Art

A Tribute to Oscar Wilde in the Prison Where He Was Incarcerated

The art organization Artangel has invited visual artists, writers, and performers to respond to Reading Gaol’s most famous inmate, Oscar Wilde.

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‘Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison,’ installation view at HM Prison Reading, formerly known as Reading Gaol (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Outside the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly-muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always midnight in one’s heart.

So Oscar Wilde wrote in “De Profundis,” the 55,000-word letter composed during his imprisonment in 1897. The recipient of the writer’s most tormented and beautiful lines was his friend, lover, and ultimate reason for Wilde’s own incarceration and financial ruin: Lord Alfred Douglas, or “Bosie.”

The story is more or less known: In 1891, Wilde began a close and troubled friendship — soon turned into sentimental relationship — with Douglas, a handsome and capricious young aristocrat. Despite the disapproval of Douglas’s family, the two kept on seeing each other, until Douglas’s father accused Wilde of sodomy. The chain of events that followed shortly after led to a series of trials culminating in Wilde’s conviction for gross indecency. Down on his luck and publicly shamed, the writer was sentenced to two years of hard labor, the maximum sentence allowed. Wilde was then moved from jail to jail, his health and psyche shattered, spending the last year of his conviction at Reading Gaol in London. It was there, in his isolation cell, that Wilde wrote “De Profundis.”

Reading Gaol was a working prison until 2013; this year, it opened to the public with Inside, a major new project by the art organization Artangel, inviting visual artists, writers, and performers to respond to the work of the prison’s most famous inmate.

New artworks by the likes of Steve McQueen, Jean-Michel Pancin, and Wolfgang Tillmans have been installed in the prison’s corridors and wings, while pieces by Vija Celmins, Rita Donagh, Peter Dreher, Félix González-Torres, Richard Hamilton, and Roni Horn are also exhibited in the cells. The more one ventures into the cramped space, the more it becomes clear which works were conceived as site-specific installations and which were simply adapted to the context. This struck a good balance, with some works being overwhelming in their acute references to the pain of imprisonment, and others more generally pointing to the shared and related human experiences of love and loneliness. In some of the cells, you can read and listen to recordings of “letters of separation,” a project for which acclaimed writers such as Tahmima Anam and Deborah Levy have composed a letter to a loved one from whom they have been forced to separate.

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‘Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison,’ installation view

If Inside’s program sounds ambitious and potentially overwhelming on paper, experiencing it is a different thing. Visiting a prison is, itself, a rare and demanding experience. Designed during the Victorian era, Reading Gaol was conceived with the mission of reforming criminals. Its design, considered progressive for the time, was based on a cruciform plant, with long wings of cells stretching out from a central atrium. Above it, the prison’s manager, from his office on the first floor, could clearly see down each wing, surveying every action in the building.

This systematic structure, a perfect example of the imposing architecture inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon between the 18th and 19th centuries, funnels the visitor down particular paths. Very often, the cells are treated as singular display units, defining a claustrophobic exhibition space.

Wilde’s personal confessions in “De Profundis” become the starting point of wider conversations concerning the stigma associated with homosexuality, oppression, loss, and memory. Moving from cell to cell, visitors encounter Marlene Dumas’s portraits of Wilde, Bosie, Jean Genet, and Pier Paolo Pasolini — all persecuted for their sexuality; Doris Salcedo’s popular installation “Plegaria Muda” (2008–2010), made of wooden tables and compacted earth, in honor of the Colombian desaparecidos; and Robert Gober’s disquieting sculptures.

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Portraits of Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde by Marlene Dumas

Perhaps it’s Nan Goldin who manages to best achieve a particular sense of truth to the space and project. A series of intimate photographs of the German actor Clemens Schick, a muse to the artist for decades and a recurrent subject in Goldin’s work, covers one of the cells in a way that recalls how inmates stick cut-outs of female models and actresses to the walls. Schick is here often depicted in a domestic environment, and frequently naked. The handsome actor reminds of the threatening beauty of Bosie, while the plastering of photographs on the walls hints at the obsessive quality of some relationships.

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Nan Goldin, “The boy” (2016), in collaboration with Nathan Baker

The most prominent feature of Inside brings the focus back to Wilde’s work, staging weekly readings of “De Profundis” in the prison chapel. For them, Artangel invited actors such as Ben Whishaw and Ralph Fiennes, and singer, poet, and icon Patti Smith. The performance series started with a moving reading by Neil Bartlett, who has been studying Wilde’s work and legacy for decades, and will end with actor Rupert Everett reading Wilde’s final work, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (incidentally, Everett is currently working on an upcoming biopic on the writer, titled The Happy Prince, in which Everett plays Wilde).

Listening to Wilde’s most intimate words is not easy. His account of his excruciating love for Bosie, sifted through painful admissions and regrets, inevitably pushes us to confront our own. Confessions that we never made, perhaps not even to ourselves, start to surface.

Few dare to live through life as Wilde did. For that, we feel safe and maybe even jealous. Inside goes deep into these mixed feelings, finding authentic ways to approach the writer’s oeuvre, so often cited but so little truly understood. In this, the public readings take on a crucial role: They put the public in contact with the exasperated beauty of Wilde’s text, penetrating one of the most painful and rumored relationships of the 19th century.

Inside: Artist and Writers in Reading Prison continues at HM Prison Reading (Forbury Road, RG1 3HY, Reading, UK) through December 4. 

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