Thursday, February 11, 2010



"The subjects of Maisel's enormous new color photographs appear to be corroded tin cans, shot against pitch-black backdrops and lit like precious objects. They are, in fact, copper cannisters containing the cremated remains of patients from an Oregon mental hospital; stored for years in a vault that flooded repeatedly, they’ve been transformed into strangely alluring pieces of found sculpture. The corrosion manifests itself as a multicolored crust that resembles slathered paint, but one can recalls views of the earth from outer space: swirls of turquoise and green under billowy white clouds. If Maisel wants us to be conscious of these objects as memorials, his dramatic treatment and grand scale push the work toward pure aesthetics and away from issues of life and death."

"The photographs in this acclaimed series depict strangely beautiful copper canisters, each containing the cremated remains of an individual patient from an Oregon psychiatric hospital. The canisters are blooming with colorful secondary minerals as the copper has oxidized and undergone physical and chemical transformations. Each pattern of corrosion is unique, some resembling otherworldly landscapes that recall Maisel's renowned aerial photography. Sublimely beautiful yet haunting, these enigmatic photographs can be seen as meditations on issues of matter and spirit.

In Library of Dust, Maisel investigates a zone bordered by ethics and aesthetics. The existence of some 3500 canisters of cremains was revealed by the Oregon State Hospital in Salem in 2005. Within the canisters were the remains of the patients who died at the hospital between 1883 – the year the facility opened, when it was called the Oregon State Insane Asylum – and the 1970s. Although the existence of the unclaimed canisters was not divulged for more than a century, they have continued to have a life of their own. Library of Dust offers a kind of resurrection of these individuals by giving them visual form once again. The hospital (also the site of the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) is now being rebuilt with funds that were allocated after the Library of Dust project brought the existence of the canisters to a wider audience."

DLK Collection
"While we often try to convince ourselves that seeing photography on our computer screens is an acceptable substitute for the first hand experience, once in a while a body of work comes along that systematically destroys this nice theory. David Maisel's Library of Dust first surfaced several years ago on the West coast, and we have since seen JPEG reproductions of the work in plenty of articles and reviews. But now that the work has finally reached New York, I can say that even though I was largely familiar with what I was going to see, I was wholly unprepared for the powerful effect these prints actually have in person." 

Read full review @ DLK Collection

Ashes to Art in Library of Dust

"Californian photographer David Maisel has spent years shooting the blighted landscapes around America's copper mines. No surprise, then, that in 2005 he was immediately intrigued when he read a small news item describing the efforts of the Oregon State Hospital to move the cremated remains of thousands of psychiatric patients who had died between 1913 and 1971. The article hardly suggested an art treasure — except to Maisel, who noticed that the remains were stored in copper canisters, which he guessed had probably turned to dazzling colors over the decades. 

So they had. In Maisel's new book Library of Dust, he shows dozens of the canisters in larger-than-life size, their turquoise, pink and gold colors so sumptuous they look more like oil paintings than photographs. On some of the canisters, white powdery corrosion oozes from cracks — the after-effects of regular flooding in their underground storeroom — creating geomorphic shapes in brilliant hues. The abstract beauty of the canisters is a jolting contrast to their grim origins. And to Maisel, that's the point. "It's about beauty and horror," he says. "It's a double-edged thing — seductive and disturbing."

Dust Collector
New York

"RARELY ARE CULTURAL EVENTS so fortuitously mirrored by their venues as Monday’s group reading in honor of Library of Dust, David Maisel’s recent book of photographs of psychedelically corroded copper canisters encasing the ashes of unclaimed Oregon lunatics. Inside the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts on Norfolk Street, formerly one of the oldest synagogues in New York, the images—hung on the cobalt-blue peeled-paint walls and projected on-screen behind the altarlike stage—seemed to have always been there, matching their surroundings in hue and vibe, twin testaments to the stubborn efflorescence of decay. Sponsored by the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU, the long, contemplative event applied layers of interpretation to the work as varied, inconsistent, and occasionally brilliant as the corrosion adorning the canisters. In tribute to the mental hospital’s nameless dead—whose identifying labels have been obscured by time—I will efface some of the thirteen participants.


After reading a quote from W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Maisel said the Library of Dust project was "about loss of memory—and its recovery." He rushed to document the cache of canisters after hearing of it in 2005, as the Oregon State Hospital (formerly known as the Oregon State Insane Asylum, also the place where Milos Forman shot One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) was shutting down and clearing its archives. The vibrantly colored corrosion was, he said, the result of trace minerals from the cremains that had seeped through the lead seams of the copper canisters after years of water damage. He called the radical transmutation an "alchemical equation," the canisters "clocks, asserting the possibility of the soul’s existence." Eerily, a faint computerized female voice (probably from the lectern laptop) could be heard intoning "Good evening, and welcome to..." several times as Maisel spoke. He appropriated the name of the project, he said, from a prisoner whose work crew was helping close down the hospital, who saw the bland, officelike room housing the canisters as "a library of dust."

Geoff Manaugh, who runs Bldgblog and contributed an essay to Maisel’s book, followed, comparing the project to William Blake's mystical cosmology, which was partially inspired by chemicals and elements the poet used to fashion copper printing plates. Next was novelist Jonathan Lethem, who read a short, fanciful piece called "The Ballad of Henry Anonymous, Actually an Octopus," that turned out to be stitched together from sentences by Emerson, child psychotherapist Adam Phillips, and several scientists."




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