Ai Weiwei and Patti Smith Respond to Oscar Wilde in the Prison Where He Was Incarcerated

The line-up also features Nan Goldin, Steve McQueen, and Wolfgang Tillmans.

Patti Smith. Photo Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images.

Reading Prison, the infamous British gaol where Irish poet Oscar Wilde was incarcerated in 1895 and the subject of one of his most famous poems, is at the centre of Artangel’s latest project, titled “Inside—Artists and Writers in Reading Prison.”

The exciting initiative will see celebrated artists, performers and writers responding to Oscar Wilde’s work as well as the architecture of the prison, and themes of imprisonment and separation.

“Inside” will see the infamous institution open its doors to the public for the first time. The 19th century prison’s corridors, wings, and cells are set to house new commissioned works by leading artists including Marlene Dumas, Robert Gober, Nan Goldin, Steve McQueen, Jean-Michel Pancin, and Wolfgang Tillmans.

The plans were drawn in the office of George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffatt.  They are undated but almost certainly date from 1842, which is when they won the competition to design the gaol. Reading Gaol, floor plans, c1842 © Berkshire Record Office, courtesy Artangel.

Reading Gaol, floor plans, c1842. Photo ©Berkshire Record Office, courtesy of Artangel.

Reading opened in 1844 and remained a working prison until 2013. Wilde, who was confined there for two years—where he was held in isolation from other prisoners under the harsh Separate System—is arguably the institution’s most famous inmate.

Oscar Wilde. Photo: Matthew Bailey, courtesy Artangel.

Oscar Wilde. Photo Matthew Bailey, courtesy of Artangel.

For Wilde, the prison was not only the source of unjust treatment, but also a source of inspiration. His time there saw the genesis of some of his last great works: De Profundis, an epic love letter written from his prison cell to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, and the famous Ballad of Reading Gaol, which he composed shortly after his release.

The Ballad of Reading Goal Manuscript Source: The British Library © The British Library Board, courtesy Artangel.

The Ballad of Reading Goal manuscript. Photo ©The British Library Board, courtesy of Artangel.

Late Victorian mug-shots of inmates, plans and prints relating to The Separate System, as well as existing work by Vija Celmins, Rita Donagh, Peter Dreher, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Richard Hamilton, Roni Horn, and Doris Salcedo will also be exhibited.

‘Photographs of prisoners in Reading Gaol before their discharge or transfer.’ Photo © Berkshire Record Office, courtesy Artangel.

Photographs of prisoners in Reading Gaol before their discharge or transfer. Photo © Berkshire Record Office, courtesy of Artangel.

What’s more, a host of celebrated artists, writers, actors, and performers—including Patti Smith, Ragnar Kjartansson, Neil Bartlett, Ralph Fiennes, Kathryn Hunter, Maxine Peake, Colm Tóibín, and Ben Whishaw— will also be involved in the project. Every Sunday of September and October, they will pay tribute to Wilde by reading the entirety of De Profundis in the prison chapel.

“We are excited to be opening up Reading Prison with such a remarkable range of artists, writers, and performers responding to the imposing Victorian architecture and the continuing resonance of De Profundis, written by Wilde in his cell as Prisoner C.3.3.,” co-directors of Artangel James Lingwood and Michael Morris said in a statement.

“[The project] will offer the public an opportunity to reflect, in a particularly powerful place, on the implications for the individual when separated from society by the state,” they added.

The landmark project will also feature letters composed by writers from around the world detailing their own direct or imagined experience of state sanctioned separation. Letters from writers such as Ai Weiwei, Tahmima Anam, Anne Carson, Joe Dunthorne, Deborah Levy, Gillian Slovo, and Jeanette Winterson will be displayed in some of the prison’s many cells.

Oscar Wilde's cell. Photo: Morley von Sternberg, courtesy Artangel.

Oscar Wilde’s cell. Photo Morley von Sternberg, courtesy of Artangel.

Inside—Artists and Writers in Reading Prison” will be on view from September 4 – October 30, 2016.

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