Ai Weiwei, Patti Smith to Honor Oscar Wilde with New Art Project

Ai Weiwei, Patti Smith to Honor Oscar Wilde with New Art Project

Featuring 30 artists, the work will explore themes of imprisonment and separation in both Victorian literature and contemporary art

Featuring 30 artists, the work will explore themes of imprisonment and separation in both Victorian literature and contemporary art

Text: Grace Walker

As one of Britain’s literary heroes, Oscar Wilde was a multi layered, complicated character. His works delve into the unconventional romantic indulgences of the late 19th century—unlawful homosexual attraction being one of his primal driving forces. His most notable novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was received with such social outrage that he was incarcerated in 1895 for “indecency.” The resultant years spent locked away in prison swallowed the writer into a dismal void of loneliness, confusion and rejection. For the first time this fall, an exhibition will revisit Reading Prison, the confined space Wilde reluctantly called home following his arrest.

Brought together by Artangel, a London based art agency, the semi-exhibition will use the raw setting of Wilde’s imprisonment to propel wider feelings of exclusion, aptly named Inside—Artists and Writers in Reading Prison. For the writer, the prison was not exclusively a site of unjust treatment, but also a source of inspiration. His time there saw the genesis of some of his last great works: De Profundis, an epic love letter written from his prison cell to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, and the famous Ballad of Reading Gaol, which he composed shortly after his release.

Ai Weiwei self-portrait taken for V91, September 2014.

In addition to the peeling of Wilde’s psychology, the exhibition will house works by an eclectic array of current artists who, like the writer, aim to portray separation. Ai Weiwei will pen a prison piece outlining his personal experience in confinement, with works by Jeanette Winterson, Deborah Levy and Anne Carson also on display. What’s more, a host of celebrated artists, writers, actors, and performers—including Patti Smith, Ragnar Kjartansson, Neil Bartlett, Ralph Fiennes, Kathryn Hunter, Maxine Peake, Colm Tóibín, and Ben Whishaw— will also be involved in the project. Every Sunday of September and October, they will pay tribute to Wilde by reading the entirety of De Profundis in the prison chapel.

Speaking of the exhibition’s span, Artangel co-directors James Lingwood and Michael Morris explained, “We are excited to be opening up Reading Prison with such a remarkable range of artists, writers, and performers responding to the imposing Victorian architecture and the continuing resonance of De Profundis, written by Wilde in his cell as Prisoner C.3.3.” They further mentioned the project “will offer the public an opportunity to reflect, in a particularly powerful place, on the implications for the individual when separated from society by the state.”

So, while honoring Wilde and his literature on a historical basis, the exhibition promises to offer a probing analysis on the themes of separation and social exclusion on a more contemporary level. The unique project, Inside—Artists and Writers in Reading Prison will be open to the public from September 4, and will conclude October 30 2016.

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