(All Photos By David Maisel.)
"Avoid the world, it's just a lot of dust and drag and means nothing in the end."-Jack Kerouac.
The crematorium, autopsy room, and hallways of an outbuilding at the Oregon State Hospital, formerly known as "The Insane Asylum," need to be cleaned. Not exactly a plum assignment. So a prisoner from a nearby penitentiary has been brought in for the job. He's perfect for it. He has no choice. But even the man in prison blues balks at entering one room. When its long-locked door is opened by a visiting photographer--fittingly one of those crazy artist types--the prisoner briefly peers inside but his feet remain firmly planted in the hallway. "The library of dust," murmurs the prisoner, shaking his head as he goes back to his cleaning.
This was David Maisel's introduction to the subject that has dominated his artistic photography since 2005. It is a library of a sort: a collection of materials arranged logically to make specific pieces easy to find. An attempt to impose order onto chaos. To rationally catalog what would otherwise be a random group of objects. In most libraries these objects are books, or manuscripts, or images. At the Oregon State Hospital the collection is numbered copper canisters, roughly 3,500 of them, stacked on pine shelves, each one holding the ashes of a cremated patient. The long dead, the long forgotten, whose last remains are uncared for and unclaimed. Like the prisoner said: "The Library of Dust."
Maisel became interested in photographing the thousands of copper canisters stored in the mental hospital's morgue when he learned of them in a 2004 article on the financial woes of the institution. The canisters had been kept under lock and key since 1913. He told the Los Angeles Times: "I was very interested in the notion that they were previously hidden away. Even without seeing them, their story was so charged. These were individuals who had been, for all intents and purposes, abandoned by their families, written out of their families' own histories." Maisel's own family had hidden the fact that his grandfather had undergone electroshock therapy to treat severe depression: "So I glimpsed the way these kind of histories disappear, not through any malicious intent but because we want to forget."
Also fascinating to Maisel was the effect of years of improper storage on the once identical containers. Due to corrosion from external heat and humidity, and seepage of internal contents, the copper vessels had mutated into objects of uniquely melancholy and macabre beauty. In a last gasp of the individuality denied them in life, the remains of each anonymous patient became a chemical monument. A singular pattern of shape, color, texture, and line created by the literal elements making up a particular person. Maisel has previously photographed areas of earth ravaged by mining, finding a haunting enchantment in the decimated terrain left after industrial pillaging. No surprise then that he found these forlorn human landscapes equally compelling.
The first solo exhibit of David Maisel's Library of Dust photographs will be held January 21 through February 27, 2010 at the Von Lintel Gallery in New York City. For those unable to visit the exhibit, the works can be viewed in a 2008 coffee table book, Library of Dust, published by Chronicle Books. The canisters themselves have now been placed in identical black boxes, one last attempt to make the messy remains uniform elements in a tidy plan. But no matter, they will always be what is left of a group of fringe dwellers, unique in a way appreciated by the author whose quotation began this piece, and whose words will also end it.
Previously on Book Patrol: The Library of Dust.