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Artists Respond to Oscar Wilde's Woes Inside an Abandoned Prison

More than 30 artists, including Nan Goldin and Steve McQueen, teamed up with Artangel to bring Wilde’s work back to the jail where he composed one of his most haunting works.

by Sami Emory
Sep 24 2016, 12:10pm

Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016 Photo by Marcus J Leith courtesy Artangel

Oscar Wilde has returned to Reading Prison, the jail where he spent some of the last and darkest years of his life, through the work of over 30 artists from around the world. The exhibition, entitled Inside - Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, is the latest project by powerhouse arts organization Artangel.

As the organization’s co-director James Lingwood tells The Creators Project over email, all it took for his co-director Michael Morris and him to generate the idea for Inside was “a few hours walking around the empty prison and a few more hours reading Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, which he wrote in his cell.” What followed was, and is, a sweeping project—aimed to wield Wilde’s work as a means to distill and dissect the universal experiences of imprisonment and separation.

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Marlene Dumas, Oscar Wilde (2016) Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016 Photo by Marcus J Leith courtesy Artangel

To achieve these lofty objectives, Lingwood enlisted “artists and writers who didn’t need any explaining from Michael or myself as to why the prison might resonate for them and their work." Included in this select crowd are a handful of contemporary art giants—namely, Nan Goldin, Robert Gober, Steve McQueen, Wolfgang Tillmans, Marlene Dumas, Jean-Michel Pancin, and Roni Horn—enlisted by Artangel to bring entirely new works into the recently abandoned prison. As they wander through Reading’s halls and cells, visitors will also be presented with pieces by Vija Celmins, Rita Donagh, Peter Dreher, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Richard Hamilton, and Doris Salcedo.

The sentiments behind this wide range of works vary greatly. As Lingwood says, in Gober, Hamilton, McQueen, Salcedo, and Tillmans’ works, for instance, “there's a powerful sense of confinement, and the human desire to overcome it.” Whereas, in the cells adorned with the work by Horn and Gonzalez-Torres, in Dumas’ painting of Wilde, and in Goldin’s erotic montage, The Boy, “there is great tenderness.”

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Nan Goldin, The Boy (2016) Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016 Photo by James Lingwood courtesy Artangel

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Robert Gober, Treasure Chest (2015-16) Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016 Photo by Marcus J Leith courtesy Artangel

When I asked if there were any difficulties in staging these site-specific works, I was expecting the organization’s co-director to vent about, for example, the challenges of Pancin’s work. Pancin has incorporated the original wood door to Wilde’s cell, temporarily returned to Reading’s remodeled halls, into a piece that also includes a massive concrete plinth cast to the precise dimensions of one of the prison’s cells. Instead, Lingwood says, there were “no big setbacks, but unlike most people who are in prison, we would have liked to have spent more time inside.” He adds, however, “Gold-plating mosquito netting for Steve McQueen's work and growing grass in Doris Salcedo's sculptures were interesting challenges.”

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Steve McQueen, The Weight (2016) Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016 Photo by Marcus J Leith courtesy Artangel

Also on exhibition are photographs from 19th century prisons, as well as plans and prints of the infamous Separate System regime: the penal scheme under which Reading Prison (known at that time, in the mid 1800s, as Reading Gaol) operated, where prisoners were kept “penitent” through solitary confinement.

In addition to these visual contributions, writers and performers such as Ralph Fiennes, Colm Tóibín, Patti Smith, Ben Whishaw, Kathryn Hunter, Neil Bartlett, Ragnar Kjartansson, Maxine Peak, and Lemn Sissay will be making their appearances every Sunday of the exhibition to read the haunting progeny of Wilde’s time inside, De Profundis: a letter written from the Wilde to his deceitful lover Lord Alfred Douglas. “The final hours of both Ben Whishaw and Neil Bartlett's readings of De Profundis were extraordinarily intense,” Lingwood confides, “Not a dry eye anywhere.”

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Marlene Dumas, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), (2016) Marlene Dumas, Oscar Wilde (2016) Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016 Photo by James Lingwood courtesy Artangel

Mimicking Wilde’s gesture, writers, including Ai Weiwei, Tahmima Anam, Anne Carson, Joe Dunthorne, Deborah Levy, Danny Morrison, Gillian Slovo, Binyavanga Wainaina, and Jeanette Winterson have written letters from an imagined state of imprisonment to their loved ones. “Reading letters in cells from writers who relate or imagine their own imprisonment, such as Ai Weiwei or Danny Morrison, make the experience very vivid,” adds Lingwood.

Last week, these letters, which visitors can still read and listen to in Reading’s cells, were broadcast from BBC’s Radio 4. Earlier that week, a reading of an abridged version of De Profundis, recorded in Wilde’s cell in the prison, was also broadcasted for all to hear.

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Wolfgang Tillmans, Separate System, Reading Prison (Mirror) (2016) Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016 Photo by Marcus J Leith courtesy Artangel

As with any project of Inside’s kind, one nagging question prevails, in spite of all supporting evidence—that is, “What makes Oscar Wilde’s work relevant today?” As an answer, Lingwood advises all visitors to Inside: “Stand in front of the original wooden door to Oscar's cell, stand on a concrete plinth with the exact same dimensions as his cell, think about what society did to him then and what it does to others now.”

“[Oscar Wilde] reached deep inside himself to transcend his confinement,” he adds, “and in doing so, transcended his time to speak to our own.”

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Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison, 2016 Photo by Marcus J Leith courtesy Artangel

Inside - Artists and Writers in Reading Prison is open until October 30 at Reading Prison in the UK. For more information, visit the exhibition’s page on Artangel’s website.

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