Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

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

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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09 AUGUST, 2011

Radioactive Orchestra: Making Music from Nuclear Isotopes

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Getting excited about excited states, or what Marie Curie has to do with experimental music.

In 2011, the need to understand radioactivity glared at us with more urgency than ever, in the face of the Fukushima disaster and continued debates about nuclear energy. In May, we took a more playful and artistic look at the issue with Lisa Redniss’s Radioactive, the beautiful cyanotype-illustrated story of Marie Curie’s life and legacy, and today we turn to another cross-disciplinary illuminator: The Radioactive Orchestra — a project aiming to explain radioactivity through music by inviting you to compose tunes with 3,175 of the most interesting radioactive isotopes in an effort to glean new understanding of what radiation really is.

It works like this: Melodies are created by simulating the decay of an atomic nucleus from an excited nuclear state down to its ground state. A single gamma photon is released for every step of the energy loss and, by representing the energy of the photon as the pitch of a note, the photon plays a note each time this happens. For an added touch of synesthesia, this is also visualized by a colorful ray coming out of the atomic nucleus. Because every isotope has a unique set of possible excited states and decay patterns, it also has a unique sonic fingerprint.

It’s really exciting to do a project where we can listen to radiation. There has never really been a way to sense the radiation around us. You can neither see it nor hear it.”

The project comes from Swedish nuclear safety organization KSU and DJ Axel Boman, and is a fine addition to this running list of experimental music projects. (Besides, if you can play the HIV virus and the number pi, why shouldn’t you play an isotope or two?)

So go ahead, give it a whirl.

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