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Ai Weiwei and Oscar-Winning Director Transform Oscar Wilde’s Former Prison into Art Exhibition

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UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1800: Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde 1854 1900 Irish novelist playwright freemason wit Photograph by Napoleon Sarony (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
(Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

 

In 1895, the celebrated writer Oscar Wilde started a two-year hard labor prison sentence for homosexuality at Reading Jail in England. It was a brutal fall for a man who earlier that year witnessed the first productions of his plays An Ideal Husband and his magnum opus The Importance of Being Earnest. Upon his release in 1897, Wilde went into exile in France. Bankrupt and essentially broken, the playwright died in Paris in 1900 at the age of 46.

Now Artangel — whose mission is to produce art that “wouldn’t be possible within the confines of a gallery” — is revisiting Reading through the exhibit “Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison.” Participants include Ai Weiwei and Steve McQueen (the Oscar-winning director of 12 Years a Slave, as well as a celebrated artist).

READING, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 01: A picture of Oscar Wilde hangs inside a cell inside the former Reading prison building on September 1, 2016 in Reading, England. The former Reading Prison has opened to the public for the first time, inviting artists and writers in to take part in a new project by Artangel, with works by leading artists including Marlene Dumas, Robert Gober, Nan Goldin, Steve McQueen, and Ai Weiwei. The exhibition opens to the public from September 4, 2016. Included in the exhibit is former inmate Oscar Wildes original wooden cell door, which is on display in the prison chapel. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
A picture of Oscar Wilde hangs inside a cell inside the former Reading prison building on September 1, 2016 in Reading, England. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
An assistant stands on an artwork by French artist Jean-Michel Pancin which replicates by way of the original door and exact dimensions the prison cell of author Oscar Wilde when he was incarcerated in Reading prison during an exhibition at the prison on September 1, 2016. Reading Prison will open to the public for a major new project in which leading artists, performers and writers respond to the work of the prison's most famous inmate Oscar Wilde. / AFP / JUSTIN TALLIS / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION - TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
(Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)
Copies of books by author Oscar Wilde sit on a shelf in a cell at Reading prison during an exhibition at the prison on September 1, 2016 in Reading. Reading Prison will open to the public for a major new project in which leading artists, performers and writers respond to the work of the prison's most famous inmate Oscar Wilde. / AFP / JUSTIN TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
(Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)
Visitors look at the prison cell of author Oscar Wilde at Reading prison during an exhibition at the prison on September 1, 2016 in Reading. Reading Prison will open to the public for a major new project in which leading artists, performers and writers respond to the work of the prison's most famous inmate Oscar Wilde. / AFP / JUSTIN TALLIS (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
(Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images)

 

“Inside” has already drawn strong acclaim, including The Guardian‘s four-star review that said you feel yourself being drawn into an “inaccessible world of wonder and awful things.” The exhibition runs until October 30. For more information on visiting and to get tickets, click here.

Below, watch Neil Bartlett read De Profundis, Wilde’s epic letter that inevitably led to his incarceration, at Reading as part of the exhibition. Wilde wrote De Profundis for his lover “Bosie,” Lord Alfred Douglas, who encouraged Wilde to sue Bosie’s father for slander, which triggered the legal proceedings that imprisoned Wilde.