Tag Archives: Artists

Inside HM Prison Reading

A section of Victorian red brick wall at Reading Gaol

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.

A cell viewed through the door window

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

Cell C.3.3 : Oscar Wilde’s cell in Reading Gaol

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.

Separate System by Wolfgang Tilmans

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”

Waterfall by Robert Gober

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.

Weight by Steve McQueen. Inside Reading Gaolwas a strange apparition – haunting and incongruous – perhaps a shroud to the weight of captivity, at once all encompassing.

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?

Portraits of Victorian inmates

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.

Connecting Worlds*

The Collective (minus two) after a recent meeting
The Collective (minus two) after a recent meeting

There is often a sense that, however much you enjoy your job, what you do outside of working hours is quite separate from what happens within your working environment. This in turn helps to support that much sought after “work-life balance” that so many of us aspire to achieve. As fulfilling as work can be, it can seem that the more removed that interest or passion is from your career the greater the chance that the apparent “balance” may be realised. So whether sports person, actor, singer, artist, writer, poet, tech wizard, what you do with your passion outside of work may improve your sense of well being at the same time.   Perhaps this is true for many people? You spend so much time at work it is sometimes hard to imagine putting a lot of energy in to something quite different – though sometimes it is just what you need to remove yourself from the stresses that can occur in the day-to-day running of your life.

But what happens when external interests and work cross paths and the two worlds meet in an unusual combination – when you have the opportunity to connect both areas of your life? When, as blogger John Stepper would say, you bring your whole self to work.

Although there are arts’ specialists in the Collective, members are, for the most part, from very diverse non-arts professions ranging from local government to teaching, communications, IT, and the NHS. For two of us the influence of the Collective has contributed to producing some unusual projects at work. I have decided to separate the two experiences in to two blogs as they represent very different journeys and professional backgrounds.  The first is my own story.

In 2011, just a few weeks in to my new role as a corporate communications manager at UBM plc I was unexpectedly drawn in to some discussions about refurbishments of the top floor of our office building – a floor that was filled with meeting rooms, UBM’s board room and a long corridor that stretched the length of the building .Various ideas were discussed from themed areas that represented the different businesses, to fresh interior designers being brought in, to new photography to replace the old. As the floor often welcomed external visitors, what would best represent UBM?

For the most part I listened and observed – I was new after all.

Michael Armitage 1
Michael Armitage’s “men by the roadside” – one of the studies exhibited during the project and purchased by the Collective.

In reality, I was already forming an idea, but I needed to work on it first. With over 8 years exposure to contemporary art, artists, galleries and studios through the Collective it would not have taken a genius to know what was going through my head. But my colleagues didn’t know that, and the challenge for me was “what” and “how”.

Over the next few days I discussed with Collective member Tim Eastop what he thought the chances were of UBM, a commercial B2B events-led global organisation, collaborating with a local arts organisation?  UBM had no previous history of supporting the arts (in their London office at least ), but it did have a great track record of local community engagement often supported by their Charity Committee. I leveraged all the experience and contacts the Collective offered and within a couple of weeks came up with an idea for the proposed 9th floor refurbishment that could suit both sides of a collaboration.

A proposal was submitted and much to my amazement – approved. The result was a unique collaboration with Drawing Room, a public non-profit contemporary arts organisation based in Southwark, the London borough where UBM’s head office is located.   The idea was to promote and support emerging artists in a local but global business environment whilst also providing training for an emerging curator .

photo 4 (1)
Mairia Evripidou, UBM Curatorial Intern for the last two exhibitions during an exhibition changeover weekend.

After a meeting with Drawing Room Co-Directors Kate MacFarlane and Mary Doyle the project began to take shape. Under the leadership of Gallery Manager Jacqui McIntosh two sixth-month exhibitions would take place on the 9th floor, and with the help of a curatorial intern, funded by UBM through Drawing Room’s education programme, they would be responsible for researching local artists under agreed themes that resonated with UBM. The second exhibition, “Material Matters” explored the ways artists referenced consumption and mass production and how they responded to recycled materials, tying in with UBM’s own sustainability exploration and journey.

The funding from UBM’s charity committee was initially for 1 year, but was subsequently extended for a further 2 years resulting in 5 exhibitions representing over 30 emerging artists from our own doorstep in Southwark.   The final exhibition “Full Circle” drew artists from the previous exhibitions in the project and focussed on ideas of continuity and change – a concept critical to many business environments, not just that of UBM. As a community engagement project it also included a networking event for local artists and curators as well interested employees.  The project finally ended this year when UBM’s London office moved premises.

The project gave UBM employees at our London HQ an opportunity to see and think differently in their every day working lives. They were challenged, sometimes moved and occasionally mystified; they engaged with a very different professional community brought in to their own business environment; they welcomed the exhibition change every six months (no complacency about what was on the walls), and came to lunchtime talks offered by the artists in order to explore why and how the works of art they saw every day were created.  . Thanks to our internal social intranet other UBM businesses outside of London and the UK were able to
enjoy the works as I shared the project in a curated space for that purpose.

L-R: Amy-Rose Enskat (UBM Curatorial Intern), Jacqui McIntosh (Drawing Room Project Lead), Ben Deakin (participating artist and technician)

The relationship and collaboration with the Drawing Room team and many of the participating artists was inspirational . The three curatorial interns UBM sponsored have all gone on to good jobs in other arts establishments, and the artists who exhibited continue to move on to new adventures and shows.  A full list of the exhibitions in the collaboration and the participating artists can be found on Drawing Room’s website.

For me? Certainly one of the most memorable projects of my career, when two worlds came together in the most rewarding and fulfilling way I could have hoped for.

one of our site specific installations at UBM by artist Lizi Sánchez , IIIII, 2014 Acrylic on aluminium foil, 270 x 215 cm (5 panels of 78 x 115 cm overlapped)

* “Connecting Worlds”, the fourth exhibition in the project, explored ideas of community across diverse cultures.