Step inside

Art by Nan Goldin, Ai Weiwei and Patti Smith is on show in Oscar Wilde’s prison cell
By Laura May Page | Art | 7 October 2016

Nan Goldin, The Boy (2016) Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016 Photo by James Lingwood courtesy Artangel

Top image: Nan Goldin, The Boy (2016) Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016 Photo by James Lingwood courtesy Artangel

Artangel, the ambitious art collective that brings imaginative creations to the most exceptional environments, have opened up the now defunct Reading prison to show their latest exhibition, Inside.

The significance of the prison? It’s where Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor in extreme solitary confinement for gross indecency, which translates as homosexual activity in his case. The brutal sentence forced Wilde to look within, realising his intimate letter De Profundis, intended for the eyes of his former lover, Sir Alfred Douglas.

The rich 55,000 word letter will be recited in full in the Prison chapel every Sunday throughout the event, by a number of talented readers, including Patti Smith, Ralph Fiennes and Neil Bartlett. There are also nine original writings by Ai Weiwei, Joe Dunthorne and Binyavanga Wainaina that take influence from Wilde. (Some of the De Profundis readings and contemporary letters are now available to view online.)

Inside also invites you to freely explore the empty prison, where you will be able to enter Wilde’s cell and stumble upon works of art created by the likes of Nan Goldin, Peter Dreher and Richard Hamilton.

We spoke to co-director of Artangel Michael Morris about the project.


Laura May Page: What intrigued you most about using the prison as a venue?
Michael Morris: The silence, the very extraordinary and heavy quality of silence. As you may know when Oscar Wilde was there from 1895 to 1897 everybody was in solitary confinement, prisoners were not allowed to speak to one another so the quality of silence hasn’t changed in 116 years, which lead to our first decision, to preserve the silence. No sounds apart from every Sunday when we would invite nine different readers on nine different Sundays to read the letter, the only thing Wilde wrote while he was a prisoner, the 55,000 word letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas and that’s the only sound.

Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda (2008-10) Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016 Photo by Marcus J Leith courtesy White Cube and Artangel

LMP: That must be quite an extraordinary experience for the reader.
MM: Yeah for everybody, for the reader and for the people experiencing it. On the occasions we have done it so far it’s been very powerful, with many people in tears, but there’re also many other letters, works of art, sculpture installations, paintings. We’re not using all the cells because there are 190 of them and many we’ve chosen to leave empty, particularly Oscar Wilde’s cell which we felt was going to be a place that people might just want to sit, so there’s nothing in his cell but an open door.

“Many cells we’ve chosen to leave empty, particularly Oscar Wilde’s – which we felt would be a place that people might just want to sit.”

LMP: Do people have access to the whole prison including all 190 cells?
MM: Yeah, we’re using the Victorian building and there were various add ons over the years but we’ve chosen to focus on the Victorian panel, architecture, the wings and the cells leading off the central area where the governor’s office was, the governor was able to see everything from a central position so we really focussed on that part of the prison. People can go where they want, there’s no fixed navigation, it’s not the sort of situation where you have to go from A to B to C, you can choose how you explore the prison and we’ve deliberately not overfilled it because again we want to preserve the silence and emptiness.

‘Inside’ Reading Prison

LMP: What is it about the prison that makes it feel so isolated?
MM: The prison architecture in that time during British history was going through a series of reforms, it was designed by George Gilbert Scott who also designed St Pancras Station and numerous churches, so it’s got a very ecclesiastical feel. The idea of the solitary confinement which was at that time called ‘the separate system’; by stopping prisoners from associating with on another, they would be more likely to think about their crimes and make a mends in the eyes of god. They went to the chapel everyday and when they were out of their cells they wore these hooded kind of caps, which meant you couldn’t actually see either side of you, so not only could you not speak to another inmate but you couldn’t even look at anybody else, encouraging you to look inside. That’s one reason why the exhibition is called Inside, apart from the obvious reason of prison being referred to as ‘inside.’

