Wednesday, September 17, 2008

David Maisel: Library of Dust

A friend of Anu and I, David Maisel, has a great show up at Haines Gallery, San Francisco . The series is called Library of Dust, and there is also a book available from Chronicle Books.

This amazing photo series reflects upon death, material nature, and the ongoing dichotomy between forgetting and remembrance through images of copper canisters containing the cremains of mentally ill patients of the Oregon State Mental Hospital whose remains went unclaimed after their deaths.

Over 5000 such canisters exist, dating back as far as 1913. Exposure to the elements, and chemical interaction with their contents, has caused a number of the canisters to corrode in often very aesthetically pleasing ways. The corrosion not only reflects the decay and demise of the former person resting within, but reminds the viewer of the relationship between ourselves and the material chemistry of nature.

The patterns that emerge on these canisters are intriguing natural shapes, which often hint at one of Maisel's other major bodies of work: aerial photographs. The corrosion on these canisters exhibits similar geometries to the earth, whether it be a natural coastal formation, or a strip-mined pit. Comparative aesthetics helps link the canisters to Maisel's prior works, and to the larger relationship between humanity and the natural world.

Simply taken at face value, the photos are stunning and evocative. Anyone with an interest in materials will be instantly enthralled. However, once you discover the contents and history of these canisters, the work takes on whole new dimensions of meaning -- making this a wholly successful project at every level of artistic practice. All of Maisel's work is excellent, but for me Library of Dust is a marquee series that evokes a litany of both personal and political philosophical musings, but which also succeeds simply as technically and aesthetically masterful photography.

If you get a chance to see the work in-person, I highly recommend doing so. Otherwise, or in addition to doing so, I also highly recommend the beautifully produced book of the series.