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11 AUGUST, 2011

Library of Dust: Reflections on Life Through the Unclaimed Dead

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Psychiatry’s ghosts, the poetry of the metaphysical, or what tree bark has to do with chemical corrosion.

I’m spending some time in Bulgaria this month, keeping my grandfather company as he wanes through the final stages of cancer. So death and mortality are on my mind a lot, underpinned by the inevitable question of what remains of us after we breathe our final breath. I was reminded of the work of photographer David Maisel, who explores the subject from an unusual, almost surreal angle in Library of Dust — an artful depiction of copper canisters containing the cremated remains of individual patients from the Oregon State Insane Asylum, a state-run psychiatric hospital, who died there between 1883 and the 1970s, their bodies never claimed by their families. Maisel photographed many of the 3,500 canisters with incredible detail, their multicolor blooming corrosion reminiscent of nature’s wonders like vibrant sunset skies or rich bedrock textures or the aurora borealis.

Among my concerns with Library of Dust are the crises of representation that derive from attempts to index or archive the evidence of trauma; the uncanny ability of objects to portray such trauma; and the revelatory possibilities inherent in images of such traumatic disturbances. While there are certainly physical and chemical explanations for the ways these canisters have transformed over time, the canisters also encourage us to consider what happens to our own bodies when we die, and to the souls that occupy them.” ~ David Maisel

Asylum 16, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, OR

Asylum 4, Lounge/Meeting Room, Ward 66, abandoned portion of J Building, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, OR

Asylum 2, Doctor's Office, Ward 66, abandoned portion of J Building, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, OR

A closer look at the canister details brings to mind Cedric Pollet’s incredible photos of tree bark:

Poignant, poetic and just the right amount of unsettling, Library of Dust is the kind of project that will give you pause as you find in its physical splendor an existential meditation on the metaphysical.

Images courtesy of David Maisel

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11 AUGUST, 2011

The Homosexuals: A CBS “Documentary” from 1967

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A vintage signpost for how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.

In 1967, CBS aired an episode of the network’s CBS Reports series exploring homosexuality, a topic so taboo and controversial at the time that it took three years in the making, several revisions and a change of two producers to finally air the program. Titled The Homosexuals, the hour-long broadcast was anchored by Mike Wallace, whom you may recall from his provocative conversation with Ayn Rand on morality and love as a business deal, and was the first American network documentary to ever explore the topic of homosexuality on national television. It featured interviews with a number of gay men from San Francisco, Philadelphia, Charlotte and New York, legal experts, cultural critics, priests and psychiatrists, as well as footage of young men interacting in a gay bar and a teenager being arrested during a police sting operation, complete with psychoanalysis that pegged it all on the inevitable domineering mother.

Particularly poignant is this short interview with a young man identified as “Warren Adkins,” who is in fact the prominent gay rights activist Jack Jichols, founder of the Mattachine Society:

The innermost aspects of a person’s personality is his sexual orientation, and I can’t imagine myself giving this up, and I don’t think most other people who are sure of their sexuality, whether they’re homosexuals or heterosexuals, can imagine giving that up either.”

When asked about the “cause” of his homosexuality and whether he dwells on it, Nichols responds with a kind of quiet bravery certainly far ahead of its time and in many ways still more evolved than the opinions of many on the subject even today:

I have thought about it, but it really doesn’t concern me very much. I never would imagine if I had blond hair that I would worry about what genes and what chromosomes caused my blond hair, or if I had brown eyes… My homosexuality to me is very much in the same category. I feel no more guilt about my homosexuality or about my sexual orientation than a person with blond hair or with dark skin or with light skin would feel about what they had.”

As part of the research for the broadcast, CBS conducted a survey that found 90% of Americans saw homosexuality as an illness and the vast majority favored legal punishment even for homosexual acts done in private between two consenting adults. But what’s most fascinating is that the segment portrays gay men — and, mind you, completely neglects gay women as part of the homosexual community — as inherently promiscuous, incapable of sustaining long-term monogamous relationships. And yet, even as we cringe at the general trauma and civil rights failures around the issue in 1967, here we are nearly half a century later, still debating gay marriage and questioning the rights of those men and women who do want to legally enact these loving long-term monogamous relationships. One has to wonder whether a documentary on today’s gay rights opponents would sound just as foreign and antiquated half a century from now.

But, hey, one thing we’ve made unabashed progress on is gay rights sign design.

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11 AUGUST, 2011

Tom Gauld’s Both: If Edward Gorey Did Contemporary Quirk-Comics

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What a morally outraged sweetcorn kernel has to do with some not-so-bright astronauts and Mexican wrestlers.

London-based cartoonist and artist Tom Gauld might just be the Edward Gorey of our time, channeling his wry humor and macabre aesthetic through exquisite black-and-white illustrations. In 2002, he collaborated with fellow RCA alum Simone Lia on Both — a lovely little book blending two previous volumes, unequivocally titled First and Second. It’s a quirky story about, well, a morally outraged sweetcorn kernel, some Mexican wrestlers, some astronauts, a rabbit, bread and bhagis, among other oddballs, who explore the bittersweetness of the world through offbeat vignettes and minimalist narratives full of sometimes subtle, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny humor.

Though the book is currently out of print, you can snag a used copy on Amazon for as little as $8 or try hunting it down at your favorite local offbeat bookstore.

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