Saturday, February 20, 2010

"Graves of the Insane"

Library of Dust by David Maisel:
In an Oregan psychiatric hospital, the deceased patients whose bodies were unclaimed were cremated. The ashes were placed in canisters in a basement that flooded. Each of the canisters aged differently, creating patterns that seem to evoke the lost souls contained within.

These photographs by Maisel are touching. The embellishment of these canisters through time, instead of decay, is uncanny yet beautiful. These were people, who were psychologically challenged and commonly called " Insane". The "insane" have been persecuted forever, often because they diverge from the mainstream. They were not just abandoned when dead, but also when alive. Since they don't merge in the society, the society turns its back on them. The level of poverty and deprivation these tinned souls have suffered is unknown.
There is a verse for Van Gogh in the song Starry Nights, " this World was not meant for someone as beautiful as you." Perhaps the World was confining for the "insane", just like these canisters, sealed like their fates. So the insane liberated themselves like the colors that oozed out and blended into unique patterns.
This is a common fate of people at the edge of the society like beggars, prostitutes, criminals, drug addicts, street children etc. When they trip over, their corpse meets a relentless fate, just like their life did.
These souls in canisters have to be grateful. They were rescued from the street to this asylum. Eventually there was someone who paid for their cremation and these canisters. In third world countries like Pakistan, they would be helplessly loitering on the streets. And a graceless death would require a free burial. Or else they would be taken by medical colleges for a dissection so thorough that hardly a speck would remain of them.
The pictures whisper two secrets. One of the forsaken mental patients and the second is of all those at the periphery of the society who slip through the security net, drown in oblivion and are forgotten. So let us dedicate these photographs to all those unseen strangers, whose sufferings we neither felt nor realized.


  1. .. u can find the collection of photos by Maisel here.

  2. Very sad indeed. That was the case in Oregon from the middle of 19th century to the middle of 20th century. Now these people in Oregon are taken care of in a much better way. Still, as you said, in many parts of the world they are treated worse.

    Your last sentence is very touching. I read that 10 times before I wrote this comment. "whose sufferings we neither felt nor realized".

  3. Thank u very much SG.. for encouraging so much! hav a long life..!

  4. This is what my teach, Proff Omar Tarin thinks of the photographs:
    "V nice. An unusual genre, albeit a trifle macabre! Reminds one of various other examples of necrophilic art, such as the 'art coffins' of Ghana and so on.."

  5. I came upon your blog while doing some admittedly-sleazy snooping before our lunch next week with Mana and Teejay. I cannot help but point out, however, (at the cost of coming off as something of a creep and a horrible spy) that society's exclusion of these "lost souls" is an evolutionary damage-control mechanism. It is simply most cost-effective to cast them out.

    Perhaps you would blame our materialism, or our ironic-detachment, or being fermé-d'esprit, or even the Illuminati for our attitudes towards these outcasts, but can you deny that our current social order, right or wrong, exists on the basis of the needs of the many - and it has successfully met those needs for the most part over the last three hundred years or so (that this current variant has been around)?

    While it is certainly heartwarming to spare a kind thought (and hence a penny:) ) for these people, it is ultimately futile - and not a trifle condescending; I wonder if they would not look upon such sympathy with contempt.

    -M A Pasha

    PS: If anyone has mastered the art of ending parenthetical notes with emoticons, please let me know.

  6. PPS: Ashes of the sane, kept in similar canisters for similar lengths of time and exposed similarly to the elements, would have produced similar results. The art, in this case, is purely contextual.

  7. Dear Mr. Pasha
    i agree with u to an extent that its a cost control mechanism but that doesnt justify its existence. These people are reduced to futility in the society can become useful citizens and economic units if given proper treatment and care. Not all but some can. In the long run, its not appropriate fr the society to marginalize criminals, inmates, the psychologically challenged etc. There can b repurcussions, and eventually, even if the society doesn't pay them in cash, there is a hidden cost that is paid.

  8. On the art being contextual
    well yes of course.. thats how it has been handled... there is no claim that the patterns were formed because these people were mentally challenged... these pictures and the context in which they were presented raise a potent issue in the society...

  9. the old, the retarded , the ill, all are an economic burden to the society..shud they all be dicthed also?

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. " The "insane" have been persecuted forever, often because they diverge from the mainstream."

    Did you mean eccentric or the really crazy ones?

    - ASOFHM

  12. well static... i meant anyone who is different from the majority of the people in the society tends to be persecuted or looked down on... nd is in trouble fr well as his own illness...

  13. he old, assuming they have been productive members of society in their youths, are allowed to rest and wait for the inevitable in their twilight years under the current system. However, I think increasing lifespans and healthcare costs for the elderly in the developing world will induce two changes therein:
    an extension of the retirement age to cover a greater portion of the general lifespan,
    a reduction in social welfare/pensions, and a corresponding increase in insurance costs.
    If neither of these happens, then that crazy game idea I described to a friend (in which a bunch of young people, the last of their kind due to the unbearable costs of raising children owing to all resources being used up in caring for the manifold elderly, attempt to unplug the life support and reclaim the Earth for the young) does not sound all that ridiculous, now does it? Sidenote: that friend did not talk to me for two weeks afterwards.

    As for the mentally-inhibited: a country like Pakistan can ill-afford to squander its scant wealth on someone who will consume a lot more resources to attain a much lower level of productivity than someone who will perform a lot better with a lot less. Sure, if some individual can afford it, they are welcome to, but should the state, or the society as a collective, be obliged to bear the cost out of some misplaced sense of wrongdoing as you are suggesting? There is no debt to repay, none whatsoever. If someone points out that odd painter who holds the brush in his mouth because he doesn't have hands and makes great pictures: those pictures could also be made by someone who does have hands, and this was with reference to the mentally-inhibited, not the physically handicapped.

    I would add the obese to the list: no-one should have to bear with higher fuel costs, food prices and the like just because an increasing number of people can't keep their grubby, greasy paws off of that umpteenth Mac and Cheese and those saturated fat fries. It's a lifestyle choice they consciously make, and to transfer the costs to innocent bystanders seems more unfair to me than locking up a bunch of loonies in a place where they're safe from and no risk to others and themselves.

    Once again, I'm only playing Devil's advocate to prove the following point: there are bigger issues in the world, that affect a larger number of people, in a much more profound way, than what you are trying to empathize with. If you were to make this personal by asking if I would do any of these things if I the people involved were not merely statistics to me, I will not answer, probably out of inability to do so.

    Bottom line: Everything, everything, everything is a trade-off at the end; and cost-benefit analysis results are general, not individual - so no offense intended to anyone - but this needed to be said.

    - Pasha

    PS: Wall-of-text just crit you for a gazillion damage.
    - MAP



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