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New York’s Oscar Wilde Temple makes a saint out of an LGBTQ icon

McDermott & McGough’s latest installation challenges us to rethink what makes a religion

The Oscar Wilde Temple in the West Village

Hidden in the basement of New York’s Church of the Village, a Methodist church in Greenwich Village, is an entirely unconventional worship space.

The aesthetic — a neo-Gothic stained glass window, a devotional statue, a series of paintings depicting the life and suffering of a martyr — is perfectly familiar. The chapel’s advertised uses — weddings, memorial services, contemplation — are likewise commonplace. The subject, however, is not.

At the Oscar Wilde Temple, a religiously themed installation project by McDermott & McGough, the art-world tag of artists David McDermott and Peter McGough, the central statue and the figure of worship is of Wilde himself: the 19th-century Anglo-Irish novelist and playwright whose name has become synonymous with LGBTQ liberation.

A series of paintings modeled after the traditional Christian stations of the cross — representing different moments in Jesus’s trial and crucifixion — tell the story of Wilde’s 1895 trial for “gross indecency” (i.e., homosexuality) and subsequent two-year imprisonment. In each panel, all of which are modeled after then-contemporary newspaper engravings of the trial, Wilde sports the gilded halo of Christian iconography.

Equal parts art project and ritualistic space, the temple, which will be open through December 2, is available to rent for gatherings both sacred (the aforementioned wedding, poetry readings, a planned discussion of queer theology) and profane (the temple’s curator, Alison Gingeras, jokingly suggested a séance to honor Wilde’s death day, November 30).

But is the Oscar Wilde Temple actually, well, a temple? The participatory nature of the duo’s art exhibit, as well as its Christian imagery and its relationship with the Church of the Village, reflects the porous boundaries between art, ritual, and religion.

What makes a religious space? The Oscar Wilde Temple embraces the question.

“McDermott used to say he wanted to make his own religion,” McGough told reporters Monday. And although the Oscar Wilde Temple isn’t technically a religious worship space, it certainly provides a space for LGBTQ people — some of whom may have been excluded from traditional religious settings — to participate in acts and rituals that certainly qualify as religious.

Here, they can reflect on the experiences of heroes and martyrs in their own tradition, following Wilde through his own “stations of the cross” just as a Christian might do in a more traditional church, engage in communal celebration, and mark important lifetime rituals: from birth to death.

Along with Wilde, other figures depicted in the display include Alan Turing, the British pioneer of artificial intelligence who was chemically castrated after being convicted of “gross indecency” in the 1950s; Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California before his assassination, and Marsha P. Johnson, the black trans woman and activist who helped initiate the 1969 Stonewall riots. Guests can donate in exchange for a candle to light (donations go to a youth program at the LGBT Community Center of New York) and inscribe a guestbook to commemorate loved ones who have died due to complications from HIV/AIDS.

The temple commemorates LGBTQ heroes, as well as those who were hurt or killed because of anti-LGBTQ violence.
The Oscar Wilde Temple

Such a space also reflects a wider trend of non-explicitly “religious” spaces functioning as religions. In a widely reported study earlier this year, researchers at Harvard Divinity School found that more and more religiously unaffiliated millennials are joining intentional communities, from CrossFit to dinner-party clubs, that provide the communal and ritual benefits of religion without the dogma or doctrine that many millennials find off-putting.

"These things are actually religious,” Casper ter Kuile, the study’s author, said in an interview on the school’s website. “You should treat these institutions as religious options that people find. That's a difficult thing to hear if you are a church or for other denominations. At the same time, it's exciting."

In defining itself as a ritualistic space, the temple serves as a powerful reclamation of religious ritual by those who have not historically had access to it, something with which Wilde — a deathbed convert to Catholicism — would doubtless have been familiar. Even earlier, in his De Profundis, an 1897 letter written from then-inmate Wilde to his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde writes movingly of his desire “to found an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine.” He adds: “Every thing to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith.”

