Artists reclaim the cells of England’s Reading Prison.
Outside each cell at Reading Prison, there’s a small metal frame screwed into the wall. The cell number sits in the bottom section, and the top has a card that keeps track of graffiti before and after prisoners are moved: NONE, SOME, or LOADS. The most popular form of vandalism is a wry ROOM SERVICE often scrawled next to the cells’ emergency buttons for calling warders. In one cell, the dated corner of a tabloid newspaper clings to a piece of chewing gum: presumably the rest of the page involved nudity. Stickily, it fossilizes a moment—July 5, 2013—in the year the prison closed.
Elsewhere, on the red glossy paint of an internal doorpost, there’s a lengthy autobiography in ballpoint, including a guilty plea for seven armed robberies, a “shout out to all the mandem” in postcodes across England, the anticipation of a release date—16.04.2016—and a final motto: RIDE OR DIE. Rather more tersely, cell C.2.2. has CUNT! scratched into the wall. From 1895–97, under the different number C.3.3., this was where Oscar Wilde served his sentence for “gross public indecency”—homosexual acts. The number became his identity.
The prison was built between 1842 and 1844 by the architectural firm Moffatt & Scott. Scott would go on to design the gilded Albert Memorial, opposite the Royal Albert Hall in London, and the grandiose Midland Hotel, by the Saint Pancras railway station. By the early 1840s, though, many of the firm’s commissions had been punitive workhouses for the destitute poor, and it shows. Reading was designed according to the principles of the “separate system,” in which prisoners were banned from interaction with one another. The toilets in each cell were removed when prisoners were found to have been communicating by tapping on their pipes. Wilde, suffering from dysentery like many of his fellow inmates, had to spend nights with an open, overflowing pot, emptied only in the mornings.
At Pentonville, in London, prisoners were masked to prevent them from recognizing one another outside their cells: contemporary engravings look like a grim masked ball. At Reading, there were separate, walled-off booths in the chapel, and a silent exercise hour in the yard. Richard Ellmann, Wilde’s biographer, tells the story of C.3.3. hearing C.4.8. mutter, “Oscar Wilde, I pity you because you must be suffering more than we are.” Wilde replied, “No, my friend, we are all suffering equally.” They both got two weeks’ punishment, but Wilde later told the poet André Gide that it was this interaction that stopped him from wanting to kill himself.
Either way, Wilde had effectively been given a death sentence. The consensus is now that an untreated ear infection took advantage of his ruined health, swelled into meningitis, and killed him in 1900: a cruel irony for the son of a pioneer of modern ear, nose, and throat surgery. Ellmann’s account has been disputed, but he gives some idea of the pain Wilde died in by describing a torrent of compressed fluids exploding out of his nose, eyes, and ears shortly after death.
In her 2014 book, The Consolations of Writing, Rivkah Zim lays out a long, international tradition of prison writing from Boethius to Primo Levi. Like any prison population, her book is a community of people united in their isolation, drawing comfort from the memory of each others’ work. The great paradox that emerges is that imprisonment is both a deprivation of experience and an experience in itself. Because of this, and because of limited access to reading and writing materials, it has tended to force new forms of communication.
In the 13′ x 7′ x 10′ space of C.3.3., Wilde worked around paper restrictions to write what became De Profundis—”from the depths”—as a long letter to his lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. It’s an account of Wilde’s fall: from the stage success of An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 to the jeering, spitting crowds he encountered as he was transferred between prisons later that year. After experiences like his, “one approaches the whole of history from a different standpoint,” Wilde wrote. “I see now that Sorrow, being the supreme emotion of which man is capable, is at once the type and test of great art.”
At Reading, sensory deprivation heightened what he saw and heard of the execution of Charles Thomas Wooldridge, a soldier who had slit his wife’s throat out of jealousy. Wilde turned this experience into The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), and put his cell number in place of his name on the title page of the first edition. As he’d written seven years earlier in “The Critic as Artist,” “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” In the Ballad, Wilde’s fellow prisoners become a dramatic chorus, and, through the mask of “C.3.3”—which had an even narrower window in his day—he speaks back to the hypocritical, pointlessly vindictive society that forced it onto him.
Until October 30, labels with names and works have been slid in over the graffiti cards as part of Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison. It’s a reinvention of sorts for the organizers, Artangel, too. Instead of their more usual method of finding a historically resonant location, pairing it with a core individual, and developing the project over a period of time, Inside is more of a thematic group exhibition, drawing together artists—Doris Salcedo, Roni Horn, Steve McQueen, Wolfgang Tillmans—and writers—Anne Carson, Deborah Levy, Binyavanga Wainaina. The photographer Nan Goldin has filled a cell with intimate images of the German actor Clemens Schick, a friend whom she slept with in 1996 and who publicly came out in 2014. The piece, The Boy, imagines and ventriloquizes the desire for which Wilde was imprisoned. In the old chapel, Jean-Michel Pancin has cast the tiny floor space of C.3.3. in concrete and set in the original door Wilde was locked behind. On Sundays, the room hosts readings from De Profundis, by performers as varied as Patti Smith, Ben Whishaw, and Lemn Sissay. It’s an approach that does justice to the depth of Wilde’s vision, and the breadth of his output and influence.
The most moving of the writers’ contributions is Gillian Slovo’s to her mother, the writer and anti-apartheid activist Ruth First. It is written on the typewriter First wasn’t allowed to take to prison in South Africa in 1963, and the sounds remind Slovo of the psychological torture her mother underwent, her suicide attempt in prison, and how she was eventually assassinated by a letter bomb in 1982. When Slovo explains the reading that focused her understanding of her mother’s experience, Rivkah Zim’s great community of the isolated expands a little more:
a novel about a real life massacre that took place in the town of Gwangju in South Korea in 1980. It’s Han Kang’s Human Acts and it’s as fine a book as I have read, and almost unbearably painful… [an] exploration of what she calls “the radioactive spread of brutality” […] about remembering not just the murdered but also their murderers.
The most moving of the artworks are Robert Gober’s: Treasure Chest and Waterfall have channels of flowing water filled with leaves and twigs, respectively visible through a rough hole cut in the floor framed by a tattered wooden box, and a hole in the wall framed with a rectangle cut in the back of a man’s suit. Perhaps it’s one, connected channel. One of the things we’re peering into is art history: the holes in the tattered wooden door of Marcel Duchamp’s installation Étant donnés (1946–66), which reveal an image of a naked woman reclining in a garden, her legs parted and an arm draped at an odd angle. Treasure Chest opens onto a more domestic but no less dreamlike scene: a rubber-gloved hand draped on an aproned belly, which opens into lush greenery. Move your face closer to either of the holes and you get a sudden smell of freshness, running water, and all the world outside the prison.
Tom Overton catalogued John Berger’s archive at the British Library and edited Portraits: John Berger on Artists and Landscapes: John Berger on Art.