Artists including Wolfgang Tillmans, Steve McQueen, Marlene Dumas, and Robert Gober will show new works in Reading Prison as part of a project inspired by its most famous inmate, Oscar Wilde. The Irish playwright was imprisoned in Reading prison, formerly known as Reading Gaol, from 1895 to 1897 for “committing acts of gross indecency with male persons”.
M Prison Reading opens for the first time to the public as artists, writers, and performers respond to its most notorious inmate: Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s time in jail was devastating, the work produced in result enduring. Incarcerated in solitary confinement he wrote De Profundis, an extended letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas; on release he produced his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
At this resonant site, the penal regime Wilde suffered is explored through archives, leading through to the installation of new works by artists such as Nan Goldin, Marlene Dumas, and Steve McQueen in the previously inaccessible – or inescapable – cells and corridors.
In some cells, visitors will find letters on the theme of state-enforced separation from around the world by writers including Binyavanga Wainaina, Ai Weiwei, and Anne Carson. Each Sunday throughout the exhibition, Wilde’s harrowing and heartfelt De Profundis will be performed live in the former prison chapel by readers including Patti Smith, Colm Tóibín, and Ben Whishaw. BBC Radio 4 will also broadcast an abridged version of De Profundis recorded in what was Wilde’s cell on 11 September at 16:00 GMT, followed by readings of five of the contemporary letters at 19:45 GMT each day from 12 until 16 September.
This exhibition brings together that which Wilde’s final works so eloquently delineated: the pain of separation, the excruciatingly slow passage of time, betrayal, redemption, and love.
- Corridor in HM Prison Reading. Photograph: Morley von Sternberg