Artangel’s Exhibition in Notorious Victorian Prison is Inspired, Powerful, and Respectful

A star-studded roster of artists and writers pays tribute to Oscar Wilde.

Jean-Michel Pancin, In Memoriam (2016) at Reading Prison’s chapel, featuring the original wooden door of Oscar Wilde’s cell. Photo Lorena Muñoz-Alonso.
Jean-Michel Pancin, In Memoriam (2016) at Reading Prison’s chapel, featuring the original wooden door of Oscar Wilde’s cell. Photo Lorena Muñoz-Alonso.

This Sunday, Reading Prison, over 40 miles outside London, will open to the public for the very first time in its history. The reason is none other than a major new exhibition by Artangel, the London-based organization specialized in producing artists’ commissions in the most unlikely places.

The ambitious, multidisciplinary exhibition “Inside—Artists and Writers in Reading Prison” has an impressive line-up: the artists Marlene Dumas, Robert Gober, Nan Goldin, Roni Horn, Steve McQueen, Jean-Michel Pancin, and Wolfgang Tillmans have all produced new commissions for the prison’s cells and corridors.

Interior view of Reading Prison, with Marlene Dumas’s Oscar Wilde (2016). Photo Marcus J Leith, courtesy of Artangel.

Interior view of Reading Prison, with Marlene Dumas’s Oscar Wilde (2016). Photo Marcus J Leith, courtesy of Artangel.

These site-specific works join existing ones by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Richard Hamilton, Doris Salcedo,Vija Celmins, Rita Donagh, and Peter Dreher, as well as letters dealing with separation and isolation written by artists and writers including Ai Weiwei, Anne Carson, Joe Dunthorne, and Binyavanga Wainaina.

There’s a lot of writing in the show, which succeeds in bringing together visual arts and literature in a seamless, enjoyable way (no mean feat). The reason for this literary-heavy approach is to do with the show’s main focus: the writer Oscar Wilde, Reading Prison’s most famous inmate.

Wilde, for those who might not be aware, was incarcerated in Reading Prison in 1895 charged with “acts of gross indecency with other male persons,” after losing a legal battle with the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of his young lover Lord Alfred Douglas (a.k.a. Bosie). For the most part of his incarceration, Wilde wasn’t even allowed the solace of pen and paper. When he finally was, towards the end of his sentence in 1897, he wrote his most affecting piece, De Profundis, a letter to Bosie pondering love, regret, spirituality, and loss.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) by Gillman & Co, gelatin silver print, May 1893. Photo ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) by Gillman & Co, gelatin silver print, May 1893. Photo ©National Portrait Gallery, London.

Written on a more humble and serious tone than Wilde’s previous plays, full of aphorisms and hubris, since its posthumous publication in 1905, De Profundis has become one of the defining works by the writer, exerting a huge, enduring influence on many artists.

One such artist, Patti Smith, will be reading the text at the prison’s chapel on October 30, as part of a star-studded reading program that includes other performers such as artist Ragnar Kjartansson, and actors Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw.

The very cell where Wilde wrote De Profundis is now open to exhibition viewers. Like the rest of the prison, which was fully functioning until 2013, the space feels heavy with ghosts of the past, full of traces of its anonymous dwellers. (Much has been said of exhibitions staged in “loaded spaces,” but I had never felt such a heavy psycho-spatial weight).

Oscar Wilde prison books. Photo Lorena Muñoz-Alonso.

Oscar Wilde prison books. Photo Lorena Muñoz-Alonso.

The walls of most cells, small and grim, are covered in graffiti, doodles, and messages carved by inmates over decades. Visitors can now sit at will on the basic metal furniture and bunk beds, screwed to the floors. Feelings of sadness and claustrophobia overwhelm, making the presence of the artworks and letters all the more moving and affecting, weirdly at home.

The show at large is phenomenal, but the site-specific commissions are particularly successful. Nan Goldin’s The Boy is an installation of photographs of the German actor Clemens Schick covering most of the walls and the bed of one of the cells. The work is salient here, as Schick was a sort of Bosie figure to Goldin’s Wilde, her muse for over two decades.

