Reading Prison and its most famous inmate inspire major new project

Patti Smith, Steve McQueen and Marlene Dumas, among others, respond to Oscar Wilde and the jail's architecture and history

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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”.

The initiative Inside—Artists and Writers in Reading Prison (4 September-30 October), organised by the non-profit art commissioning body Artangel, will include new paintings by Dumas and new sculptures by Gober who finds “the idea of a prison project compelling”, said James Lingwood, Artangel’s co-director, at the project launch today (21 July).

The US photographer Nan Goldin will show new pieces “based on obsessive desire”, Lingwood added, while McQueen “is deeply interested in the experience of confinement, and will make a surprise intervention in the cells”. Works by Roni Horn, Doris Salcedo and Felix-Gonzalez-Torres will also be dotted around the corridors and wings of the imposing Victorian building, which was used as a working prison until 2013.

The project also brings together performers such as Patti Smith, and the actors Maxine Peake and Ben Whishaw, who will read Wilde’s De Produndis letter in its entirety in the prison chapel.

De Profundis was written by Wilde, known as prisoner C.3.3., to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”), during periods of solitary confinement in his cell. Wilde’s biographer, Richard Ellmann, says that the “most important thing about De Profundis is that it is a love letter… one of the greatest, and the longest, ever written.”

Michael Morris, the co-director of Artangel, said that “Wilde is not only the first celebrity; in De Profundis, he is the first celebrity to take off a mask.” The De Profundis readings will take place every Sunday in September and October.

“They will begin at midday and run over four-and-a-half hours. It will be an intimate experience for a live audience who will be free to come and go, or remain rooted to the spot,” Morris says.

Writers such as Jeanette Winterson and Gillian Slovo, along with the Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei, will compose their own letters drawing on direct or imagined experiences “of a state-imposed separation from loved ones”, according to a statement. Visitors can read these missives which will be displayed in certain cells.

The Inside exhibition is supported by the Ministry of Justice and presented as part of Reading 2016, Reading’s Year of Culture.

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