By Deb A.
But though lean Hunger and green Thirst
Like asp with adder fight,
We have little care of prison fare,
For what chills and kills outright
Is that every stone one lifts by day
Becomes one's heart by night.
from The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde
In 1897, toward the end of his two-year imprisonment in Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde was finally allowed to write... one single piece of paper at a time. Each sheet was confiscated once filled. Together, those individual pages became De Profundis, a bitterly passionate letter to his lover. Shortly after his incarceration, Wilde immortalised the prison in his devastating The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
The Reading Jail closed its doors in 2013, but is temporarily open to the public in a tribute to the Irish writer called Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison. The project is a collaboration between Artangel and the National Trust that sees artists, writers, performers and poets building on the theme of separation that permeates Wilde's final works.
Wilde's cell stands starkly empty, but others feature handwritten letters on the topic of state-enforced isolation, including Ai Weiwei's missive to his son about his own experience of imprisonment. Some spaces contain art installations: gold-plated mosquito netting around a steel bunk bed frame by Steve McQueen; photos and videos dealing with forbidden homosexuality by Nans Goldin; and portraits of Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and other men by Marlene Dumas.
Every Sunday, performers including Patti Smith, Ben Whishaw and Ralph Fiennes will read the 50,000-word De Profundis live in the jail's chapel.
The National Trust is also offering tours of the premises on Fridays and Saturdays.
Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison is open until October 30th.
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