Friday, October 07, 2016

"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Art by Nan Goldin, Ai Weiwei and Patti Smith
is on show in Oscar Wilde’s prison cell

Nan Goldin, The Boy (2016) is on show in Oscar Wilde’s prison cell.
Nan Goldin's The Boy (2016) is on show in Oscar Wilde’s prison cell.

Artangel, the ambitious art collective that brings imaginative creations to the most exceptional environments, have opened up the now defunct Reading prison to show their latest exhibition, Inside.
The significance of the prison? It’s where Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor in extreme solitary confinement for gross indecency, which translates as homosexual activity in his case. The brutal sentence forced Wilde to look within, realising his intimate letter De Profundis, intended for the eyes of his former lover, Sir Alfred Douglas.
The rich 55,000 word letter will be recited in full in the Prison chapel every Sunday throughout the event, by a number of talented readers, including Patti Smith, Ralph Fiennes and Neil Bartlett. There are also nine original writings by Ai Weiwei, Joe Dunthorne and Binyavanga Wainaina that take influence from Wilde. (Some of the De Profundis readings [YouTube] and contemporary letters are now available to view online.)
Inside also invites you to freely explore the empty prison, where you will be able to enter Wilde’s cell and stumble upon works of art created by the likes of Nan Goldin, Peter Dreher and Richard Hamilton.
We spoke to co-director of Artangel Michael Morris about the project.
Laura May Page: What intrigued you most about using the prison as a venue?
Michael Morris: The silence, the very extraordinary and heavy quality of silence. As you may know when Oscar Wilde was there from 1895 to 1897 everybody was in solitary confinement, prisoners were not allowed to speak to one another so the quality of silence hasn’t changed in 116 years, which lead to our first decision, to preserve the silence. No sounds apart from every Sunday when we would invite nine different readers on nine different Sundays to read the letter, the only thing Wilde wrote while he was a prisoner, the 55,000 word letter to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas and that’s the only sound.

Oscar Wilde's cell (left)
LMP: What is it about the prison that makes it feel so isolated?
MM: The prison architecture in that time during British history was going through a series of reforms, it was designed by George Gilbert Scott who also designed St Pancras Station and numerous churches, so it’s got a very ecclesiastical feel. The idea of the solitary confinement which was at that time called ‘the separate system’; by stopping prisoners from associating with on another, they would be more likely to think about their crimes and make amends in the eyes of god. They went to the chapel everyday and when they were out of their cells they wore these hooded kind of caps, which meant you couldn’t actually see either side of you, so not only could you not speak to another inmate but you couldn’t even look at anybody else, encouraging you to look inside. That’s one reason why the exhibition is called Inside, apart from the obvious reason of prison being referred to as ‘inside.’

"Inside" Reading Prison
It’s really about how Oscar Wilde survived because he was able to use his inner resources and the writing of this letter was a pinnacle point in his own practice, so we’re interested in examining what happens when you isolate someone from society and how they’re then able to look inside themselves. In some ways all of the work, letters and the texts come back to that, the imagination cannot be imprisoned.
LMP: For you, is there anything particularly striking to you in Wilde’s letter?
MM: Well what is striking to me about the letter is that he turns his back on the lifestyle that he lived before his imprisonment, he understands things and their importance. He talks about his past life, the dinners, the banquets, the champagne, the celebrity… don’t forget, he was one of the first celebrities. Everybody knew who he was, he had two shows running in the West End which were taken off immediately after his conviction.
He lived this very exterior life and the experience of being in prison, where he had to ‘go inside’, meant that he was able to reflect upon that lifestyle, that in turn helped him to understand things. He talks about understanding the beauty of suffering which is not something he’d ever said prior to 1895, so it interests me that… I mean I can’t recommend imprisonment as a way of developing someone’s emotional landscape, but there were things that Wilde discovered about himself and others through writing De Profundis that he wouldn’t have realised had he not been sentenced to solitary confinement. He never wrote anything like De Profundis before or after, he only wrote one thing after he came out of prison, which was The Ballad of Reading Jail and then he died within three years of his release, as a result of his release.

Click here to read the full article (+ photos)

Source: HERO Magazine, Laura May Page, October 7, 2016

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