BLUE THROAT AND FIFTY ROSES
Alcatraz Island is one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco, it didn’t not surprise me when the tickets were sold out on May 6, 2015 just like any other days. At that moment I overheard a lady complaining on her phone, it seemed like her friend was not coming. I waited for her to hang up and bought the ticket immediately. That’s how I met with Mr. William G. Baker in person. In the souvenir store, he was signing a newly published memoir entitled as ALCATRAZ #1259. Among all the fancy replicas of objects, prints and T-shirts from this notorious prison, I feel lucky to run into one of the last living convicts. The artist book is inspired by a six-hour walk on that day and Mr. Baker’s amazingly detailed memory with a hue of bitter wit.
The traces of existence are both sharp-edged and fuzzy. Out of four hundred and eighty six photos, I slowly recognize the faces of the permanent residents on this island, as implied in the title: blue throat and fifty roses, and on the other hand the residue of temporary residents: people who once lived or served time here.
Alcatraz, nicknamed “The Rock”, though devoid of fresh water and surrounded by the salty bay, is actually a rich habitat for seabirds. Early May is the breeding time for cormorants. Note the blue throat pouches on the male cormorants, which are evolved to attract females. They would take a stroll along the banks, stand still facing the sea and the Golden Gate afar or sometimes look down lost in thoughts. Walking down the hillside, I was struck by the scene: numerous silhouettes with blue ties. The image resemble lingering ghosts who are serving time even after death or the gentlemen in New Year’s Party across the sea, back then, the sound of which would hit on the rocks then reflect to every cell.
In the 1920s, trees and shrubs are first cultivated by military prisoners in the beautification project. When the army left, the garden was adopted by Fred Reichel, the first warden’s secretary. The secretary first planted fifty roses and convinced the warden to allow prisoners to garden. For nine years, counterfeiter Elliott Michener worked in the garden with obsession, hauling garbage to enrich the soil and terracing the hillside. The flowering beds he planted gave other prisoners a welcome relief from the grim cell house on their daily walk to the Industries Building. The planting choices had been changing with the tastes of each era but nowadays, only plants with low maintenance survived while the ones requiring care and devotion were lost through forty years of neglect after the prison was closed in 1963.
Two days ago, my friend Guo Xi showed me an old issue of National Geographic (Sept. 1966), he found it in a donation-based store named Reuse Material for Creation in Los Angeles. As I turned the pages, the cut-up images and texts brought me into a reading experience among ruins. All the previous owners have cut away areas that they once needed, the leftovers made me think of the depth of images and how the logic of montage could be changing all the time as one thumbs the book. More importantly, I started to wonder, maybe Mr. Baker had experienced the same thing, as he wrote: “Prisoners were allowed to order a few magazines, like Life and Reader’s Digest. It was the librarian’s job to cut out any article that dealt with crime or prison riots or any other excitable material [...] Can you imagine censoring Reader’s Digest?” Therefore, I try to appropriate censorship as aesthetic form and edit a replica of National Geographic that collects the remains of Alcatraz: plants, seabirds and duplicated portraits of prisoners. Rather than illustrations, the cut-up images are silent witness surrounded by multichannel sounds composed of former convicts and guards’ descriptions of what they hear during the years in memoirs, interviews and fictions.
Diary on May 6, 2015
photography are generated randomly when turning the pages