David Maisel’s large-scale photographs display copper canisters that hold the ashes of psychiatric hospital patients. The Oregon State Hospital, in Salem, inaugurated as the Oregon State Insane Asylum in 1883, stored the remains of over 5000 people in canisters in an underground vault in the mid-1970s. The vault flooded repeatedly, and the canisters—some containing unclaimed remains more than a 100 years old—underwent spectacular processes of deterioration.
Maisel writes: “The copper canisters have a handmade quality; they are at turns burnished or dull; corrosion blooms wildly from the leaden seams and across the surfaces of many of the cans. Numbers are stamped into each lid; the lowest number is 01, and the highest is 5,118. 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.” David Maisel’s Library of Dust is the subject of a large-scaled monograph released by Chronicle Books in 2008.
All images are by David Maisel, courtesy Von Lintel Gallery.