Oscar Wilde’s ‘Living Death’

Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison

an exhibition produced by Artangel at Reading Prison, Reading, England, September 4–December 4, 2016
Oscar Wilde having lunch with Lord Alfred Douglas near Dieppe in 1898, after his release from Reading Gaol
Oscar Wilde Collection, British Library Archive/British Library Board
Oscar Wilde having lunch with Lord Alfred Douglas near Dieppe in 1898, after his release from Reading Gaol

The exterior of Reading Prison in Berkshire, formerly known as Reading Gaol, where Oscar Wilde spent almost two years in confinement between 1895 and 1897, is impressive in a grandiose Victorian, mock-Medieval-Tudor-Gothic way. Designed by George Gilbert Scott and William Moffatt in the 1840s, the prison was made to look like a grand fortress inspired by Warwick Castle, built in the eleventh century.

When Wilde was a prisoner there, as punishment for having had sex with men (“gross public indecency”), Reading Gaol was still run according to the then-modern principles pioneered at Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Inmates were locked up for twenty-three hours a day in complete solitary confinement. Even when exercising in the yard or attending services in the chapel, they were isolated from one another in boxes and made to wear hoods. Strict silence was enforced. The guards covered their shoes in felt to make sure every sign of life was muffled. Designed to make criminals reflect and repent, this regime in fact drove many of them insane.

Gilbert Scott was known for his Gothic Revival style in churches and cathedrals. Providing an aesthetically pleasing façade to a place of harsh punishment might seem like an odd perversity, also seen in some Nazi concentration camps: the words on the gate of Buchenwald, Jedem das Seine (To each his own), were designed by a prisoner named Franz Ehrlich, a Bauhaus architect and designer. But these Nazi embellishments were a form of sarcasm to torment their victims further. This was surely not the intention of Scott and Moffatt. Victorian prisons, like railway stations (another Scott specialty), were designed to project the power of civic institutions.

The artistic concept behind “Inside,” the art and literature exhibition inside Reading Prison, is neither pompous nor of course mocking, but a mournful celebration of Wilde and an aesthetic protest against human cruelty and bigotry. Prison destroyed Wilde’s life. The show is a kind of redemption.

Artworks are displayed inside the cells of the building, which was still a functioning prison until 2013. They range from Nan Goldin’s photographs of a young gay German man to an art installation by Steve McQueen meant to convey colonial oppression. A gold-plated mosquito net draped over a bunk bed is explained in the helpful guide as a token of spiritual escape from a confined space. There are texts and recorded readings by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, the novelist Gillian Slovo, and others. And there are public readings every Sunday by different people of De Profundis, written by Wilde in the last months of his incarceration in…

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