It’s really about how Oscar Wilde survived because he was able to use his inner resources and the writing of this letter was a pinnacle point in his own practice, so we’re interested in examining what happens when you isolate someone from society and how they’re then able to look inside themselves. In some ways all of the work, letters and the texts come back to that, the imagination cannot be imprisoned.

LMP: As you touched on earlier, Artangel are known for showcasing art in unusual settings, what is reasoning behind this?
MM: It’s more than that really, the work is a relationship between the place and the idea so there’s something about the way in which artists respond to an environment. For example Steve McQueen’s piece in the prison couldn’t be shown anywhere else, it grows from that place and you can’t take it out of that place, the location adds a deep layer of meaning to the works that are made for it.

LMP: Homosexuality and gender fluidity are accepted and celebrated by certain establishments yet still horribly demonised by others, does this translate in Inside?
MM: Wilde was imprisoned in a time when homosexuality was illegal, homosexuality was illegal until the 1960’s and now same sex marriage is legal, we’ve come along a huge way but not everywhere in the world has. We’ve deliberately invited writers such as Binyavanga Wainainawhose, a Kenyan writer and gay man who is living in a country where it is still illegal to have relationships with people of the same sex. While some parts of the world have come a long way there’s oppression and persecution in other parts of the world and this exhibition takes an international view. I haven’t counted the different nationalities involved but I know there are a lot.

We’re also interested in the difference between Wilde’s day and now, Wilde’s letter, 55,000 words of it didn’t talk about his sexuality at all, he wasn’t preoccupied in the letter with investigating his sexuality, he was wanting to investigate his identity. I don’t think there was a language to talk about sexuality and gender in the way that we discuss it now, the words and language just didn’t exist then.

LMP: For you, is there anything particularly striking to you in Wilde’s letter?
MM: Well what is striking to me about the letter is that he turns his back on the lifestyle that he lived before his imprisonment, he understands things and their importance. He talks about his past life, the dinners, the banquets, the champagne, the celebrity… don’t forget, he was one of the first celebrities. Everybody knew who he was, he had two shows running in the West End which were taken off immediately after his conviction.

He lived this very exterior life and the experience of being in prison, where he had to ‘go inside’, meant that he was able to reflect upon that lifestyle, that in turn helped him to understand things. He talks about understanding the beauty of suffering which is not something he’d ever said prior to 1895, so it interests me that… I mean I can’t recommend imprisonment as a way of developing someone’s emotional landscape, but there were things that Wilde discovered about himself and others through writing De Profundis that he wouldn’t have realised had he not been sentenced to solitary confinement. He never wrote anything like De Profundis before or after, he only wrote one thing after he came out of prison, which was The Battle of Reading Jail and then he died within three years of his release, as a result of his release.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Separate System, Reading Prison (Mirror) (2016) Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016 Photo by Marcus J Leith courtesy Artangel

LMP: Could you tell me a little about the works exhibited?
MM: The interventions, the artists and the things they’ve made are very subtle, Steve McQueen’s cell is a very simple idea, it’s a prison issue double bunk covered by a mosquito net, made of gold plate, and it looks like a moment in a dream. There’s a tremendous tenderness about it and I think what he and many of the artists have done is to humanise the prison with very subtle interventions to soften it from the harsh reality of the Victorian system. It gives us an opportunity to think about what happens when you isolate individuals from society. Actually, I think a lot of it is about isolation and that isolation allows the deeper knowledge of the self.

LMP: I suppose it must be a difficult subject for people who have been effected by imprisonment be it them or a loved one, perhaps this gives them a safe space to reflect?
MM: Absolutely, we’ve had ex prisoners come show us where their cells were, it’s a broad audience that are coming. Of course people in Reading are fascinated to go because they’ve lived in a town where there’s a central building that has been inaccessible since 1844, we are attracting people on the basis of curiosity as to what prison is like, let alone what the artworks we’ve commissioned are like. It’s bringing an audience in who are very very mixed and that is wonderful, Artangel is of course there for artists, but we’re there for audiences as well, developing audiences is a very important part of our work.

Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison is at HM Reading prison, until 30th October.


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