Installation view of Nan Goldin’s The Boy (2016). Photo Lorena Muñoz-Alonso.

Installation view of Nan Goldin’s The Boy (2016). Photo Lorena Muñoz-Alonso.

Across the corridor, a set of new portraits by the painter Marlene Dumas depict Wilde, Bosie, Jean Genet (who was also famously imprisoned and wrote about it) and two of his lovers, and Pier Paolo Pasolini and his mother. They are placed in several cells, some alone and some in pairs, like the frozen inhabitants of the rooms and the figures they longed for while incarcerated.

On the third level, a new work by Steve McQueen called Weight sees a rickety bunk bed decorated with a gold-plated mosquito net, lit by a warm yellow light. The slight intervention turns the desolate space into a sanctuary of sorts, with the mosquito net bringing to mind both warmer areas of the world and luxurious bedrooms, but also the oppression suffered by many in colonial times.

Installation view of Steve McQueen’s The Winter (2016). Photo Lorena Muñoz-Alonso.

Installation view of Steve McQueen’s Weight (2016). Photo Lorena Muñoz-Alonso.

Nearby, the American artist Robert Gober is presenting two fantastic new sculptures, Treasure Chest and Waterfall. Both works feature running water on riverbeds, one embedded in the chest of a female figure, and the other across the back torso of male figure, alluding to the flow of creativity and inner life even in the face of imprisonment.

On that same level, on the other side of the cross-shaped plan, a series of works by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and his friend Roni Horn dialogue across 18 cells. Works by Gonzalez-Torres include the haunting blue mirror of Untitled (Fear) (1991), the blue bead curtains of Untitled (Water) (1995), and the two light bulbs of Untitled (March 5th) #2 (1992), exploring the AIDS crisis and its devastating consequences. Horn’s Double Mobius (2009), formed by a single gold foil strip, delights by its sheer and effective simplicity, pinned to the wall with a plastic peg next to a peeled section on the cell’s wall, exposing its bricks.

Installation view of Roni Horn’s Double Mobius (2009). Photo Lorena Muñoz-Alonso.

Installation view of Roni Horn’s Double Mobius (2009). Photo Lorena Muñoz-Alonso.

In the prison’s chapel—a large stunning architectural space bathed in natural light that contrasts massively with the dinginess of the cells—Jean-Michel Pancin has installed In Memoriam, a powerful sculpture that features the original wooden door of Wilde’s cell displayed atop a concrete platform. The French artist is well versed in working with this kind of material, as he lives in the abandoned prison of Sainte Anne in Avignon, making work with salvaged materials from there.

The letters are equally, if not more, moving. Here we hear Ai Weiwei reading a letter to his son Ai Lao, telling him of his imprisonment for 81 days, or the Kenyan writer and gay activist Binyavanga Wainaina’s letter to his deceased mom, telling her about the man he loves and his recently deceased father, in addition to many other voices, including Anne Carson and Gilliam Slovo.

 Oscar Wilde’s cell at Reading Prison. Photo Morley von Sternberg.

Oscar Wilde’s cell at Reading Prison, where he wrote De Profundis. Photo Morley von Sternberg.

Like the visual art on display, it’s heavy, heart-wrenching material, amplified by its oppressive setting, but it never feels gratuitous or exploitative. The show walks a tightrope, exploring highly sensitive issues like deprivation of freedom, the persecution of gay or ethnic minorities, and the AIDS crisis, but it does so in a respectful manner.

Many exhibitions in the last few years have tried—and often failed—to make a strong political point, to assert art’s valid role in shaping political views, and possibly even aspiring to effect change (Okwui Enwezor’ latest Venice Biennale in particularl comes to mind). “Inside—Artists and Writers in Reading Prison” might be a much smaller show, but it is a successful testimony to art’s ability to transform viewers’ awareness of complicated political and social matters through the retelling of personal narratives.

Twenty four hours after exiting the solid doors of Reading Prison, I can still feel its heavy air, and see all those artworks sitting there.

Artangel’s “Inside—Artists and Writers in Reading Prison” is on view from September 4 – October 30, 2016.


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