McDermott & McGough's Oscar Wilde Tribute Skewers Our Troubled Present
Artist duo David McDermott and Peter McGough are famous for their willful resistance to modern technology and the relentless march of "progress." In a tribute to Oscar Wilde, the pair remembers an iconic figure still capable of whipping up controversy.
View of McDermott & McGough, Oscar Wilde Temple, 1917, MMXVII, Russell Chapel, The Church of the Village, New York. Photo Elisabeth Bernstein © McDermott & McGough
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One afternoon in 1985, passing by the corner of New York's Broadway and West Houston—then the site of a carnivalesque establishment known as Carz-a-Poppin, a car wash that might have been a Coney Island ride—passersby stopped in their tracks, open-mouthed. In a seen-it-all city, this remained a singular occurrence. Before them, against a backdrop of yellow taxis and bemused drivers, what looked like a 1920s Model-T Ford straddled the sidewalk. In spite of the brisk weather, the top was down and two men, bundled up in stylish but well-worn coats fashionable sixty years prior, occupied the backseat. One of them appeared visibly perturbed.
A young man attempted to start the car with a hand crank. Also in period clothes, he stood in stark contrast to those passing by in uniform jeans and sneakers. The old heap's engine, sputtering now and then with a grandmotherly wheeze, refused to turn over . But the dandies in the backseat (were they time travelers stranded in a relentless present?) seemed oblivious. Perhaps they heard the horns of passing traffic as taunts rather than cheers, and were pretendeding not to notice. Gawkers on the sidewalk began to point and laugh. But these time travelers had been taunted before, likely from an early age. All these years later, the garish lights of Carz-a-Poppin still flash in my mind's eye, a reminder that traveling beyond the limits of memory is, like so much else in life, a choice.
The two men in the backseat were David McDermott and Peter McGough, life partners back in the 1980s, a decade that for them may as well have been the 1880s. They've continued as artistic collaborators for the past thirty-plus years. Nowadays, any young artist with half an idea is dubbed "conceptual." But McDermott and McGough's art, which has rarely been afforded this designation, is based on a particular concept: theirs has been an ongoing, lived experiment with time. Not only are their cars and clothes of distant vintage, but they have inhabited homes without electricity, used antique camera equipment to produce their photographs (cyanotypes hovering in a blue haze of the medium's early origins), and made paintings dated to subjects, events (often calamitous), and periods past. Works that referenced the great San Francisco earthquake, including vitrines filled with broken crockery, for example, are dated to 1906.
The pair's unexpected turns send us through a revolving door, spinning us out into another age, delivering us to the other side of our hopes and fears. If the high Conceptualism of the 1960s intended for art to change what you expect of it, McDermott & McGough's experiment engages their viewers as test subjects; their art changes what we expect of ourselves and others. Altering our consciousness of space and time has increasingly become the central means for their project to embody a political dimension; nowhere is this more evident than in their most recent project, The Oscar Wilde Temple, an installation realized in 2017 after brewing in the artists' studio-lab since the '90s.
Temple serves as a memorial to a figure equally celebrated and shunned in his lifetime, who lives on a hundred years past his forgotten tormentors to represent the birth of gay pride and LGBTQ rights. Situated on the lower level of The Church of the Village on West 13th Street, in a chapel where the artists encourage same-sex marriages to be performed, Temple is not far from the landmarked Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 riots that ushered in the gay liberation movement. More recent events have hit even closer to home, and McDermott & McGough don't let these go unnoticed. They made two plaques for the chapel that honor the Reverends Paul M. Abels and C. Edward Egan, who were forced to leave their ministry—from theis very same church—because they were gay, in 1977 and 1984 respectively.
The time-capsule aspect of McDermott & McGough's art serves to remind us that it's often later than we think. With Temple, the artists transport us back to 1917, the date ascribed to the paintings that depict Wilde's arrest, trial, and conviction for "homosexual offences," his subsequent imprisonment in 1895—he was sentenced to two years hard labor—and his secret release. Wilde's lasting fame rests upon The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as De Profundis (From the Depths), a letter to his former lover and betrayer, written in prison. But Wilde, often quoted and perhaps more vividly present, is also widely known for a canny, aphoristic philosophy that continues to resonate, as if he was speaking to and skewering our own time:
Semi-celebrity culture: There is only one thing worse in the world than being talked about and that is not being talked about.
Climate change denial and the return of creationism: Science is the record of dead religions.
"Fake news," decried most loudly by those who invented it in the first place: If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out.
Flag-wavers marching at night with torches in the South: Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.
Being duped by conspicuous consumption: Fashion is a contrived epidemic.
In McDermott & McGough's installation, a series of seven paintings, The Stations of Reading Gaol (the prison where Wilde was incarcerated), have been rendered as religious icons, corresponding to the original set of seven Stations of the Cross, as befits their presentation in a functioning chapel. But the images chosen by McDermott & McGough are all based on illustrations from English tabloids and police gazettes, a commingling of the sacred and the profane.
