The charitable arts organisation Artangel is nothing if not ambitious: locations for its site-specific installations have included a Peckham council flat, a shop on Oxford Street and most recently the Houses of Parliament. Now, for Reading’s 2016 Year of Culture, it has put together a first group exhibition – and it’s at a decommissioned Victorian jail in a London commuter belt town, best known for its former inmate Oscar Wilde.
'Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison' boasts a starry line-up, with pieces tucked away in dozens of claustrophobic cells. There is new work by Steve McQueen, Wolfgang Tillmans, Nan Goldin and Marlene Dumas, writing by Ai Weiwei, and a series of readings from Wilde’s De Profundis by talents including Ralph Fiennes and Patti Smith.
The art largely takes Wilde’s texts written in the former Reading Gaol as a starting point, transforming his suffering into something expansive and elemental. Roni Horn and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ meditations on water are exhibited together and make for a compelling partnership, while Vija Celmins’ absorbing drawings of night skies are broad and reflective.
The atmosphere overall is subdued, although some artists more than others have paid attention to the eerie environment of the Panopticon-inspired prison, which held prisoners as recently as 2013. In the chapel, there is a totemic sculpture by French artist Jean-Michel Pancin that incorporates the original door from Wilde’s cell. Light floods in from the large windows on either side, and away from the oppressive corridors of the prison there is a hushed calm.
By giving its contributors free rein, Artangel has created an unexpectedly moving exhibition; a deeply personal love letter from an eclectic group of artists for whom Wilde’s hidden emotional life still resonates.