May 12, 2021: A Reflection on the Solitary Garden by Zaarin Mizan

culpture of a solitary confinement cell, surrounded by a garden bed, sign says "Solitary Garden"
UC Santa Cruz Solitary Garden

Budding from Dualities of Space: A Reflection on the Solitary Garden by Zaarin Mizan 

gar·​den \gär-dᵊn\ (n): a plot of cultivation; hall for public entertainment
Middle English gardyn < Anglo-French gardyn, gardeyn, jardin < Old French jart, gart "garden" < Old Low Franconian garda- "enclosure, fence" < Germanic *garđa-, whence Old Saxon gard "garden, dwelling, world," Old High German gart "enclosure," Old English geard "fence, enclosure

During my last Spring Break of university, I drove up to Santa Cruz and San José to visit the Solitary Garden and Barring Freedom exhibitions. I walked up the still-familiar Oakes path, winding up the road past the music center and up to the Baskin Art Studios to see signs for the Solitary Garden. With each sign I had to pause, apparently adopting some imagined ritual process of entering. This  ceased the moment I saw, tipped on the ledge of the hill overlooking Monterey Bay, the high steel structure constructed of the stark angles and bars of a solitary confinement cell that was the door to Tim Young’s garden. 

I began by circling the garden blooming around the metal prison cell, keeping an eye out for the flowers and plants we had discussed in prior meetings, and ear out for the Spring cicadas. Stepping with some trepidation over the hollow linoleum floor, I caught notice of the view of the ocean through the gates and the deep blue and sparkling tints of the water. I remembered suggesting the gates be covered in vines, specifically the stinging nettle, as a way, not dissimilar to Aaron McIntosh’s Invasive Queer Kudzu project, to show the intervention between art, oppression, and histories of growth despite violence. But actually being in the space, I was able to see how translucent the gate was meant to be - how ephemeral they should feel. The bars were thin enough to almost see the ocean, with an emphasis on the fact that the view was still obstructed by the immovable steel. Few vines were growing on the edges of the frame, but I realized any intended growth would be a wanton obstruction, furthering the torture that is the prevention of full sight and immersion. 

I was asked by Rachel Nelson, director of the IAS, “What political or psychological work does it do when you attach ‘art’ to a garden?” The question, of course, brings up the question of “art” itself, but also had me considering the origins of gardens and gardening. The word garden originates from the notions of enclosure, order, and planning, to what we commonly associate as a space for cultivation and growth. Tim’s garden, surrounding a metallic rectangle set in the middle, felt nothing short. The cell acts as an enclosure within an enclosure, bound by the preplanned set of flowers and plants. And yet, it actively contests the realities of capture and freedom, where the languages of built structures, the soil and plants, and our individual selves are to reflect each other. Students and community members volunteer to water the garden. This space evocative of an institution meant to be closed off and isolated is not only made open, but sits at a vantage point above most of the university. 

Nietzche writes, “[w]e wish to see ourselves translated into stone and plants, we want to take walks in ourselves when we stroll around buildings and gardens.” (1) For the nineteenth-century philosopher, being “translated” onto an object familiar, yet wholly discernible and detachable from the self, allows for the idealized seeing of the self. However, maybe when a garden becomes an artwork, what can be seen is the self unidealized—and implicated into structures like prisons and mass incarceration. This is seeing doubled, enclosure within enclosure, until what comes into sight are the systems of oppressions—of dehumanizing torture— that we have constructed around us. This means that strolling in this garden is to see the self as both jailor and gardener. The question is can we plant the seeds through which the position of oppressor becomes the compost through which gardens of freedom can grow?

The confinement of space and isolation intertwine themselves to become a fallacy if we break that first barrier of imagination. We  simultaneously are thrown into the seeing of Tim’s place and ourselves rendered onto and with the ‘furniture,’ likened to the ‘stone’ and ‘plants’ comprising the cell. The spatial arrangement offers visitors the physical boundaries of his living - immediately confined, despite our ability to see and access the rest of the world.  We are able to sit as Tim sits, lie as Tim lies, pace as Tim paces, and yet disproportionately privilege from it a possibility of reification in a space that aims to disable and erase. If the idea of a prison cell can be transformed into art, then what makes the actual prison cell, if not a canvas to be renarrativized from the inside?

As we stand in the garden, we cannot lose consciousness of the fact that Tim designed, and continues to design, this garden in solitary confinement. We stand upon the fruits of his isolation, cultivated through the vicarious watering and viewing and creating that bridges us in friendship, ensuring that Tim’s name and innocence are not erased from the system. It is the negotiation of that confinement and the growth that we might begin to disidentify with ourselves. We can ask who or what else we can be within that space; if we can move to a new seeing of being the jailor, of being the person within the cell, we are actively dissenting from the prison-industrial spectacle.

1. “One day, and probably soon… The language of spoken by these buildings is far too rhetorical and unfree, reminding us that they are houses of god and ostentatious monuments of some supramundane intercourse; we who are godless could not think our thoughts in such surroundings. We wish to see ourselves translated into stone and plants, we want to take walks in ourselves when we stroll around these buildings and gardens.”  Nietschze, Friedrich, “Architecture for the Search for Knowledge,” The Gay Science (1968).