Alistair Penobscot (1958-1995). American. Born Ronald Felten in Columbus, Ohio, Penobscot had his name legally changed in 1971 while a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. He was best known as a conceptual and installment artist, whose artistic “pranks” were celebrated through much of the art world for the first half of the 1980s. His most regarded, most written-about work, Geronimo’s Savannah (1979), comprised a family of three live giraffes, which he released into the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Southwestern Oklahoma.
Amongst Penobscot’s papers after his death were found a handful of receipts and a shipping manifest, that seem to indicate that the giraffes were originally purchased from the Lower-Midlands Ranch in south Texas, which at the time specialized in providing wealthy American trophy hunters an “authentic safari experience.” At the ranch, hunters could purchase licenses to shoot and kill an ibex, water buffalo, lion and any and all manner of exotic beast, and its clientele is supposed to have included actors, corporate heads and at least two American Vice-Presidents. The adult male and female giraffes were originally obtained by the ranch when a local circus troupe went bankrupt, and the juvenile male was born in captivity soon thereafter.
Though the details are few, most scholars of his work believe that Penobscot acquired an open-top boxcar from a defunct carnival out of Tallahassee (though some argue Panama City), for transport of the animals, which appears on the shipping manifest as misc bxcr/misc lvstck, but which disappears through a series of transfers between the ranch and its final destination—Penobscot had apparently taken care to cover his tracks in the Byzantine north Texas shipping schedules of the time.
In all likelihood, the mysterious boxcar ended up in the stockyards of Indiahoma, Oklahoma, several miles from the southwestern edge of the Wildlife Refuge. It is unclear how, exactly, he was able to transport the giraffes from there to the refuge proper, however. Under the cover of darkness certainly, and it must be assumed that such an undertaking would have been impossible for him to accomplish without assistance of some kind, but as of this writing no one has come forward to admit having had a hand in the project. What is just as confounding perhaps, is the total lack of eyewitnesses to the transport. Surely, darkness or no, someone in one of the sleepy cattle towns between Indiahoma and the Wildlife Refuge, some solitary insomniac perhaps, would have looked out his window and seen the slow moving, jointed silhouettes of the giraffes as they were herded by, or would have glimpsed their long necks towering from the bed of an old truck, ducking their heads and extending their lips toward the starry sky, as if to kiss it, as they passed beneath a row of telephone lines. But, again, no one has come forward—and perhaps that insomniac witness does exist somewhere, but has convinced himself it was only a waking dream.
Jean-Pierre Geineux has written that, “Penobscot’s giraffes, set loose on the plains of the American Heartland, at once beautiful and discordant, are a shocking interrogation of the trusted semiotics of space—geographical space, temporal space and historical space. They encourage the viewer to look without comment, while simultaneously resisting certain comfortable gestures toward closure, typical to out-moded, overly-didactic strategies of interpretation.”
Once released, it didn’t take long for Park Rangers to capture Penobscot’s mature giraffes (three days for the male, four days for the female), but the juvenile eluded capture for some weeks, and was spotted by hikers and campers in every corner of the refuge, no matter how improbable: in woods and atop granite ridges, fording creeks or wading through a buffalo herd, drinking from the placid surfaces of man-made lakes just after dawn. It was only after the young giraffe had taken ill, the result of a diet consisting mostly of post oak leaves, whose waxy surface he was unable to pass completely through his gut, that he was finally captured and subsequently given over to a zoo in Kansas City. But for those few days, when the family was whole and roaming the Refuge, what a marvelous sight it must have been! The sun coming up over the granite hills, and loping out of the orange light, their shadows elongated and rocking side to side as they ran, like the masts of three ships bringing terrific or terrible news, this family of giraffes! Running, as nothing has ever run. You could not help but look on as they passed, awestruck, frozen in a state of sublime revelry, as these creatures which by any reckoning belonged elsewhere, materialized and passed by, the prairie before you a place of magic, a wondrous veldt where the dreams and nightmares of the past ran headlong and collided with what all that may have been possible in that present.
Alistair Penobscot died in 1995 in New York City’s East Village, where he had spent the last several years of his life sketching close to two thousand surrealist architectural designs, and working as an Assistant Manager in the classical music department at Tower Records.