Symposium for the artistic redemption of the tragically interred

April 13, 2009

Library of Dust 1454, by David Maisel

Library of Dust 1454, photograph by David Maisel

Library of Dust is a book of the dead. The copper canisters in David Maisel’s photographs contain the cremated remains of largely unknown patients from an Oregon state psychiatric hospital who were interred for nearly a century. To create a book that was fitting both artistically and humanistically was the complex task for the creative team, which included David and designer Bob Aufuldish,  and on the publisher’s side, myself as editor, Brooke Johnson as in-house design, Tera Killip on the enormous task of production for this 13 x 17″ tome, and Bridget Watson Payne as editorial support.

Given the literally morbid nature of the book, a common vision emerged of a book that would handle the subject sensitively, not sensationally. The text contributors—Geoff Manaugh, Michael Roth, Terry Toedtemeier, and David himself—explored the subject from poetic, historical, mineralogical, and artistic angles. David’s writing interrogates and illuminates his own work in a way that most artists cannot pull off and rarely dare to try: “The canister as unit and the systemization of order within the LIbrary was an attempt, perhaps, to make a boundary, to contain the unknowable. The surface blooms seem, however, to fundamentally challenge this imposition of a boundary. The interior has merged with the exterior but is not coincident to it.”

The book was released last year. On a sad note, however, contributor Terry Toedtemeier, a talented photographer and curator who had just shown this work at the Portland Museum, had a sudden heart attack in December and died (there is a moving obituary here). David’s work fosters metaphors about death, individuality, the possibility of afterlife, and transcendence, but upon hearing of Terry’s death the metaphorical levels I had been operating on seemed to suddenly cede to a tragic reality. Though I allow that maybe the opposite is true: we cannot really deal with concepts of death without these metaphors. Most people who are moved by this work relate it to difficult personal experiences and family histories they usually keep to themselves. These pictures of silent yet expressive canisters give voice to people who in some important way are no longer with us.

Library of Dust 1834

Library of Dust 1834, photograph by David Maisel

Tonight there is a free, public symposium at the Orensanz Foundation in New York. An amazing array of writers, photographers, artists, historians, and other thinkers will be responding to the meaning of the book: Ulrich Baer, Rachel Cohen, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Karen Lang, Jonathan Lethem, David Maisel, Geoff Manaugh, Ted Mooney, Bill Morrison, Joel Meyerowitz, Gilles Peress, Michael Roth, Luc Sante, Vijay Seshadri & Lawrence Weschler. It will be a fitting tribute to the work and those who directly or indirectly helped make the book happen.


One comment

  1. Every time I view this work, I find something new in it to contemplate. Lately it’s made me think about redemption and the afterlife, though a very different kind that promoted in Christianity. Looking forward to hearing what others have found in their explorations tonight.

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