Thursday, November 18, 2010

"Library of Dust": The art of the forgotten, rescued from an Oregon hospital

The Associated Press has reported that the Oregon State Hospital, once slated for demolition, will re-open next year after an extensive rebuilding program. As the article states, "The old crumbling hospital had toxic paint, asbestos and a leaky roof. Forty percent of it was unusable. In its place is a hospital designed to facilitate modern theories in mental health treatment, trying to mimic as much as possible daily life outside the institution."

Before its renovation the hospital also contained more than 3000 canisters which held cremated remains of patients. From poet C.A. Conrad comes a link to David Maisel's collection of these copper canisters, Library of Dust, which was mounted at San Francisco's Haines Gallery in 2008.

A book featuring Maisel's photographs of canisters found at the abandoned hospital (filming site of Milos Foreman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) is published by Chronicle Books. Conrad remarks, with the sweet irony that only all we the living can afford, "these people were so neglected, so hated for their conditions while living, but now people (can) flock from all over to see the urns of their remains."

From David Maisel's website: "Library of Dust depicts individual copper canisters, each containing the cremated remains of patients from a state-run psychiatric hospital. The patients died at the hospital between 1883 (the year the facility opened, when it was called the Oregon State Insane Asylum) and the 1970’s; their bodies have remained unclaimed by their families. The approximately 3,500 copper canisters have a handmade quality; they are at turns burnished or dull; corrosion blooms wildly from the leaden seams and across the surfaces of many of the cans.

Numbers are stamped into each lid; the lowest number is 01, and the highest is 5,118. The vestiges of paper labels with the names of the dead, the etching of the copper, and the intensely hued colors of the blooming minerals combine to individuate the canisters. These deformations sometimes evoke the celestial - the northern lights, the moons of some alien planet, or constellations in the night sky. Sublimely beautiful, yet disquieting, the enigmatic photographs in Library of Dust are meditations on issues of matter and spirit.

The room housing these canisters is an attempt for order, categorization, and rationality to be imposed upon randomness, chaos, and the irrational. The canisters, however, insistently and continually change their form over time; they are chemical and alchemical sites of transformation, both organic and mineralogical, living and dead. The Library of Dust describes this labyrinth, and in doing so, gives form to the forgotten."

Maisel, quoted here from a 2008 article at boingboing: “There are certainly physical and chemical explanations for the ways these canisters have transformed over time ... but perhaps the canisters also encourage us to consider what happens to our own bodies when we die, and what may happen to the souls that occupied our bodies. Matter, these canisters show, lives on when the body vanishes, even when it has been incinerated to ash by an institutional practice."

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