Text size
Text Print Share Email
5
Jun 18, 2009

David Maisel’s photographs of decaying urns give new form to long-forgotten lives.

By Lindsey Schneider

There is something happening in an old, decrepit insane asylum. It is a space that has played host to serial killers, neurotic writers and countless other patients since it first opened in 1883. It even served as the set for Milos Forman’s 1975 classic film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Today, the unused wards are filled with debris—a scattered deck of cards, a damp book and rusty pieces of metal—and the paint is peeling off the walls. The decaying corridors recall the long-forgotten residents, many of whom died in the hospital. Until the 1970s, the unclaimed remains were cremated and placed in copper canisters. In 2000, they were all removed from a leaky underground vault and relegated to an unnamed room lined with pine shelves.

“Each urn wears its own distinctive pattern of wear and decay,” Leah Ollman wrote of the canisters in the Los Angeles Times. “A white crystalline crust branches across one can’s rim like coral or a salt deposit. An aqua scar draws down the seam of another. What looks like violent decay is also generative change; each canister is a formal, ethical and mineralogical Rorshach.”

David Maisel, who calls himself a photo-archeo-archivist, was fascinated by the canisters and their stories. While he was setting up his first image in the canister-lined room, a prisoner from the local penitentiary who was cleaning up the corridor leaned across the threshold. Under his breath, the inmate said “library of dust,” and Maisel’s project had gained a name and a conceptual structure.

Each of the 3,500 makeshift urns left on the shelves has a number stamped into its lid—running discontinuously from 01 to 5,118. Arranged in rows five deep, some of the canisters are surprisingly dense and heavy, while others are seemingly empty. Most of the labels on the jars identifying the deceased have disappeared or eroded, leaving the cremains (as they are called by the hospital staff) unidentifiable and anonymous.

The photographs in The Library of Dust have been shot almost as if they were portraits of the individuals interred in the canisters, as what Maisel labels “a mineralogical portrait of the human within.” To push this idea, Maisel has decided to print them at the size of the human body and also in 14 x 11 inch grids of 25, to “suggest the many.”

Early on, Maisel realized that his images reminded him of the first photographs sent back from space—“the greens and blues of planet Earth, this sort of fragile orb, set against the black of the cosmos.”

At a recent event to celebrate Maisel’s oversized monograph at the Angel Orensanz Foundation (itself housed in a decaying synagogue in New York City) hosted by the New York Institute for the Humanities, Ulrich Baer, a professor of German literature at New York University, echoed this idea. He said that “on the outside, they look like the whole world.” The swirling colors, he continued, resemble whole atmospheres and features of landscapes, like “planets trapped in a room.”

Geoff Manaugh, the writer behind BLDGBLOG who contributed an essay to Maisel’s monograph, believes that the photographs point to how becoming dust is akin to returning to a state of grace. “It’s almost as if by becoming dust you’re performing a very complicated form of homecoming. You’ve almost been welcomed back into the universe.”

 

AN AWFUL BEAUTY

The recipient of an individual artist’s grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a visiting scholar the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, Maisel has exhibited his photographs around the world. He has three monographs to his credit, and each one plays with the fragile line between the exquisite and the decomposed.

“There’s this notion that beauty has to be shallow, but beauty doesn’t have to be shallow. It can be very forceful, in can be incendiary, it can make you cringe,” Maisel attests. “In a way, beauty has the capacity to make you focus.”

It is a strategy toward aesthetics that Maisel has been working with throughout his photographic career. “We’re looking at these infinite worlds that get expressed either through these vast tracts of land that have undergone some sort of intense environmental damage or shift or process,” he says of his previous projects. “And these canisters, which are about seven inches tall, have also undergone these kinds of chemical weathering that permit them to unfold in time.”

 

SAVING THE DEAD

Maisel’s project has inadvertently made him an advocate for the inmates whose remains he has photographed.

In collaboration with architect Brad Cloepfil, he is designing and building an on-site memorial that Maisel calls a “vanishing memorial.” The two hope that publicity will encourage relatives of the deceased to come and claim their ancestors from the memorial, and over time, the monument itself will gradually disappear. According to Maisel, one family, the Winterburns, already traced their genealogy to a forgotten patient of the hospital, and came to Oregon to claim a copper canister.

In addition, the president of Oregon’s senate, Peter Courtney, used Maisel’s images to lobby for $150 million to rebuild the hospital and add 800,000 square feet to the existing facilities.

The way Maisel sees it, The Library of Dust helps to lessen “the mantle of shame” that haunts these anonymous patients. “The fact that they were nameless,” he says, “speaks to the way we’ve treated the mentally ill in this country.”

