B-Wing contemporary art at Shepton Mallet Prison

A GROUP of contemporary artists and makers have got together to stage B-Wing, installations and events in one of Somerset’s most notorious buildings, Shepton Mallet Prison, which was the UK’s oldest working prison until it closed in 2013. Co-ordinated by artists Fiona Campbell and Luminara Star, it will run from 21st September to 6th October, alongside the 25th anniversary Somerset Art Weeks.

“Welcome to this architecture of remorse. Here you will never stop climbing, one heavy step at a time, your feet no longer yours. See how the levels go up and up. See what an illusion sky is, behind the barred windows. See these broken ladders to the moon…” – extract by Rosie Jackson in response to Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons and Fiona Campbell’s work for B-Wing.

B-Wing is an Arts Council funded project set in the old prison’s B-Wing. It includes site-specific responsive artworks, poetry and performances will transform the space, reflecting its history, and confronting political and environmental issues. Luminara Star and Fiona Campbell have worked on the project with six other South West artists and writers.

Phil Gibby, the Arts Council area director for the South West, says: “Working with the community and non-arts organisations, this project helps to achieve our mission to make arts and culture more accessible to more people. This is a wonderful addition to the silver anniversary of Somerset Art Weeks and will showcase a rich variety of work coming out of the region, as well as reflecting the unique history and politics of the prison.”

The local community is involved through workshops, talks, readings and one-off special events. Whitstone School, home education and adult groups have taken part in workshops creating collaborative artworks to form part of the exhibition.

‘“B-Wing is full of history and memory, both of individuals, the town of Shepton and of the British penal system… these physical features will be amplified by imagination,” says artist Lou Baker.

Hidden behind its 75ft high walls, and inaccessible to the public until recently, this ancient prison has seen many dramatic and tragic events. Light through windows and bars casts dramatic shadows; strong acoustics conjure imaginings of its past. For visitors it will be an immersive, poignant experience.

There will be a special events day on 28th September, opened by John McCarthy, world-renowned writer and broadcaster, whose own intimate experience of captivity will give a real edge to the day. For five years John was held hostage in Lebanon during a long and vicious civil war.  For much of the time he was beaten, tortured and held in solitary confinement.  Often he was threatened with summary execution. The special events day will also include poetry reading, performance, artist talks.

On National Poetry Day (3rd October), award-winning writer Rosie Jackson, based in Frome, will lead a poetry performance, 18 poets in B-Wing, featuring female poets from across the South West.

Look out for participatory activities, such as wearable sculptures by Lou Baker; Alice Maddicott creating a portrait of atmosphere through a companion piece of text art and sound art in some cells alongside text and imagery by Geoff Dunlop.

B-Wing is on at Shepton Mallet Prison from 21st September to 6th October, open daily from 10am to 5pm. There is an entry chargee. For more information visit www.b-wing.weebly.com

Pictured: The B-Wing artists; cell in B Wing, photograph by Jason King; Lou Baker with one of her “performative knitting” sculptures, photograph by Scott Sandford; Regime 2, B-Wing, by Geoff Dunlop.