Banksy’s Prisoner Turns on the Spotlight on the Fair Distribution and Access to the Arts.
A mural of an escaping prisoner appeared on the walls of the disused Reading Jail in Berkshire, England, on Monday. The work, which emerged on the red brick wall of the former Reading Prison that once housed Oscar Wilde, was officially claimed by Banksy on Thursday with a clip posted on his website and official Instagram profile. The latest British artist performance appears to be a support effort to save the listed building.
The video from Banksy's Instagram page
The work shows an inmate dressed in a stripey black and white outfit lowering himself down the wall using a long sheet of paper (mimicking the tied bedsheets method) weighted by a typewriter. The appearance of the mural was complemented by a clip (Create Escape) that showed the piece being created under the cover of darkness and Banksy spraying paint onto the wall. In Create Escape the clip, Banksy's night work is guided by a voiceover borrowed from an episode of the television show The Joy of Painting, hosted by American artist Bob Ross. The much-loved instructional painting program, which originally aired in the late 1980s and early 90s, showed the artist creating a new oil painting in every episode, explaining each step in serene dulcet tones.
Reading Prison housed Irish writer Oscar Wilde between 1895 and 1897 and was immortalized by his poem ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’, which displayed the brutality of the Victorian penal system. The poet was sent to jail after being convicted of gross indecency for having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde’s time inside inspired the poem, written in exile after his release. The Grade II listed building, closed in 2013, has since been used as a film set for TV shows such as Killing Eve, as well as the venue for a major exhibition by the art commissioning organization Artangel in 2016. The show “Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison”, was inspired by the jail’s most famous inmate and included works by artists like Steve McQueen, Marlene Dumas, Nan Goldin, and Ai Weiwei. There were also readings of Wilde’s De Produndis letter, written to his lover Alfred “Bosie” Douglas while he was incarcerated, by cultural figures such as singer Patti Smith and actor Ben Whishaw. The prison building is currently owned by the Ministry of Justice and was put up for sale in 2019. Later that year, a campaign was started to save it from being sold to property developers. The artist's support efforts to save the listed building are presumably part of a campaign to turn the site into an arts complex, which has received backing from Hollywood actors Sir Kenneth Branagh, Natalie
Dormer, Dame Judi Dench, and more. (Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash)
The media coverage due to the appearance of the work was followed by an official statement from the prison spokesperson. Matt Rodda, MP for Reading East said, "I hope that it can be preserved and that this part of the wall will become an attraction in its own right, as part of the gaol becoming an arts and heritage hub”. We know that Banksy has long brought attention to global and local matters when it comes to fair distribution in terms of access to the arts. Banksy’s Christmas Miracle from 2019, which exposes the homeless problems with a sensitive and far-seeing work, and the artist's street work in Gaza, are just some of the many examples of his sense of responsibility towards the communities to which he donates his works. Banksy’s artworks describe and expose the hypocrisy of modern society. This piece and all his work aspire to create an intense reaction of the viewer. His works are characterized by a peculiar moral sensitivity that can be enjoyed by everyone, a type of direct art that wants to amaze and provoke.