And the continued transformation of these fragile canisters is a reminder that they are small souvenirs of what has silently gone before, and what has previously been hidden from sight. For Manaugh, uncovering the unseen is a fundamental aspect of Maisel’s photographs. “Dust rides the line between the microscopic and what the unaided human eye can see. It’s exactly at the vanishing point…just on the verge of representation.”

 

ABSTRACT EARTH

Before The Library of Dust, David Maisel photographed contaminated landscapes.

The Library of Dust series is slight a departure from his other projects, which have mostly focused on aerial shots of contaminated wastelands, deforestation, urban sprawl and North American mines. These earlier projects, which were taken from vertigo-inducing heights of about 13,000 feet, turn the toll humanity has enacted on the environment into pieces of land art.

In The Lake Project (2001–2002), arsenic, sulfur, chorine, iron and aluminum are seen leaching and dissolving into depleted bodies of water, and remain as stunning monuments to progress’s drawbacks. Deep pools of orange, purple and red gather within California’s Owens Valley, the previous site of a 200-square-mile lake that gave itself up between 1913 and 1926 to support the sprawling growth of Los Angeles.

Although the images resemble abstract paintings, these mineralogical processes are stark documents of the insidious side effects of our colonizing march across the landscape.

They are very similar to the project Maisel has been engaged in for years, called The Mining Project (1987–2007). These aerial photographs show the end result of mining in the American West, and the constant tension between beauty, progress and ruin.

Just like our relationship with the land itself, Maisel’s images both seduce and betray our aesthetic enjoyment like a perfectly staged train wreck. In this series, Maisel’s fascination with fluid dynamics and entropy also becomes apparent in the brightly hued chemicals that spread out erratically across the landscape.

From 2004 to 2006, Maisel also produced a series called Oblivion of black-and-white aerial shots of the urban phenomenon that is Los Angeles.

The photographer thinks of this project as a coda to The Lake Project, and certainly, the images he includes are far from the usual aerial shots of Los Angeles. The large-scale photographs were printed as negatives instead of positives, resembling X-rays of an alienating space.

Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG believes that these previous works, when coupled with The Library of Dust, attest to our ongoing fascination with decay. As he says, we live in “an era” of decay: “There’s an odd fascination with what’s going to happen when no one is taking care of it all anymore, after we’re not here.”


login or register to post a comment

I first heard of your project by way of the raido. G.P.B. they were doing a peice on you. I was moved and couldn’t wait to get to the site. You see I work with special needs children,who would of been amongst these souls. I can’t image the joy you have given these families and the peace these souls in waiting must feel. FREE!

christine pinnell
Sep 6, 2010

i was at the launch of the book in nyc and volunteer at an artist asylum part of a psychiatric center and know people who will die in same surrounding as the library of dust – dust to dust lost/found photos – and in listening to david read the letter from one of the family members it brought back home to me a sense that mental illness is both a gift and a curse especially the part in reading the letter about how the woman who was hospitalized was caring for others – and that most of the caring, healing and calming too i have noticed comes from the people inside themselves – for myself it is an honor to be around the people i have met and have learnt more about trust, friendship, honesty and genuine caring from them too – and maybe given our present systemic meltdown and failure of trust there is much we can learn about society, ourselves and building a society built on trust too rather then one built on fear/distrust – food for thought

geo geller
Sep 7, 2009

i was at the launch of the book in nyc and volunteer at an artist asylum part of a psychiatric center and know people who will die in same surrounding as the library of dust – dust to dust lost/found photos – and in listening to david read the letter from one of the family members it brought back home to me a sense that mental illness is both a gift and a curse especially the part in reading the letter about how the woman who was hospitalized was caring for others – and that most of the caring, healing and calming too i have noticed comes from the people inside themselves – for myself it is an honor to be around the people i have met and have learnt more about trust, friendship, honesty and genuine caring from them too – and maybe given our present systemic meltdown and failure of trust there is much we can learn about society, ourselves and building a society built on trust too rather then one built on fear/distrust – food for thought

geo geller
Sep 7, 2009

My first visit to the “magazine”, sent here by aphotoeditor.com The sound of fake pages turning is my first experience with your multimedia magazine. Fake pages turning. What are you thinking?

J Grahame
Jun 29, 2009

I am sorry, but I do not find this a compelling story. The woods are full of forgotten ossuaries, and that is what these cans represent. These people walked the earth, lived, and died, as do we all. It’s not like they were worthy of any special consideration, like Britney Spears or Johnny Depp!!

Louie Geiser
Jun 24, 2009