Saturday, May 28, 2011

Library of Dust by David Maisel

Occasionally, I review non-fiction memoirs, but this is the first time I have written about a photographic book which tells nothing of the memories of its subjects, and little about their lives in general.

So, why is this a topic?

It is a story of lost lives; lost memories. It is part of life that is too often pushed aside and forgotten. It is a story that few wish to share, but everyone needs to face. For this reason, the story begs to be told so families will share the secrets hidden behind the doors, the forgotten family members.

Library of Dust by David Maisel, part 1

Dust: the deterioration of solid matter.
Dust to dust: the Biblical cycle of life.
The Library of Dust: canisters filled with dust, shelved as books, and hidden away for decades. Living dust that interacts with its vessel as if trying to escape…one last escape to freedom.
The Oregon State Hospital was established in 1883 in Salem to house mentally ill patients and the criminally insane. In 1913, the hospital’s cemetery made way for a new building, so the bodies were exhumed, cremated, and placed in copper canisters in an underground vault. This practice of cremation continued until 1971.

The hospital provided a “safe place” for relatives who no longer fit in the public’s world. It was a place for them to receive care; a place for them to be forgotten. This was a place for those individuals which time has tried to erase. But now their memory is brought back to the surface by one individual whose philosophy is to record “things that aren’t intended to be seen”*.

David Maisel, originally from New York City, but currently living in California, visited the State Hospital in 2005 and in 2009 to photograph various parts of the asylum, but especially the copper canisters which have been stored in an underground vault for decades, repeatedly flooded, and hidden from the world. When I first saw his work online, it was immediately clear that his background in design and structure transformed the misery of this institution into mesmerizing art.

Thousands of copper canisters that entombed cremated psychiatric inmates were exposed to continuous water damage resulting in an array of colors and patterns as the water corroded the copper shells. In his book Library of Dust (Chronicle Books, San Francisco), Mr. Maisel captures the eerie essence of the canisters, each one as individual as their human contents once were.

Maisel’s coffee-table-sized book contains four articles by noted scholars and fifty-four cremation canisters as well as many other photos highlighting various rooms of the hospital. These essays give us insight into the reasons so many colorful minerals corroded these canisters as well as our cultural views on death and cremation.

Geoff Manaugh, former senior editor at Dwell magazine, in his commentary “Mineral Kinship” states, “Indeed, the canisters have reacted with the human ashes held within.” He contends that “We, too, will alter, meld with the dust and metal; an efflorescence. This, then, is our family narrative, one not of loss but of reunion.”

The late Terry Toedtemeir, geologist, historian, and Portland (Oregon) Art Museum’s photography curator, in his contribution “The Soul Remains” discussed the various minerals appearing on the canisters and that although copper is known to be resistant to corrosion, multiple minerals have formed on these canisters presenting an array of colors. Toedtemeir states that “X-ray diffraction analysis has revealed that the particular corrosion product is a complex copper phosphate mineral known as sampleite,” a rare mineral found in arid regions, yet is appears on these water-logged canisters along with many other minerals. He further postulates that the make up of the water as well as the contents of the canisters could have affected the corrosion, but that this was a surprisingly short period of time for all these minerals to form.

Michael S. Roth, historian, curator and author, shares some background on the role of asylums in the United States and our cultural views of madness and death in “Graves of the Insane, Decorated,” a title taken from an 1886 Statesman Journal (Salem, Oregon) news article about decorating the State Hospital’s cemetery on Memorial Day.

David Maisel writes the last contribution, entitled The Library and Its Self-Contained Double, where he recalls his photographic visits to the hospital. In 2009, he returned to find that the hospital and ended his book with one more shot, the new library of dust. In effort to preserve the existing, unclaimed canisters, have placed them in individual black plastic vaults row upon row, each with a metal plate number, now appearing more like a huge library card catalog, or in the least more modern shelves on which to place those lives. Sadly, each copper canister is also encased in a plastic bag with a baggie tie, and Mr. Maisel reports that condensation is developing inside the bags.

There is something very sad that the natural elements of the physical body and the earth’s minerals are now encased in man’s unnatural creation, plastic, which can have the lifespan of up to 600 years … so much for dust to dust.

Part two in this series is the memories of a past inmate.

* "Strange beauty, transformation, secrets and loss" by Leah Ollamn, Los Angeles Times, Sunday, January 4, 2009, an interview with David Maisel.

Photos are the courtesy of Daivd Maisel.

Read and see more at Library of Dust

Emily, 28 May 2011

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