There’s something quite chilling about walking around a deserted jail, particularly one which closed so recently. But after its final inmates were transferred in 2013, HM Prison Reading has opened its doors to the public for the first time, as it hosts “Inside – Artists and Writers in Reading Prison”.
This exhibition, organised by Artangel, allows artists, writers and performers to respond to the prison’s most notorious inmate, Oscar Wilde, who was jailed there from 1895 to 1897 and wrote about his experience in The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis.
Many of the artworks displayed in the prison were created in response to his incarceration and there is something claustrophobic about moving from cell to cell to see each artwork.
There is something stark and isolated about each piece of work. Even those that belong to collections are displayed alone, each picture, painting or film designated to a single cell.
The constant repetition of moving between cells reinforces the isolation of prisoners and modern day additions to the cells are a reminder of how recently they were occupied.
Visitors are able to see the cell where Wilde served his sentence, including a selection of the books he was allowed during his stay.
For me the most striking piece of art was in the jail’s former chapel, which later became a sports hall, where the single solitary door of Wilde’s cell stands on a slab of concrete the exact size of a cell. It really brought home the solitude of prison.
But it is the recorded memories of previous prisoners which really hit home to me. Visitors can listen to their voices through headsets and read the transcripts of their words as they talk about their incarceration. Listening to them in tiny cells, particularly one by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, made the hairs on my arms stand up on end and left my longing for daylight.
“Inside – Artists and Writers in Reading Prison” runs until December 4 2016. Tickets must be booked in advance online and entries are timed, which leads to the somewhat juxtaposing image of an hourly queue of people waiting to be let into jail.
To read about another time we toured a deserted jail, check out our visit to Crumlin Road Goal in Belfast and find out more about our trip to Robben Island in South Africa here.