Dust Collector

New York
04.16.09

Left: Writer Luc Sante. Right: Photographer David Maisel. (Photos: Nick Hunt/Patrick McMullan)


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.

NYIH director Lawrence Weschler took the podium and gave a pocket history of the building—built by immigrants in 1885 who, “being good German Jews, based it on the Cologne Cathedral”—and then introduced Maisel, a compact, balding man of muted sprightliness. 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.

Left: Writer Jonathan Lethem. Right: Lawrence Weschler, director of the New York Institute of the Humanities. (Photos: Nick Hunt/Patrick McMullan)


Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, said he had known Maisel since he was a student, and recalled that the last institute event he’d attended was a 1980 Foucault seminar on the history of sexuality. Citing the philosopher’s Madness and Civilization, Roth asked, “How do we pay attention to crazy people?” and read a fragment of an 1886 Oregon newspaper article about children decorating the graves of the insane dead. Decasia auteur Bill Morrison then showed The Film of Her, a collage film culled from photographed celluloid reels from 1894 to 1912, an era when movies weren’t protected by copyright law but photos were, so film reels were photographed and printed on paper to secure authorial rights. Manic, grainy images of machines, factories, mills, nature, and a nude woman (the titular her) were underscored by Bill Frisell’s music and a voice-over narration by an old black man, telling how he saved the Library of Congress’s archive of photographed movies from this period from destruction. In theme and tone, a perfect complement to Maisel’s work and the highlight of the evening.

Doubt: A History author Jennifer Michael Hecht followed with a lively ramble comparing the colors and forms of Maisel’s aerial photos of mined and polluted landscapes to the corrosion on the “cans of crazy.” “When the mad hallucinate after death,” she said, “they produce maps—lands and seas.” Photojournalist Gilles Peress couldn’t attend due to a back injury, so his female partner lip-synced to a filmed close-up of a woman’s mouth reading his critique. Noting that the canister images were enlarged by Maisel, Peress condemned the “intrusion of design on meaning.” “We are here witness to death by design,” the disembodied photog said by proxy. Harsh. Very French. Also reminiscent of Dr. Brian O’Blivion in Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Luc Sante came next with a brief, piquant essay about the project, recalling how he first saw the images in a New York Times article and thought they resembled cans of mystery food in ghetto bodegas. Then they reminded him of bullets; then artists (Klimt, Kandinsky, Warhol’s soup cans “transformed into suppurating flesh”); then NASA photos of Earth from space. “Cosmic metaphors always become hollow,” he said, “but not in this case.”

Maisel returned to the stage and read an e-mail to him from a woman whose family had, on learning of the canister archive through Library of Dust, located their long-lost dead relative Ada, who had been abandoned to the hospital not for insanity but because she was an “inconvenience” to her parents. In forty years of residency at the Oregon State Hospital, she received no psychiatric treatment. The e-mail concluded by noting that when the family arrived at the hospital to collect Ada’s ashes, they saw that her canister had, in a final effacement, been buffed and polished, removing the colorful corrosion that expressed her identity. With that, an old man to my right fell off his chair, and this elegiac marathon came to an end.

Andrew Hultkrans