Biography: Unwritten, is a collection of numerous recycled and manipulated books whose titles consist of a person’s name, suggesting that the viewer is about to read a biography or memoir. However, the pages are not only empty, but they have also been glued or cemented shut. It is not until the final page of the book, the endpaper, that the viewer finds some printed words, some factual information – Convicted 1982; Sentenced to Death; Years Lost 22; Exonerated 2004. A simple phrase or incomplete sentence describing one of life’s seemingly ordinary moments – “Missed having a family” – can also be found here or on the book’s fore-edge, scratched into the binding cement like graffiti, as proof of a person’s existence. It is a milestone which has been missed or a moment which has been lost – “Forbidden to touch mother’s hand during visitation”, as was the case for Ryan Matthews who was arrested at age 17 and spent five years on death row before finally being exonerated. These are the empty biographies of innocent men and women who were incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. These men and women were exonerated after being imprisoned anywhere from four to 30 years; many having been on death row. The books tell the “unwritten” stories of people whose lives have not been lived, who upon release struggle to find a place for themselves in a world quite different from the one they left behind. These empty books mimic the fragile lives wasted and lost within a system, hardened or broken by prison life and denied of content.
Like The Menu, Biography: Unwritten also recalls our subtle emotional associations with cultural artifacts like bound books, and the ways we invest different types of books with meaning, be it personal (diaries), resourceful (menus or guidebooks), collective (literary or sacred texts), inspiring (biographies or poetry) or recordkeeping (logbooks and ledgers). For many in prison, books and the act of reading provide an outlet, an education, a legal resource, and a sense of hope. Wishing to emphasize the importance of books to those incarcerated, Biography: Unwritten will be created from used books from prison libraries, books which have been shared and read over and over by numerous inmates. Thin, torn, tattered, taped and re-taped. Their pages are falling apart and some are missing. These tired and worn books will become the sealed contents of the Biography: Unwritten books. The collection of lost stories presented in Biography: Unwritten subconsciously prompts us to consider the simple moments so often taken for granted. We reflect on our own lives and wonder how we would be without having had some of the most basic and simple experiences, as well as major milestones. Viewers will be encouraged to select a book from one of the shelves and to bear witness to its contents or lack thereof. While holding a book in their hands, viewers may consider their own lives and the preciousness of these missed moments which become even more profound in their absence. Some viewers find themselves identifying, at least momentarily, with the subject of the biography, imagining the experience of an innocence denied. This simple act momentarily compels us to identify with the helplessness of the wrongfully convicted.