Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Library of Dust

In the late 1970's my amazing friend and soulmate Keith Bowden left North Carolina on a continent-crossing adventure. He landed for a few years in Salem, Oregon where he worked as a night attendant at a mental institution. He'd call me late at night and we'd talk about the people he had befriended there, the occasionally deplorable conditions, and the deep connection he had with the humanity of insanity.

Keith loved people. He "drank in" people, absorbing all about them into his own being. You could feel that when you were with him. I felt honored to be his friend and knew that the people who encountered him at the hospital were as fortunate.

Today I stumbled upon a photography project of a man named David Maisel. He was photographing the asylum where Keith worked. During the photo shoot, he discovered a great many copper cans of human ashes that had been stored at the asylum. He became fascinated with the aliveness of the decomposition of the canisters. He writes about it here:

The Library of Dust

What happens to our bodies when we die? Inside a dusty room in a decaying outbuilding on the grounds of a state-run psychiatric hospital are simple pine shelves lined three-deep with thousands of copper canisters. The canisters hold the cremated remains of mental patients who died at the hospital from 1883 (the year the hospital was opened, when it was known as the Oregon State Insane Asylum) to the 1970’s, and whose bodies remained unclaimed by their families. The copper canisters have a handmade quality; they are at turns burnished or dull; corrosion blooms wildly from the seams of many of the cans. Numbers are stamped into each lid; the lowest number is 01, and the highest is 5,118.

The intensely hued colors of the blooming minerals, the etching of the surface of the copper, the denting of the metal, and in some cases, the vestiges of paper labels with the names of the dead, all combine to individuate the canisters, and to imbue each with a remarkable singularity. Simultaneously, the etching, the mineral blooms and the deformations of the canisters evoke the celestial- the Northern Lights, the moons of some alien planet, or constellations in the night sky. Heavenly bodies are referenced in the surface of these containers of the dead and the forgotten. Surely there are physical and chemical reasons for the ways these canisters have transformed over time; but perhaps there are other interpretations which offer a more open-ended sense of what it means to live and to die in a secret place, forgotten or abandoned by one's family. Matter lives on even when the body vanishes, even when it has been destroyed by an institutionalized methodology of incinerating the body to ash and categorizing it by a number stamped into the lid of the ashes' metal housing. Does some form of spirit live on as well?

The project's title is "The Library of Dust". As I was setting up to photograph in a storage building that houses the cremated remains, prisoners from the local penitentiary were called in to clean up some of the mess in the adjacent hallway, crematorium, and autopsy room. A young male prisoner leaned into the room lined with the copper cans, scanned the room, and said in a low tone, "The library of dust.”

-David Maisel

Keith would have loved the "death into art" aspect of Maisel's work. Keith lived his life as art. He would have loved seeing the people whose ashes are in the canisters memorialized this way.

Here's to corrosion of conformity!


At 8:17 PM, Blogger diane said...

wow that is so deep. I remember seeing those photographs in photography school. Thanks for sharing this amazing story.


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