Thursday, March 11, 2010

DAVID MAISEL | LIBRARY OF DUST 'Design Observer' review

"From 1913 to 1971 five thousand one hundred and twenty one mentally ill patients were cremated on the grounds of the Oregon State Hospital. Their remains were sealed in copper canisters. The canisters were stored in the hospital’s basement until the 1970s when they were moved to a memorial vault underground. The vault was subjected to periodic floods. In 2000 they were removed from their institutional crypt, placed on plain pine shelves in a storeroom, and were left virtually forgotten until David Masiel heard of their existence and photographed them.

What struck me when I first saw Masiel’s photographs at the Von Lintel Gallery was their wild, unholy color. It was as if the canisters were in bloom: ablaze with cadmium and magenta, azure and sunburst yellow, desert ochre and emerald green. Some had foamy white rivulets that slipped across the coppery sheen or bubbled outwards like lava. The colors of the canisters were so intensely vibrant as not to seem real. 


Standing in front of these large-scale photographs, as I became accustomed to the visual impact of their astonishing color, the meaning of these images grew. Each canister held the remains of a human body, an unknown person who had been labeled mentally ill, who had been locked away in an asylum, and who after death had been left unclaimed for years, stacked on a shelf. These canisters held significance far greater than simply being beautiful objects.


If all this seems grim, take a look at the canisters again. Their swirl and surge of color reminds me of nothing less than the spectacular images taken through NASA’s Spitzer telescope: the visual identity of the canisters miraculously mirrors that of the universe itself. And yet each rivulet and blossom of color are as distinctive and as personal as the human remains held within. It’s as if the mysterious something that leaves the body at the moment of death, often called the soul, is trying to escape. What's left is evidence of extraordinary beauty."

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