Inside The Oscar Wilde Temple at Studio Voltaire, a soft light pours through the stained glass windows gently illuminating the art on display, whilst drawing the viewer into quiet reflection. Once a Victorian chapel, the gallery has been transformed into an immersive exhibition space celebrating the work and life of the Irish poet and writer, whilst also honouring LGBTQ+ martyrs and those lost to the AIDS crisis.
For over 20 years McDermott & McGough have been curating this body of work that showcases their activist art and pioneering spirit, in homage to Wilde’s own visionary style. Featuring period wallpaper, hangings, 19th century chandeliers and furniture, the sensual decadence of the aesthetic movement is re-imagined here in the peaceful South London gallery.
With the glow of candlelight and the soothing smell of incense, every element of this exhibition has been carefully considered to inspire quiet contemplation, reflection and revelation. Here life and death, beauty and fragility exist together in a space that honours the pain and exile of those who have suffered because of their sexuality. The walls are lined with paintings that feature scenes from Wilde’s trial in 1895, when he was accused of gross indecency with a British aristocrat, at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence in England. It is these scenes alongside his novels and plays that have made him both a literary and gay icon.
As well as the paintings of Wilde, there are a series of portraits of martyrs. One of which is a 24-year-old man, who was murdered on Clapham Common (less than a mile away from the gallery) in 2005 by two men who believed him to be gay. It is a shocking and poignant reminder that the discrimination and hatred that was projected onto Wilde in the 19th century, is still being played out in our world today. But while McDermott and McGough invite us to reflect upon the immense sense of loss and devastation, the temple also celebrates the transformative power of beauty and art. Something that Wilde himself demonstrated throughout his work and through words such as, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
It is the peaceful and reverential atmosphere within the temple that inspires a sense of hope, creating a space where people might come to heal the pain and suffering of discrimination. McDermott & McGough have devoted much of their practice to this kind of transformation by creating immersive experiences that transport their audiences. For over 30 years, they have explored issues surrounding queer identity, achieving notoriety in the bohemian downtown quarters of New York for their ‘time machine’ experiments. These involved their dress, home and artistic practices remaining strictly faithful to late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In Wilde’s temple, the writer’s unique presence and style is felt through the inspiring words that appear alongside beautiful paintings of flowers, such as the Cala Lily – a symbol of rebirth, holiness and faith. This is a healing invitation to let go of the fear that creates separation, and to find strength and courage in the beauty of nature. It is this sense of new life that makes the space a perfect setting for LGBTQ+ marriages, naming ceremonies, reading groups, community meetings and events.
By honouring Wilde’s life and work in this sacred space, McDermott and McGough remind us that beauty is found in diversity and uniqueness. We are encouraged to move beyond labels and judgements, to celebrate our individuality, reflect on it and perhaps even make art from it. Like Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
The exhibition runs until 31 March 2019
Studio Voltaire is one of the UK’s leading not–for–profit arts organisations. Their pioneering public programmes of exhibitions, participation projects, live events and off–site commissions have gained an international reputation.
A wide-reaching partnership with national LGBTQ+ youth homelessness charity The Albert Kennedy Trust, will also be offering a programme of workshops, events, mentoring and professional development for young people. For more information and for booking the space visit studiovoltaire.org