“I’ve seen the future, and I’m not going,” says David McDermott, Peter McGough’s creative partner and fellow time-traveler for over thirty years. McDermott and McGough’s queer reimaginings of the past—from eighteenth-century America to the roaring twenties, all the way up to 1984, via painting, photography, film, and sculpture—reinvigorate one’s hopes, to paraphrase E. M. Forster, for better days ahead. Here, McGough discusses their first exhibition with James Fuentes Gallery in New York, “Velvet Rage, Flaming Youth, and the Gift of Desperation,” which opens on September 16 and runs through October 23, 2016, as well as their work in progress The Oscar Wilde Temple, which will make its debut during Frieze New York in 2017. In 2018, it will travel to the Dallas Contemporary for the pair’s retrospective, curated by Alison Gingeras, and then go to Studio Voltaire for Frieze London.
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, David and I had an idea to make a work about Oscar Wilde via the stations of the cross, based around his epic poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), which he wrote about his time at the Reading Gaol prison in Berkshire county, England. Wilde, as we all know, was jailed for sodomy. Anyway, sometime during the summer of 2015, I was in my apartment, looking down at Christopher Street in the West Village and thinking about the state of the world around the time same-sex marriage was legalized in Ireland. Not too much later, marriage equality becomes the law in the United States, then the Stonewall Inn gets landmarked, and suddenly I’m witnessing Mario Cuomo marrying a same-sex couple in front of it—I mean, it’s unbelievable! The Wilde project came racing back to the forefront of my mind, and I thought, we have to make this happen, now.
What I love about the Wilde project, which will be a transportable temple that same-sex couples can get married in, is that it’s so much bigger than “McDermott and McGough.” It is 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. Within the temple will be images of queer martyrs: Marsha P. Johnson, the black trans activist who participated in the Stonewall riots and was murdered in 1992; Harvey Milk; Sakia Gunn, a fifteen-year-old lesbian who, in 2003, was stabbed in the chest and killed for being gay; Matthew Shepherd; Xulhaz Mannan, the founder of Bangladesh’s only LGBT magazine, who was hacked to death in his own apartment; and others. Then we will make a side altar for people who died of AIDS. Anytime I talk about this, I start to weep. It really makes me think of what it was like to grow up in the 1960s and ’70s as a gay kid. I have so much anger—I was always made to feel that I was “wrong.” My parents were very liberal Christians, and they thought, “Everyone’s God’s children: Blacks, Latinos, Jews, Muslims…everyone’s equal in God’s eyes…except homosexuals.” Christ only preached love, forgiveness, and understanding: “If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven. Then come, follow me.” That’s what Jesus said, that’s what he preached, not “hate faggots!”
I was such an obvious homosexual as a child. I liked to watch movies with Lana Turner or Marilyn Monroe; I looked at my sisters’ Vogue magazines; I didn’t play sports. I just wanted long, blonde, Prell-shampooed hair; Breck Girl hair. But 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. I asked curator Alison Gingeras to help with an exhibition for the Wilde shrine in a castle’s chapel in Ireland; however, the people at this art institution got cold feet. It got canceled because the locals were upset about our work making this play on the Catholic Church.
For the James Fuentes show, there’s going to be a number of paintings and other kinds of objects based on a black-and-white cartoon from the 1930s with a “fairy” character in it. So it goes like this: A fairy, all rouged up, comes into a café that Betty Boop’s dog friend is running to order a chocolate soda. He’s trying to get the little dog’s attention by saying, “I want a chocolate soda, please” in this really soft fairy voice. The dog’s ignoring the fairy to flirt with a Mae West character. Eventually, he makes the fairy’s soda, but he puts in tacks, bug spray, and shoe polish. The fairy drinks it, gets sick, and starts pulling at his clothes—he starts destroying the diner because he’s turned into a monster. And God, I’m watching this, thinking, This is just like AIDS in the 1980s. So many gays murdered, so much horror and rage, and nobody’s doing anything about it because everyone’s terrified.
The show’s also going to have a shrine to Onan the Masturbator, the biblical seed spiller. There’s going to be this amazing table, the shrine’s centerpiece, based on one Catherine the Great had made, where the top is held aloft by a bunch of large carved cocks. The cocks will be of different races—Black, Latino, white—and the balls will be tits. The cocks will be shooting billows of sperm—they’ll be supporting the tabletop. There’ll be a painting called The Circle Hermaphroditus, 1984, 2016, where a pair of women will be depicted turning into McDermott and myself. There will be Greek-style urns, painted with sex scenes and satyrs, filled with burning incense. And, oh my God, there’s going to be this great painting titled Hic Habitat Felicitas (Here Lives Happiness), 1984, 2016, done in the style of Seurat, with a masturbator on a rock and a pussy, an ass, and two cocks flying out of a cloud. It’ll be flanked by paintings of a white hand holding a black cock, and a black hand holding a white cock. Each painting will be set into an enormous gold frame. So tacky! It’s a paean to desire, sex, lust, joy, eroticism. No shame. Fuck Mike Pence and Trump and all those idiot asshole Christian bigots and perverts destroying children’s lives with conversion therapy. If the works aren’t sold, I’ll organize a huge orgy around them at home, with beautiful ephebes playing lyres and pan flutes. It’ll be exquisite, and so grand. Fuck everyone!