David Maisel’s Library of Dust

Karen Lang

Provocative art historian Aby Warburg remarked in a notebook of 1928: “The creation and the enjoyment of art demand the viable fusion between two psychological attitudes which are normally mutually exclusive. A passionate surrender of the self leading to complete identification with the present—and a cool and detached serenity which belongs to the categorizing contemplation of things. The destiny of the artist can really be found at an equal distance between the chaos of suffering excitement and the balancing evaluation of the aesthetic attitude.” Chaos and cosmos: subjectivity and objectivity; seeing and reflecting; near and far. Warburg understood that chaos and cosmos must retain their proximity for the creation of art and for its enjoyment. Beginning with the premise that subjectivity and objectivity are interrelated, this column proposes a dive into the heart of the viewing experience of art, to that still point of uncertainty where the work of art and the beholder are held together in the space of the aesthetic, a space that encompasses chaos and cosmos. Art is a proposition wholly its own; works of art are theoretical on their own terms. At a time when artworks are increasingly marshaled toward the ends of meaning and the marketplace, this column might be regarded as its own form of political intervention.

Supposing another question than “Who speaks?” Umberto Eco asks, “Who dies?” “Who speaks?” bespeaks “the free man who can afford ‘contemplation.’” “Who dies?” is the slave’s question. “For the slave,” Eco explains, “the proximity of being is not the most radical kinship: the proximity of his own body and the bodies of others comes first.”1 “Who dies?” is an ontological question, a question about being, Eco insists. Yet this question about being never takes flight from the realm of matter since it is poised through the body of the slave. In this sense, the slave’s question differs categorically from the contemplation of the free man, whose freedom from his own body and the bodies of others allows him to sense the proximity of being and to carry out the purely mental operations that constitute philosophy.

Mimicking the philosopher, the free man asks, “What is being (What is death)?” Beginning from the proximity of his own body and the bodies of others, the slave asks, “Who dies?” In its particularity, the answer to this question is unphilosophical: “It is we who die.” As it shades onto ontology, the answer to this question is philosophical and it comes in the form of its own question: “Why do we die?” Considering the question “Who dies?” is to rest within and to rise above the body of the slave at one and the same time. It is to hear in the answer to that question, in that “we,” the slave and the human being, the particular and the general—and a particular that can never be subsumed into the general. “Who dies?” This is the question Library of Dust asks—of me.

David Maisel, "Library of Dust 1165," 2005. Type C print, 64 x 48 inches; edition of one. Courtesy of the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

Library of Dust is comprised of 100 C-print photographs. These photographs are human scale. (They measure 64 x 48 inches.) Aligned along the wall, they confront me with their beauty, and their insistence. They depict a single subject: copper canisters containing the individual ashes (the dust) of mentally ill patients of Oregon State Hospital who were cremated, beginning in 1913, and unclaimed, since then. Placed in sealed copper canisters outfitted with a label and ID number, the ashes—of 5,121 individuals—were stored in canisters in the basement of hospital building number 40. In 1976, an underground memorial vault was created at the hospital. The canisters were moved there and interred on pine shelves. But the memorial vault, which suffered repeated flooding over a period of some 15 years, proved inhospitable. In 2000, the canisters were transferred again, this time to a storeroom near the crematorium on hospital grounds, the site where Maisel encountered them.2


  1. Umberto Eco, La struttura assente: Introduzione all ricerca semiologica (Milan: Bompiani, 1968) 357-358. Translated by Teresa de Lauretis, Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 65.
  2. In addition to the 100 photographs of individual copper canisters, Library of Dust includes images of the abandoned wards of the hospital, objects found within those wards, and details of some of the canisters.