«Library of Dust
Among my concerns with Library of Dust are considerations of the crises of representation that derive from attempts to index or archive the evidence of trauma; the uncanny ability of objects to portray such trauma; and the revelatory possibilities inherent in images of such traumatic disturbances, however unstable and fragmentary these representations may be.
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 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.
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?
On my first visit to the hospital, I am escorted to a dusty room in a decaying outbuilding, where simple pine shelves are lined three-deep with thousands of copper canisters. Prisoners from the local penitentiary are brought in to clean the adjacent hallway, crematorium, and autopsy room. A young male prisoner in a blue jumpsuit, with his feet planted firmly outside the doorway, leans his upper body into the room, scans the cremated remains, and whispers in a low tone, «The library of dust.” The title of the project results from this encounter.
The prisoner’s use of the term “library” is apt. The room housing these canisters is an attempt for order, categorization, and rationality to be imposed upon randomness, chaos, and the irrational. Imagine the many separate fates that led these thousands of individuals to this room. What combination of choice and chance, of illness, of representation and misrepresentation, an infinite number of slippages multiplied more than three thousand times over, circumscribes this room, this library?.»