One of Wilde's most pointed observations serves the artists in this respect, and amplifies their experiment with time: The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. Over the years, their collaboration has in many ways been defined by an oft-repeated, Wildean declaration of David McDermott's: "I've seen the future and I'm not going." That this sentiment was first repeated against the backdrop of 1984, the year that loomed for many as representing future dread, is no small coincidence. Today, Orwell's repressive dystopia is manifest across the globe, leading us to wonder what is to come in the country that so firmly upholds the greatest illusion of freedom, these United States? If Wilde were alive today, he would confront no less than 72 countries where he might again be imprisoned, or worse, be put to death.
In this country, AIDS was often seen as divine retribution for deviant behavior, particularly ascribed by the Christian right. A central element in McDermott & McGough's installation is a painting they made in 1986, in the midst of the pandemic, re-translating the acronym for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome as Advent Infinite Divine Spirit. What was to be gained, they asked, in a time of such horrific, seemingly unending loss? Temple commemorates those who were murdered or died for their "sins," among them Harvey Milk, California's first openly gay politician, elected to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors and gunned down in its City Hall; Brandon Teena, a transgender man in Nebraska whose life and death—raped, strangled, and dumped in the trunk of a car in 1993—was turned into the movie, Boys Don't Cry; and Alan Turing, the brilliant computer scientist and codebreaker who helped Britain to win the war, but would be rewarded for his service with an arrest on charges of "gross indecency" in 1952, and who avoided imprisonment only by accepting hormone treatments which destroyed his libido, and mysteriously died just two years later from cyanide poisoning.
Turing's inclusion in the work is a stark reminder that in 1950s Britain, "inverts" were still considered criminals, and the artists' summoning of 1917 aligns with a point in time, a half century later, when homosexuality would be decriminalized in that country. From 1917 to 1967 to 2017, we find ourselves in a time spiral, the artists' history lessons delivering us to a present haunted by the past. Their 2001 exhibition, The Lust That Comes From Nothing, for example, which engaged Hitler's persecution of homosexuals, resonates uneasily with the rise of neo-Nazis today. But look at the images of neo-Nazis on the march in Charlottesville and you have to ask yourself: Is this really the new master race? These bedraggled supporters of the family Drumpf and David Duke couldn't get hired as extras for The Dukes of Hazard. Their unlikely partners-in-crime, those khaki-clones who are blandly beyond the pale, offer a whiter shade of mediocrity in counterpoint: The Preppy Handbook meets Cormac McCarthy's The Road. In this, as Seneca reminds us, we understand that "All cruelty springs from weakness."
"To remember history can be impolite"? Felix Gonzalez-Torres's observation from 1991 refers to those who challenge the dominant narrative. If the artist were here today, he might wonder: Undone, as if it had never happened? The charges of history being rewritten or erased are nowadays made from the alt-wrong, and primarily against those their ancestors once owned, when the erasers, and the loaded guns, have been in their hands all along. Some "very fine people" to be sure. From the Civil War (did it ever really come to an end?) to the fight for civil rights, followed by black liberation, women's liberation, and all the battles for equality that continue, there has been a simmering hostility that was bound to erupt. Gay rights also threaten their masculinity. How did it become so fragile? For the most vocal, and the most insecure, maybe it was all along.
McDermott & McGough chose an auspicious day on which to unveil their tribute: September 11. This is an anniversary of seismic dimension, felt across the country, though particularly resonant for New Yorkers. Some of us saw horror unfold from our bedroom windows, and breathed in that acrid, burning air, while most, at a safe distance, watched on TV. Today, there are those who believe they own its memory, just as they own the idea of America, of liberty and of patriotism, while a few of them actually do own the country, to all intents and purposes, their wealth propped up by the thinnest facade of populism. Most troubling are those who only feel free when others are not. What would they have thought of something as "perverse" as The Oscar Wilde Temple opening to the public on September 11?
On the way home from McDermott & McGough's exhibition, a bright, beautiful day, we looked across Houston to the once comic corner of Broadway, where now stands a block of glass and metal anchored by an arena-size Adidas Sport Performance store. Business seemed to be brisk. Ubers idled curbside. Smiling parents wheeled by with children in strollers. Confused tourists clogged the corner. Life, or something like it, goes on.
Bob Nickas is a writer and curator based in New York City.
The Oscar Wilde Temple, a collaboration between McDermott & McGough, the LGBTQ Community Center of New York City, and the Church of the Village, will be on view in its lower level chapel at 201 West 13th Street until December 2. It will subsequently be presented in 2018 at Studio Voltaire in London. In New York, all proceeds from events held at the Temple, along with donations, will benefit the Community Center's programs for LGBTQ youth at risk of homelessness. McDermott and McGough's first American museum retrospective, I've Seen the Future and I'm Not Going, organized by Alison Gingeras, will open on October 1 at Dallas Contemporary.