Art Angel Inside - Artists and Writers in Reading Prison
20 Sep 2016
It was only when death duties became punitive after World War II that the aristocracy opened up their family homes for public consumption, and the public lapped up this opportunity of seeing how the other half live.
Five decades on, we now exist in a time where TV and social media lays bare our lives, we are happy to discuss and display things that would have once been considered deeply private. As well as visiting country houses we now have our ever-more popular Open House Weekend.
From daybreak, there are queues outside other peoples dream homes, Government offices, and corporate buildings, places that we are not ordinarily allowed into. The publics’ appetite for, and interest in, the built environment seems to grow year on year, or perhaps it just demonstrates the innate nosiness of us all.
As young architects, we usually had to do our own measured surveys, and on occasion we did surveys of buildings just to earn fees. Inevitably the process fired the imagination. Who lived there? What did they do? It is human nature to enquire and perhaps to develop narratives around spaces that we visit.
Nowhere is this truer than the current Artangel installation at HMP Reading, infamously the place where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated and where he wrote De Profundis. It was this awful experience that inspired his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
It is, perhaps surprisingly, the first time that I have been inside a prison, an ambition I have been harboring since watching Porridge in my youth and walking the dog at Wormwood Scrubs later in life. The geometric plan of the Victorian Prison is a building type that we all understand from our history lessons, we can see it from outside but rarely have the opportunity of getting inside. If you share this view I urge you to go to Reading Gaol before this exhibition ends.
It is the Grade II listed Gilbert Scott building that is frankly the star of the Artangel show. The prison is arranged over three colour-coded levels with three wings, on the Panopticon Principle. The mid Victorian idea that individual criminals should have their own cells was radical, but of course cruel. Twenty-three hours solitary confinement, 1 hour in the Chapel or exercise yard, the Bible for company and a small, high level window with only a glimpse of Readings grey sky.
Visiting it is a chilling experience, with traces of the last occupants still there. Graffiti on the walls, blue tack and magazine fragments, stains and scuffs, the yellowed corners of the viewing panels on the doors where the warders fingers regularly flip them open to check the inmates. But oddly all locks have been removed.
The art is patchy, but Jean-Michel Pancin’s work in the chapel is standout. A cast concrete plinth that is the exact dimension of Wilde’s cell, (C.2.2 ), with his original prison door at the head. A suitable backdrop for the reading of De Profundis, but also a brilliant inversion of the idea of incarceration. Invisible walls focus our attention on the all seeing eye of the voyeurs’ peephole in the door.
Perhaps voyeurism is what Open House is partly about too?