Inside: Artists & Writers in Reading Prison
In September 2016, HM Prison Reading was opened to the public for the first time in its 172-year history. The occasion was an immersive installation built around its most notorious inmate: Oscar Wilde. London’s most celebrated playwright at the start of 1895, Wilde became suddenly a pariah, jeered and spat upon, on his conviction a few months later on charges of “gross indecency with other male persons.” If his time in jail was devastating—he died penniless in Paris less than four years later, at the age of 46—the work he produced there was enduring. While sentenced to hard labor and held in solitary confinement, he wrote De Profundis (“from the depths”), an extended, often bitter missive to his faithless lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father was responsible for his plight.
At this resonant site in this very different time, Wilde’s experience was explored in art works by the likes of Robert Gober, Nan Goldin and Steve McQueen. In some cells, visitors found letters on the theme of state-enforced separation written by such people as Ai Weiwei, Anne Carson and Jeanette Winterson. Each Sunday throughout the exhibition, Wilde’s harrowing and heartfelt De Profundis was read live in the former prison chapel by a coterie of performers, many of them openly gay, that included Ralph Fiennes, Patti Smith, Colm Tóibín and Ben Whishaw.
The installation and performances continued for three months, from September 4 to December 4 2016. Excerpts have since been preserved in a book and on Artangel’s website.
“In the great prison where I was then incarcerated, I was merely the figure and the letter of a little cell in a long gallery, one of a thousand lifeless numbers as of a thousand lifeless lives.” — Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
“And so is Wilde himself, of course. How perfectly he would have understood the redemption of history through art, the idea of installation art, of places and sounds as commemorations. How seamlessly he would have joined the cast of performers – Neil Bartlett, Ben Whishaw, Ralph Fiennes, Ragnar Kjartansson, among others – reading ‘De Profundis’ in jail. They will do this every Sunday in the chapel to a fully visible audience. How Oscar Wilde would have loved it.”