On the first floor of Reading Prison is a small cell labelled C.2.2. Inside is a table, a bed, a toilet, a sink and a window secured with bars. It was here – in this room once known as C.3.3 – that the writer Oscar Wilde spent two years imprisoned for “acts of gross indecency with another male person”. The experience inspired his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and it was from this room that he penned De Profundis: a 100-page letter to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.
From this weekend until October 30, Reading Prison will be open to the public for the first time in its history. Visitors can roam its corridors and cells, where they will find artworks and letters reflecting on Wilde’s imprisonment and themes of confinement and separation. Each Sunday, a different artist, writer or performer – from Ralph Fiennes to Maxine Peak and Patti Smith – will read De Profundis in its entirety from the Prison Chapel. Readings will be streamed online and played in the space in between performances.
Reading Prison was constructed in 1844 and designed by George Gilbert Scott. Its design was based on the Separate System – a regime which aimed to eliminate contact between inmates. Prisoners such as Wilde were housed in individual cells and released only for exercise or religious sermons at the chapel, where they would stand in individual wooden boxes.
In 1992, it became a Remand Centre and Young Offenders Institution, with each cell housing two or three young men at a time. It was decommissioned in 2013 and has lain empty ever since.
One of the most striking things about the space is the mix of old and new: the building was extensively refurbished in the 1970s but early features such as ecclesiastical looking arches, narrow staircases and skylights in the chapel roof remain. Alongside traces from Wilde’s era are reminders of more recent residents, with names carved into tables and doodles drawn on walls. In one cell, an inmate has scrawled the words ‘room service’ above a button used to call for assistance. Corridors are long and narrow, with brick walls, lino floors and narrow iron staircases.
Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison sees the building filled with photographs, sculptures and paintings by 20 artists and writers.
Several cells are home to handwritten letters in which writers and artists reflect on a direct or imagined experience of being imprisoned and separated from loved ones. Ai Wei Wei recalls being placed under house arrest, while Gillian Slovo writes to her mother, who was murdered by the South African Secret Service. Letters recall feelings of fear, anxiety and frustration – Thamima Anam imagines herself imprisoned and pregnant, addressing a letter to her unborn child.
Many of the works on display respond directly to Wilde: Marlene Dumas has painted the writer and Douglas while an installation by Nan Goldin uses footage from an early film of Wilde’s tragedy Salome. In a neighbouring cell, Goldin has plastered the walls with photographs of his muse, the German actor Clemens Schick, drawing parallels with Wilde’s relationship with Douglas.
Other pieces explore the psychological effect of confinement: Steve McQueen has draped a metal bunk bed in a gold mosquito net, his sculpture inspired by the effect of being trapped in one of the prison’s cells. A photograph by Tillmans captures him looking in a mirror, his reflection distorted, while an accompanying video piece, filmed through a window grill, looks out to the walls beyond the prison, the outside world always just out of focus.
Works by Robert Gober, Vija Celmins and Roni Horn reflect on prisoners’ separation from the outside world. Celmins’ prints depict a starry night sky – a sight denied to prisoners – while Gober’s sculptures reflect on the relationship between interior life and the outside world. In Treasure Chest, a hole in the floor reveals the torso of a woman in a patterned dress, her chest cut open to show a flowing riverbed. Horn’s photographs of still and running water are placed alongside Felix Gonzales-Torres’ Untitled (Water), curtains of blue and silver plastic beads draped in the doorways of cells.
Jean-Michel Pancin has created a poignant sculpture for the chapel: a concrete plinth in the same dimensions as the cells at Reading, with the original door from Wilde’s cell at one end. The door stands in the brightly lit room (one of the building’s less oppressive spaces) as a symbol of confinement, the barrier to freedom that Wilde would have likely stared at for hours on end when denied books and papers.
Alongside contemporary artworks are plans of the prison, extracts from Wilde’s texts and a lithograph print showing the building’s grand original exterior. (It was designed to resemble a castle from the outside). On the ground floor are hundreds of black-and-white photographs of prisoners taken between 1885 and 1910, including men, women and boys.
The exhibition is the latest in a series of ambitious projects from Artangel and its first group exhibition (the organisation usually works with one artist at a time). In June, it unveiled The Ethics of Dust by Jorge Otero-Pailos – a latex cast of a wall in Westminster Hall containing hundreds of years of grime and dust.
James Lingwood, co-director of Artangel, says the idea for the project came about from a visit to Reading Prison following its closure. (Lingwood’s friend, who is an expert on Oscar Wilde, organised the trip). Lingwood says he was immediately struck by the building’s layered history and the shadow of Wilde, which he says “falls heavily” over the space.
Securing permission from the Ministry of Justice took several months but Artangel received confirmation that it could host the show in March this year. Artists including McQueen and Tillmans were then invited to visit the prison and create a piece of work in response to their experience.
The end result is a show that focuses not just on Wilde’s experience of incarceration, and the profound effect it had on him (he died just three years after his release), but on the prison’s unique architecture and wider themes of isolation and detention.
Artworks encourage visitors to reflect on the many men and women who passed through the prison’s door. Standing in the cramped cells, it’s impossible not to imagine how each room’s inhabitants ended up there.
Visiting is a somewhat bleak experience but a fascinating one and with many Victorian prisons now being sold off, it’s a rare chance to see inside one of the few remaining reminders of Britain’s harsh Victorian penal regime.
The exhibition forms part of Reading 2016, a programme of events marking Reading’s Year of Culture, and the National Trust is running guided tours of the prison throughout the show’s duration.
Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison opens on September 4 until October 30. For details, ticket prices and opening hours see readingarts.com