Travelling on the train going west out of London Paddington, one of my enduring childhood memories was the sight of the tall red brick walls of Her Majesty’s Prison as I approached Reading station. It was an unmistakable landmark and often left me full of curiosity. I never imagined for a moment that I would find myself on the other side of those walls, years later, immersing myself in a very different experience. This was Artangel’s latest project “Inside: Artist and Writers in Reading Prison”. As a readily captive audience for those few hours it was an educational day out for the Collective!
Reading Prison finally closed its doors as a remand centre for young offenders in September 2013, but remains a Grade II listed building with its cruciform Victorian architecture and individual cells that have all been preserved. Opened in 1844 and designed by George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffat its layout was purposefully created to implement the Victorian “Separate System” where prisoners were locked in their small cells for 23 hours a day with no human contact. Even when allowed out of their cells they were
made to wear hoods to avoid seeing or talking to any other human soul. This form of cruel isolation was intended to give prisoners time to read the bible and reflect on their crimes, in some cases for years.
By far the most famous inmate of Reading gaol was Oscar Wilde, sentenced to two years hard labour in 1895 following his conviction for “gross indecency with other men”. Spending hours a day tied to a treadmill for the first year he suffered pain, poor nutrition, sickness and deep isolation. By the second year he was allowed a few books and a piece of paper and pen to write letters. Despite the fact the paper was taken away each night and inspected, the longest letter he wrote “De Profundis” (literally “from the depths”) was preserved in its 50,000 word entirety and published after his death.
But this was not a prison just given over as a gallery space. The high windows, the narrow small spaces in each cell, the feeling of claustrophobia when the door was shut leaving you with the thick yellowish brick walls on all sides, was enough to make anyone feel queezy. It spurred the imagination and encouraged questioning.
Wilde’s Ballad to Reading Gaol written after his release, speaks of the pain of incarceration
“I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky”
Oscar Wildes’ cell C.3.3 was an exhibit in itself, with more light coming in through the window than one might imagine of the day. Wing C was also where the Dark Cells were – where prisoners were punished by having their small windows blocked up living a life of darkness and loneliness.
It was sometimes difficult to separate the sheer experience of the prison setting from the contemporary art installations that had become part of it. But that was the challenge that James Lingwood and Michael Morris, co-directors of Artangel, took on when they embarked on this project. Nor are we meant to separate: Wolfgang Tillmans abstract video screened at the end of one wing symbolised a person trying to reach the light of a window in a truly evocative way – made more effective by the sound track of scraping movements along a wall.
With the light constantly blocked by bars and mesh the sense of restricted freedom and desperation was powerful. Robert Gober‘s installation – looking through the floor to a model of a woman’s torso apparently prized open by latex gloved hands to see the inner workings of a body flowing freely with water, stones and twigs – left one feeling a combination of amused curiosity and “sinister goings on from the depths”
There were letters submitted by artists on the anguish of separation from loved ones in a world that seemed to speak of injustices to the innocent. Ai Weiwei‘s letter to his young son came with a beautiful audio version (provided in Chinese or English) describing the torment of his own imprisonment in 2011 where his every move was watched and nothing happened without the permission of three attending guards. As I listened and sat in the small cell I was reminded of the injustice that people can suffer for just being who they are.
Some of the artists were responding to the theme of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment in Reading gaol : the American photographer Nan Goldin whose videos and photographic installation on the walls of one of the cells tackled the theme of homosexuality laying bare the reasons for Willde’s conviction. The stark and haunted portraits of men – a
reminder of the distorted reflections of faces seen in steel made mirrors (no glass allowed) of more recent years were,strangely, some of my favourites.
Steve McQueen’s installation – a gold plated mosquito net draped over a stark iron bunk bed was a strange apparition, atmospheric and incongruous. A shroud to the weight of captivity, at once all encompassing to the prisoner.
But one never escaped the bars, the walls, the heavy doors ,the metal steps up to other floors, and the mesh to stop you falling to the ground.
The art was like a reprieve from the physical surroundings, but at the same time an exploration of it – a reminder of a darker world, of criminality and the victimisation that innocents can endure in many parts of the world.
The connections between today and Victorian times was kept alive, not least by the portraits of some of the inmates shown on the ground floor – pictures of men and women stood beside a mirror with hands placed across their chests. Who knows what crimes they claimed?
I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
‘That fellow’s got to swing.’
Ballad to Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde
A remarkable project. A remarkable ode to captivity.