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“Library of Dust”

2009 April 28
by Michelle Bennett

Today in film class we discussed permanence or mortality of images, and the discussion led to a place that I think is pertinent to our discussion of death from yesterday. The professor showed us this website.
David Maisel is a photographer whose latest project involved going to an abandoned mental hospital in Oregon (the one where One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed) and taking photos. He found a room that he calls, “a library of dust.” In it were thousands of copper canisters containing the ashes of cremated patients that had never been claimed by friends or relatives. Over time (the facility has been abandoned since the 70’s) the copper canisters began to oxidize, and the result is quite beautiful:

This got me thinking about representation after death, related to what we were talking about yesterday. These canisters, whose labels have mostly disintegrated, confine these deceased patients in anonymity, but the time elapsed and subsequent decay has given each can a unique appearance, an individuality. The fact that these images now exist on the internet adds another layer to the image’s existence. As Dianna Xu pointed out last week, once we put something on the internet, it’s there forever. Versus perhaps a reel of film, which will bubble and decay over time, much like these copper cans. This relation between David Maisel’s work and the permanence of representation has got me thinking in circles. But take a look at the website, if for no other reason than to appreciate the beauty of decay!

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