celebrated without Christianity—or really, any fucking religion—frowning down upon anyone.

He continued:

I was mocked and beaten for who I was and who I wanted to be—tripped, spit on, called a faggot—since I was seven years old. So fuck everyone—if fucking Scientologists can have their tax-exempt religion, I can certainly have Oscar Wilde be the savior for all queers.

The Temple’s point of focus—serving a similar function to Wilde’s vision of an “altar on which no taper burned”—is a 4’ tall hand-carved wooden statue of Wilde himself, standing on a bedecked plinth. Nearby, an overturned soapbox bearing a label for “Fairy” brand soap serves as a deliberately makeshift pulpit.

On the walls, a sequence of twelve blue and gold paintings, closely evoking the style of Victorian “Police Gazette” illustrations and titled The Stations of Reading Gaol, represent key moments of Wilde’s arrest, trial and imprisonment. This sequence is intended for devotional use in the manner of the “Stations of the Cross” of Christian iconographic tradition, down to the fact that each scene depicts Wilde crowned with a gilded halo.

The images of the sunflower (championed by Wilde as an emblem of the Aesthetic Movement) and the green carnation (representing Wilde’s notion of “nature imitating art”) are featured throughout the Temple, as well as the cypher C.3.3., which had been Wilde’s cell number at Reading Prison and was the pseudonym under which he later published The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

Much as he had anticipated in De Profundis, the symbols of the “Wilde religion” are of his own creation.

The Temple also honors, via portraits, the lives and deaths of contemporary queer “martyrs” including Harvey Milk, Alan Turing, Brandon Teena, Xulhan Mannaz, Martha P. Johnson and Sakia Gunn. Visitors are invited to commemorate loved ones lost in the AIDS crisis in a Book of Remembrance, while an ornate sign near the entrance explicitly identifies the Temple as a sanctuary from perennial evils:

White Supremacy

Only Love Here

Although “immersive environments” are currently trending in the art world, the Oscar Wilde Temple is highly unusual in that it is intended as a venue for formal, secular ceremonies as well as an aesthetic experience. The space may be privately used for LGBTQ+ marriages, blessings, transgender re-naming ceremonies and commemorative rituals, as well as for public lectures and book readings. Co-creator David McDermott had long expressed the wish to create a “new religion” for queer folk who had traditionally been shunned and worse by orthodox, mainstream faiths, and the Oscar Wilde Temple represents a case study of the premise “if you build it, they will come.”

This melding of art, play, and ritual within a nontheistic or quasitheistic environment raises intriguing questions about the nature and potential of contemporary secular spirituality. The aesthetics and facilities of the Oscar Wilde Temple evoke a sense of religion without imposing a doctrine. Any deeper symbolic meaning is for the viewer/participant to decide for themselves. Through imaginal time travel, the artists have created a liminal place – somehow simultaneously timeless and transient – serving most of the traditional functions of a “sacred space”, minus the supernatural dogma that normally attends those functions.

The Oscar Wilde Temple is a potent and provocative exercise in artistic recontextualization. Among the questions it provokes; how else might the time-honored artistic and ritual “technologies” of religion be utilized or transformed by new generations of creators? And most particularly, what may be conjured by those artists who take secularism as read, and then dare to ask, “What’s next?”

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