Even if McDermott and McGough take the sanctity of the temple seriously, the temple’s relationship with formal religious traditions has been fraught. McGough told reporters Monday the exhibit was originally planned to take place in rural Ireland, where he and McDermott now reside part time. But local residents expressed concern that the installation, which draws heavily from Catholic iconography, could be considered blasphemous or seem to be “making fun of the Catholic Church.”

For Church of the Village Pastor Jeff Wells, however, the Oscar Wilde Temple was a chance to explore the boundaries of religious art, continuing his church’s mission of what he calls “radical inclusion” by providing a welcoming space to a group that has, all too often, been denied access to religious ritual and arenas.

The temple “fits in deeply with the ethos of [Church of the Village’s] congregation,” Wells said, pointing to the church’s history: It was the site of the founding chapter of the organization now known as PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), and — in previous incarnations of the church — the home of two gay ministers, Rev. Paul M. Abels and Rev. C. Edward Egan, who were forced out of pastoral ministry for their sexuality in 1977 and 1984, respectively. Both Abels and Egan are commemorated with plaques in the temple itself.

McGough, too, pointed out that a Methodist church is a perfect home for the Temple. He noted the tradition within Methodism of ordaining lay pastors — anyone who felt called, he said, could be a preacher. “Now I’m a preacher,” he said with a laugh.

Wilde, he pointed out, was the ideal “martyr, saint, deity,” a controversial figure whose refusal to deny his identity led to his downfall. Growing up, McGough said, he, like many other gay men, saw himself as a “son of Oscar Wilde” — drawn to a lineage of mentorship and inspiration even as his own family rejected him. “They believed everybody was equal in God’s eyes — except one group. Me.”

Now, McGough says, the temple is an opportunity to continue that lineage: to provide space, inspiration — and much-needed funds — for LGBTQ youth. “I’m stealing the [conservative] church’s line: What about the children?”

And for some LGBTQ youth, the temple offers something no less valuable than money: a chance to see their own stories and history told in a religiously infused space.

“There's a reason that Catholic iconography keeps popping up in LGBT art: It's become powerful through centuries of use, and it partakes, even if obliquely, of the rich Catholic theology of suffering,” Dan Walden, a graduate student at the University of Michigan and a gay Catholic, told Vox. “I think people from more liturgical backgrounds do miss and need ritual.” He added that despite the growing presence of progressive or pro-LGBTQ Catholic parishes, such a thing should not be taken as a given.

Lawrence Gullo, a gay performer who identifies as broadly falling within the pagan tradition, likewise greeted news of the temple with positivity. "It’s important to pay reverence to our elders and our history and our cultural touchstones, and if the church is the only place doing it, then good for them. I come from a faith where it's 100 percent appropriate to include your elders in your shrines and altars, so this seems to make sense to me, though I'm not Christian.”

For the temple’s creators, Wilde is an “elder” in a tradition far broader than the fight for LGBTQ equality. Rather, they see him as an iconic representative of the right to define — and defend — one’s own identity, regardless of societal pressure to the contrary.

“I think Oscar Wilde transcends identity politics,” Gingeras, the temple’s curator, said, pointing to what she saw as his history of progressive values throughout his life. “[He represents] the inherent quality of human beings to be rebellious.” She noted that in the 1970s, “Avenge Oscar Wilde” had become a mantra of LGBTQ liberation. Perhaps, she said, it was time to resurrect it.

“Forget ‘Resist,’’ she joked. “Let’s bring back ‘Avenge Oscar Wilde.’”

For Wilde, at least, such an ending might be welcome. During his prison sentence, he wrote extensively of his desire to make his suffering matter. In De Profundis he wrote, “But while there were times when I rejoiced in the idea that my sufferings were to be endless, I could not bear them to be without meaning.”

Reconfigured as a religious martyr, and venerated as a saint, Wilde may at last have attained the legacy he sought.