Art after death

August 17, 2008

Insane, abandoned, and anonymous. This describes many people who lived out there lives at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, starting in 1883 and into the 1970s. Their cremated remains were put in numbered copper canisters and stored.

But time and chemical reactions have turned them into art after death, art challenging perceptions of what it means to die. Acclaimed photographer David Maisel has documented the stark individuality blossoming from each person’s remains.

In an essay, Maisel, who gave me permission to publish one of his pictures, writes:

The canisters ask us to consider ‘What happens to our bodies when we die; what happens to our souls?’ Matter lives on even when the body vanishes, even when it has been destroyed by an institutionalized methodology of incinerating the body to ash and categorizing it by a number stamped into the lid of the ashes’ metal housing. Does some form of spirit live on as well?

I’ll consider those questions when I see Maisel’s “Library of Dust,” his Portland Art Museum exhibit that opens September 1. My context will be the remnant of my mother’s ashes that haven’t been scattered. I’ve divided this smattering into three tiny piles, stored less evocatively than those of the insane, one each for my two brothers and me.

In life, my mother might have found Maisel’s questions too weighty. But she would have laughed at the idea of resting, at least temporarily, in my three-year-old son’s discarded plastic Play-Doh containers.

I need to find something copper that would better suit her aesthetic tastes until the time inevitably comes for her to mix with me.