The history of Reading Prison is revealed as you travel throughout the building, a strange situation in which time periods are simultaneous, contrasted between the ecclesiastical ‘cruciform’ architecture, and the brash, primary-coloured cell furniture – a memento from the prison’s last working moment in 2013. One is somewhat overwhelmed by the very human history of the prison, and the exploration of the human condition under the stresses of entrapment are realised in the potency of the artwork as the viewer traces the steps of prisoner’s throughout history.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ ‘Water’ (1995) aptly explores the seams between the past and the present, and the public and private spaces of prisoners. The blue beaded curtains adorn the doorways of the cells, where once a thick cell door would have stood, separating the domains of the public and the private, in an environment where the actions of the individual in the private were strictly controlled. Gonzalez-Torres debates these ideas of strict boundaries with his dazzling curtains which adorn the boundary – much like water, one can see a distorted view of the space behind the curtain, but only when pushing through to reach the cell space one feels the pressure of the beads against them, forcing one back as the tension of the piece wills them to do. An anxiety is apparent in the viewer when passing through to reach the other domain, and one assumes the experience of the prisoner being forced into the small cell space by the physical pressure of the beads against oneself, however, as the viewer, not the incarcerated, we experience the tension of entrapment through the comfortable luxury of a beaded curtain, meant as a piece of innovative interior design in the 1960s and 1970s to blur boundaries between rooms. One is consumed by the overwhelming experience of passing through the curtain, conscious of their own superficial luxury afforded by passing through a glamorously kitsch beaded curtain, instead of being forced through by the hand’s of a prison guard. Yet the deep feeling of apprehension is still felt, and the viewer becomes conscious of their luxury, situated in modern times with the amenity of rights afforded to them as a visitor to an exhibition rather than a prisoner forced to internment.
In addition, Wolfgang Tillmans also debates ideas of entrapment, and the affect on the human condition which often wavered in the face of loneliness. As the viewer initially walks into the ground floor of the prison complex, one is shown how the prisoners experienced life at Reading Gaol. They were unable to talk to one another, being forced to wear sacks over their heads in public areas to avoid any form of communication, instead the prisoners were to focus on repenting their sins and achieving forgiveness for their crimes from God. Wolfgang Tillmans debates these ideas of the fractured self caused by forced isolation in his ‘Separate System, Reading Prison’ (2016) works. As the only artist who created work specifically based around the subject of Reading Prison itself, Tillmans photographed himself in the left over mirrors of the prison, which left a fractured view of the self – completely separate from reality in his ghoulishly disfigured form. The photographs are dark and melancholic, a self is reflected upon, perhaps the purest self – the one without the knowledge or opinions of others, simply what one thinks of one’s self – particularly in the darkest of times and situations.
Artangel have focused on the story of Oscar Wilde in the presentation and publication of the show, naturally as he is the prison’s most famous inmate. Works by Marlene Dumas and Jean-Michel Pancin specifically concentrate on the experiences of Oscar Wilde, both in his life before prison, his experience inside and the repercussions of his activities after being incarcerated. And while his experience is essential to understanding the lack of justice and rights for homosexual persons in history, the very human history of the prison experience is told more explicitly in the intricacies of the building itself – each room features the real artwork of the prisoners in the form of graffiti, small drawings, gang insignia and dates documenting their time spent in the prison. The art enhances the viewers compassion for the terrifying experiences of the very troubled prisoners, forcing the viewer to take a different standpoint on ideas about prison reform, the treatment of inmates and the experiences of the marginalised in society; but the true tales of the marginalised and their time at the prison, no matter whether 100 years ago or 10 years ago is written explicitly all over the walls – the modern cave paintings of the underrepresented, frightened and marginalised.