On Saturday I visited ‘Inside: Artists and Writers in Prison‘, an exhibition cum art installation in Reading Gaol. Curated by Artangel it features the work of contemporary artists and writers. Some of them have experienced prison themselves, either as detainees- such as the Chinese artists and activist, Ai Weiwei,who was held without formal charge for 81 days – or as the children of prisoners, as in the case of novelist Gillian Slovo whose parents were frequently arrested for their involvement in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
Wilde in Gaol
What first brought the exhibition to my attention was that it includes the cell of Oscar Wilde, who famously spent two years of his life in Reading Gaol. From 1895 to 1897 he served a sentence of hard labour, following a conviction of ‘indecent conduct’ with other men. Wilde’s case is well known, not least because the furore around his trial prompted the first public debates about homosexuality in England. But the shockwaves caused by his arrest, sentencing, and untimely death in 1900 – Wilde’s health never recovered from the physical toll of his sentence – are somewhat less well documented.
In my work on the Berlin-based Jewish sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, I frequently found references to Wilde’s trial, which typically focused on legal issues. Hirschfeld, who had relationships with men and publicly campaigned for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, cited Wilde’s fate as an example of the cruelty of a law that condemned men simply on grounds of their sexuality. In one account, however, he mentioned how he once encountered a group of young male students who had decided to remember Wilde by symbolically pinning his prisoner number to their shirts and reciting his ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ together.
Hirschfeld’s encounter with these students reveals the emotional cost of Wilde’s persecution on men who identified with him. But it also demonstrates resistance in the face of attack, and the importance of literature and the arts in gathering collective strength. ‘Inside’ presents readings of ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ each Sunday. Unlike the private gathering observed by Hirschfeld, they are public performances, featuring famous figures from across the arts whose connections to Wilde emphasise cultural, rather than necessarily queer allegiances across time.
The exhibition’s engagement with the impact of homosexual persecution specifically, in contrast, is both overt and more subtle. It includes an appearance by Hirschfeld, who in 1919 played a supporting role in the silent movie Anders als die Andern [Different from the Others]. Directed by Richard Oswald and released in mainstream German cinemas, the film is sometimes described as ‘the first homosexual movie’ because of its sympathetic portrayal of the plight of a pianist who ends up taking his own life when, after suffering attacks first of a blackmailer and then the law, it becomes clear that he would not be able to live freely as a homosexual man.
‘Inside’ shows the movie on a television screen in one of the cells in A Block, a part of the prison that had housed, amongst others, prisoners condemned to death. In the exhibition, many of the cells here focus on homosexuality including, for instance Marlene Dumas’ portrait of Wilde next to a photograph of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, and Nan Godin’s responses to Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, a film inspired by Genet’s own time in prison, which explores tough but tender male same-sex eroticism in a carceral context
Within this context, just as at the time of its production, Anders als die Andern serves an instructive function: it shows how the life of an decent, cultured man could be made unlivable simply because he desired other men. However, showing the film alongside Dumas’ and Godin’s work – which in different ways engages with base notes of sexual obsession including in relation to the lives of petty criminals and social outcasts – problematises such an idealised image of homosexual victimhood. It brings into view that people who make (it into) history are mostly those with certain privileges, education included.
Of course we should remember them. But we must also remain alert to the gaps in our knowledge about past lives, gaps that reflect long histories of social, racial and gender injustice and erasure.
Who is WoodFord of Soton?
The graffiti surrounding the television screening Anders als die Andern serves as a reminder that the lives of most of the men who spent their time in this cell are unknown. Who, for example, is WoodFord of Soton, whose handwriting remains inked onto the prison wall? Who are Saz & Gee, their names linked together by the swirl of the ampersand?
Unlike Wilde – or even the fictional pianist whose story is told in the film – the historical imprint of most of the inmates of Reading Gaol does not go deeper than the thin layer of ink graffitied onto their prison cells. Indeed, in the case of the nineteenth-century women inmates whose existence is documented in a collection of prison mugshots displayed in B Wing, even such superficial evidence of their own words has long been erased by the coats of cheap white paint that now cover the prison walls.
Perhaps it is this knowledge that gives A Wing a particularly haunting quality. Erasure in the form of death features prominently here via an installation by Doris Salcedo of cell-sized, upturned tables memorialising the anonymous men executed in the prison. The tables grow fragile leaves of grass, a feature reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s 1855 collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass. Much revised throughout his life, Whitman’s poems are an affirmation of democracy, (homoerotic) pleasure and male friendship. They became hugely influential in the emerging homosexual subcultures of the later nineteenth-century including Wilde’s circles.Yet the leaves of grass we find ‘Inside’ are no hopeful allusions to natural beauty and a book of life whose pages are yet to be filled. They are reminders of the dead whose life has been extinguished in Reading Gaol, and of those whose lives have vanished into obscurity. It is their lives, as much as the lives of Wilde and other famous prison inmates around world, that continue to raise questions about the role of prisons in society.
‘Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Gaol’ is open until 4 December 2016.