Remembered as literary history’s greatest assets, Oscar Wilde spent two years in the depths of Reading Gaol from 1895. In this harrowing Victorian cruciform structure, Wilde wrote De Profundis, an extended letter to his lover. It is also in this place that all fifty thousand words of Wilde’s penultimate work will be re-uttered in a two-month performance and art project, Inside: Artists and Performers in Reading Prison. As readers, we all have a relationship with this text and its history, so it is interesting to wonder whether the new, repeated enunciations of this work will expand it somehow, altering the way it will be remembered from now on.
After spending the first year of solitary confinement without anything but the Bible, Wilde was finally granted access to pen and paper. It is in this time that he cathartically poured out his sentiments into a letter to “Bosie,” Lord Alfred Douglas. The fifty-thousand-word letter became known as De Profundis. Meaning “from the depths” in Latin, it is a reflection on the author´s previously lavish life and the events that turned this life into one of oppressive isolation under Victorian law.
The theme of isolation is reverberated through the laments of De Profundis and the physically unavoidable reality of incarceration. References to isolation bombard the senses – from the echoing of Wilde’s words through the dimly-lit confined space, to the damp-scented air and cold-to-touch iron bars of the cells. The theme is further perpetuated throughout the prison’s wings and claustrophobic cells with supporting work by thirty artists, including Ai Weiwei and Nan Goldin.
Artangel's exhibition does not solely focus on the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, but on universal experiences of isolation, that might be more contemporary than ever. In this way, Wilde’s De Profundis is used as a familiar anchor and starting point for the exhibition to explore eternally human experiences, as well as to propose an original mode of engaging with literary works.
A collection of prison letters, real and imagined, are on show, including that of world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei. Nan Goldin draws upon Wilde's reason for imprisonment, "gross indecency with a male,” with a collection of photographs exploring homosexuality in places it is still regarded as taboo or illegal, while Steve McQueen draped a golden mosquito net over a cell’s bed to further evoke sentiments of being trapped in one’s prison cell. Collectively, the artists explore isolation through time, transcending state-enforced isolation, and venturing into spheres of mental illness and isolation within self.
Although isolation is the most prominent theme, and is undoubtedly enunciated by the location, in a manner a traditional art venue would fail to do, it is not the only theme at play. Just as in De Profundis, sentiments of love, extravagance, tragedy and resilience are cathartically explored in tones of bitterness, optimism, and forgiveness by contemporary artists and writers lending their own voices to a remembering of this extraordinary text. The project proposes an examination of the role and nature of authorship and readership, as it re-opens dialogue on a fragment of our collective cultural memory.
Inside: Artist and Writers in Reading Prison runs until 30th October 2016.
Words: Jamal George-Sharpe
Copy edited by Elena Stanciu