Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison ArtAngel at Reading Prison 20 November 2016
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 of a thousand lifeless lives.
- Oscar Wilde, De Profundis 1897
Inside, a new installation of interactive artworks by several international artists and curated by ArtAngel is currently on display at the now decommissioned Reading Prison (once Reading Gaol). The installation of artworks, videos, spoken word and other pieces takes as its inspiration the gaol’s most famous resident, Oscar Wilde, who served a two year term for ‘gross indecency’ 1895-1897. Wilde’s cell, C.3.3, is open and on view, as are many other cells in a site specific, interactive presentation where the public is invited to engage with the works of over 30 artists, writers, and performers.
Touring Reading Prison, which was a working correctional facility until 2013, is an awakening. The physical separation of the cells, the messages scrawled in to the walls, the bulky and immobile fixtures all are physical reminders of the anonymity and isolation of incarceration. The prison was built in 1844, and conceived to employ the ‘Separate System,’ a practice which aimed to eliminate any contact between prisoners, believing that solitude would lead to penitence. This practice was carried out even to
the Exercise Yard, where inmates were forced to wear concealing hoods, so as not to be able to
recognize one another, or be recognized. The structure is a physical representation of that massive machinery of isolation, which in Wilde’s eyes brutalized and dehumanized the inmates.
It is ironic that the building’s architect was none other than Sir Gilbert Scott, better known other icons of the Victorian Age: The Albert Memorial and San Pancras Station. These cells have been now used as a series of canvases or stages, to engage an audience in a site specific rumination on Wilde, his incarceration, and the inhumanity of the prisons system itself.
Several artists have used the installation to reflect on Wilde’s sexuality, and his persecution as a homosexual in Victorian England. There are cells which are created as investigations to ‘the Love that dare not speak its name,’ and have prison wall pinups of beautiful young men, from both 2016 and 1895. One artist has created portraits of both Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, (his beloved ‘Bosie’); another has draped the cell doors with bejeweled, beaded curtains, which seem to mock the incarceration with a flight of fabulous fancy, and make one very aware of the ability to leave or enter the cell at will; one has a cell bed shrouded in gold mosquito netting, suggesting both encumbrance and transcendence. In a further cell, there are loops playing of films inspired by Wilde’s ‘Salome,’ itself about the gleeful torment of the imprisoned John the Baptist.
Inspired by the craft of writing, other cells have listening experiences: ‘Letters of Separation’ are audio files of letters, writings, and poetry, inspired by incarceration (a letter from the jailed Hermoine to her daughter, Perdita; characters form Shakespeare’s ‘The Winter’s tale), or by Wilde and his life. Deborah Levy’s ‘Letter to Oscar Wilde’ is personal letter from one writer to another. It admires not only Wilde’s skill, but his strength and ability to endure injustice, while having the courage to love wholly and generously– asking what is it to be a man? You can listen to Deborah Levy read her 'Letter to Oscar Wilde,' here:
In the center on the long corridors of steel bars and Gothic vaulting, there is the prison’s Chapel. Designed for daily congregation, it is the only space of light and openness in Reading Gaol, a physical representation of the church’s role in rehabilitation and reformation. Here in this open space, there is a cement platform in the dimensions of Oscar Wilde’s cell, and on it stands the original door. Here, over headphones, a series of actors and performers read aloud from 'De Profundis,’ Wilde’s 100 page long letter to Bosie, wherein Wilde comes to terms with Bosie’s weakness, and in so doing, reforms his own ideas on Art. He likens the work of the Artist, to the work of Christ, seeing now the acts of forgiveness and understanding as the greatest creative achievement of humankind. While still in isolation, you can sit in the space and listen, reflecting on the cell itself and its now lost walls ...and in this way the chapel has been restored to its original function, as a place for reflection and contemplation. Very moving.
Finally, Inside affords a visitor to sit inside Oscar Wilde’s cell, C.3.3. Nearby the cell is a facsimile library of Wilde’s books, along with Photostat copies of manuscripts written while at Reading Gaol. Sitting on the cot, hearing the sounds of the prison about, it is easy to imagine the inspiration for Wilde’s epic poem, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol.’ Like the installation ‘Inside,’ the Ballad addresses something larger than the indignities heaped on Oscar Wilde: It addresses Loneliness. Reading Gaol, and its enforced solitude, becomes a metaphor for all of our solitude:
I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in goal
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.
But this I know, that every Law
That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother's life,
And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
With a most evil fan.
This too I know--and wise it were
If each could know the same--
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.
In the poem, the prisoners watch as day by day, a nameless man who is condemned to hang lives out the last of his days in mysterious, wistful mockery of his own fate. The prisoners, the warders, the clergy: all are baffled by the condemned man’s unwillingness to atone, to connect with his own sins, and prepare for his death. The narrator and the other incarcerated men, each alone with his sins and fears, become united in the deathwatch, each feeling keenly his own end in the condemned man’s.
Separation and Loneliness are chief tools of the abuser, and they are cudgels an authoritarian state uses to enforce its power. When we are so focused on seeing only our own pain, seeing and understanding the pain of another becomes impossible. In this terrified state, to see and alleviate the pain of another becomes our road to salvation. Wilde knew these, and he learned it at the hands of his captors at Reading Gaol. He used his Art – and his Forgiveness, Humanity, and Courage – to build that window from his solitude into the world of another. He created the very thing the tools of solitude with set to destroy: Empathy. Empathy is our greatest human treasure- for without it, Ethics are impossible; and without it we are no more than beasts to be led by whatever cruel and self-puffed fools elect themselves to lead us.
A facsimile library of Wilde's prison reading
This is the miracle of ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol:’ that each of the inmates, lost in his loneliness and sealed away from one another, can find a shared experience in this panicked hope for redemption, and in the pleas for the condemned man’s soul that each is too terrified to even utter aloud. In the poem, that hope is repaid in one final scream of redemption heard from the scaffold—a scream that sends all throughout the gaol to their knees not only in pity, but also in the collective knowledge that in the face of this last warder, we are none of us alone.
That no heart is beyond healing, that no man is past redemption, that we are none of us alone…these hopes unite all the prisoners and become universal. Somehow, in the face of the immense indignities heaped on Wilde at the end of his life, he still held tight to these hopes himself…and in doing so showed the scale and power of his humanity. Inside concludes with a long display, hundreds of photos of inmates discharged during the years Oscar Wilde was incarcerated: