Prior to his imprisonment, Wilde was at the height of his career as a novelist and playwright, revelling in his success and fame. However, the rug was pulled from beneath his feet while his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, was still showing on the stage in London, when the Marquess of Queensberry (father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas) publicly labelled him a sodomite. Perhaps foolheartedly, Wilde attempted to sue for libel, but was instead charged with and convicted for ‘gross indecency’. He was sentenced to two years of hard labour, from which he emerged not only physically depleted but emotionally drained by a harsh system that rigidly enforced an ideology that held solitary confinement as the path to repentance and spiritual purity — even to the extent of forcing prisoners to wear hoods to prevent eye contact.
Wilde’s career would never recover after his time in prison, and he would die in exile in Paris, where he fled directly upon his release, aged just 46. However, the torturous experience would change the writer profoundly, leading to the publication of two of his most powerfully enduring pieces of work. The first, De Profundis, was a letter written during his time at Reading Gaol — though the prison governor would not allow the letter to be sent, Wilde was allowed to take it with him when he was released. Addressed to ‘Boise’ (Lord Alfred Douglas), the 100-page letter is a self-revelatory, confessional exercise beginning with reflections on the conditions of his imprisonment and his relationship with Douglas, lamenting the decadence and shallowness of much of his former life, and moving on to grapple with his spiritual growth, reconnection with Christ, move to humility and changing, romantic perception of art. The second, and his last work, was the poem A Ballad to Reading Gaol; dedicated to the memory of a man Wilde had seen executed, the poem highlights the brutality of the death penalty, and delivers a biting indictment of the Victorian penal system as a whole.
Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison has extended an invitation to artists and writers from around the world to produce and present work responding to Wilde’s spectacular fall from grace, the physical and emotional hardship of his years at the prison, and the spiritual odyssey his subsequent works reflected. Alongside a historical section giving information on the 19th century penal system, paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos and writing fill the prison’s lines of cells and corridors, its offices and chapel, colonising and repurposing the ‘systematic structuring of space’ still governing prisons today.
Among the installations and pieces to be found in the prison are works by Marlene Dumas, Wolfgang Tillmans, Steve McQueen, Doris Salcedo and Rita Donagh. Interspersed among the artworks are writings from a series named ‘Letters of Separation’, in which contemporary writers have composed letters — some based on direct personal experience, others imagined — to a loved one from whom they have been separated by the actions of the state; among them, Ai Weiwei, Jeanette Winterson and Binyavanga Wainaina.
A focal point of the exhibition, French artist Jean-Michel Pancin has produced a concrete plinth exactly matching the dimensions of Reading Gaol’s cells, which stands inside the Chapel. Each Sunday, the plinth comes alive as a stage from which a series of celebrated figures (including Maxine Peake, Ralph Fiennes and Patti Smith) give live, four-hour readings of De Profundis.
Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison runs until Sunday October 30th 2016. More information here.
HM Prison Reading, Forbury Road, Reading RG13HY, United Kingdom, +44 118 960 6060