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Library of Dust: Reflections on Life Through the Unclaimed Dead

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

Published August 11, 2011




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