13 April 2009

Library of Dust: Panel Tonight @ NYU

I really, really, wish I could go to this event at NYU tonight. David Maisel's Library of Dust is deeply moving and profoundly archaeological:

Library of Dust depicts individual copper canisters, each containing the cremated remains of patient from a state-run psychiatric hospital. The patients died at the hospital between 1883 (the year the facility opened, when it was called the Oregon State Insane Asylum) and the 1970’s; their bodies have remained unclaimed by their families.

The vestiges of paper labels with the names of the dead, the etching of the copper, and the intensely hued colors of the blooming minerals combine to individuate the canisters. These deformations sometimes evoke the celestial - the Northern Lights, the moons of some alien planet, or constellations in the night sky.

There are certainly physical and chemical explanations for the ways these canisters have transformed over time. Perhaps the canisters, however, also encourage us to consider what happens to our own bodies when we die, and, further, what may happen to our souls. Matter lives on when the body vanishes, even when it has been incinerated to ash by an institutional methodology. Is it possible that some form of spirit lives on as well?

Maisel's work meticulously documents material physical objects and the way time has transformed them. And he does it without rejecting their aesthetic and spiritual power, or their ability to tell us stories about who we are in this moment. To me, that's the essence of good archaeological practice.

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