Inside: artists and writers in Reading Prison

Have you ever thought of showing your work outside an art gallery or studio? This year, Artangel organised an initiative designed to do just that. Launched last month, they  invited 31 contemporary artists, writers and performers to make new works for an exhibition in the cells and corridors of Reading Prison. When it opens on 4 September, it will be the first time that the prison has ever been open to the public. The exhibition will focus on the penal experiences of the jail's most notorious inmate, Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde's cell at Reading Prison, photo by Morley von Sternberg, 2016

Oscar Wilde's cell at Reading Prison, photo by Morley von Sternberg, 2016

The Irish playwright was imprisoned in Reading Gaol from 1895 to 1897 for “committing acts of gross indecency with male persons”. His time in jail was devastating, but the work he produced in response to his experience of imprisonment is deeply moving. While in solitary confinement he wrote the harrowing and heartfelt De Profundis, an extended letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Throughout September and October, this will be read each Sunday in the former prison chapel by actors including Ralph Fiennes, Maxine Peake and Patti Smith.   

In this groundbreaking exhibition, the penal regime Wilde suffered is explored through archives and contemporary artists' response to them. Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei will be just one of the writers who will compose their own letters drawing on direct or imagined experiences “of a state-imposed separation from loved ones” that will be displayed in some of the cells. Among the artists represented are Oscar-winning director and former Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen who is "deeply interested in the experience of confinement". He will make a surprise intervention in the cells inspired by the prison's architecture and history. Other contributors include Wolfgang Tillmans, a German photographer with a particular interest in issues relating to homosexuality and gender identity; and Nan Goldin, who will show new pieces based on "obsessive desire".  Their works will be displayed alongside late Victorian mugshots of prisoners, prison plans and prints relating to 'the separate system', the brutal regime that operated in late Victorian British prisons whereby inmates were kept in strict isolation from their fellow prisoners. 

Photographs of prisoners on review and discharge, 1890s, Berkshire Record Office

Photographs of prisoners on review and discharge, 1890s, Berkshire Record Office

If you have the chance, why not go along to see the exhibition for yourself?