Opening the Tomb: Supernature, Beautiful Decay, and Ruination

Ricky Varghese

In order to start the work of theorizing supernature here, it might be best, at first, to locate my interest. Without appearing somewhat or overly morbid, it is essential for me to admit that I have always held a profound interest in and fascination with the specific site of the grave, the tomb, the crypt, or the mausoleum, or with any site or space, for that matter, that becomes the keeper and placeholder of and for remains and cremaines. This interest has stemmed from a desire to understand how these sites come to stand in for – metaphorically, structurally, archaeologically, and psychically – the lost object; here, the lost object of the corporeal, once-alive, body. Furthermore, an interest in the very processes of decay and ruination of the site of the grave itself, its own on-going process of wasting away, an unstoppable wounding, under the hands of weathering, meteorological effects, and both human and non-human interference over the course of time, has navigated me through my ongoing commitment to studying rituals attached to the marking of or commemoration of loss.

The continued return to the site of the grave or the crypt to mourn the loss of a loved one – the nostalgia and the melancholia imbued within the process of mourning – has been of acute psychical and theoretical intrigue, especially in regards to understanding the socio-cultural meaning associated to the processes of mourning, letting go, and moving on, while, at the same time having, perhaps always and already having, the grave or crypt act as an ongoing reminder of the loss it stands to, in some small way, replace, mediate, or metonymically stand in for. The grave or the crypt, also, seems to become a moment in which supernature becomes revealed to us. It is both absence and presence; a structure or a holder, like an urn, that stands in for the absent body, which then becomes a new sort of presence. Over time, the structure itself may fall into ruin, be subject to decay and overgrowth, wreckage and rotting. Absence upon presence, presence upon absence, appearance and disappearance, the once-was and the now-is, the clean crypt standing in for the lost body, the decayed grave standing in for the once pristine monument that holds the corpse in its embrace, laid down there for its ultimate rest – all of these logics seem to be inscribed upon this object that signals and signifies memory, the grave.

In the context of this essay, then, my attention is drawn toward the analysis of another sort of grave or crypt. My interest, here, is not in the physical structure of a large-scale grave, but rather drawn toward a smaller, more localizable holder of memory. The particular instance of an artistic nod given to the beauty of natural decay that I wish to attend to here is a series of photographs taken by David Maisel; the series entitled affectingly as the Library of Dust. The series contains, as will be shown here, a collection of corroding copper canisters, blooming under the pressures of calcification, deterioration, and decay. Supernature here, perhaps, in all its unbounded, violently ruinous, and detritus glory. The reason why I refer to them as crypts will be revealed later in the paper.

The essay is, as is to follow, divided into four further sections. The first section will confront the way in which beauty and decay, life and death, become inextricably tied together at the site of an enlivening that is constituted by and through, and further constitutes what we understand as the experiential logic of the sublime. The hope, here, is that it will give us a better grasp of how supernature as, perhaps, a process of ongoing ruination gives rise to how we think about and understand the apparent beauty of the object undergoing the decay. The section after that, entitled Life, Loss, Inscription, Mediation, Mourning, will deal with what these canisters contain, the specificity of what it is that is being let go, mourned, and the other sorts of violences, beyond the natural violence of decay, that these canisters encrypt, signify, and continue to mediate. Following this, I move on to a section addressing the issue of temporality and how photography, the art and practice of it in the case of these images, deal with decay in and of itself. The seemingly linear flow of time, as marked by surreptitious decay and ruination, becomes locked within what I will address as the extreme presentism of photographic time, the Benjaminian now-time, the ruptured and rapturous caesura that punctures decay itself. The final section, Closing the Tomb: Can Beauty Remember?, then moves the conversation from aesthetical considerations to more political ones. However, the attempt in this section is, though, not merely to move from aesthetics to politics, or from phenomenological readings of the art object and the processes of supernature to their more dialectical or ideological readings, but to situate aesthetics and politics alongside one another, as informing each other and as facets of the pieces that cannot be abstracted from one another. Aesthetics and politics are always at play within the confines of supernature, its decay, its transformation into ruin, and the crypt that encapsulates all that is to remain of what needs, of what bequeaths us, to be remembered.

Sublime Devastation, Enlivened Aesthetics

A short three-line elegiac poem penned by Romanian-born Jewish poet Paul Celan, writing in German, from his evocative collection ‘Fadensonnen’, seems to be the most appropriate place for me to begin my ruminations here – ruminations, here and now tentative at best, that concern themselves preeminently with addressing that uncanny yet pressing engagement between the beauty of decay, or rather, more specifically, the beauty of that which becomes ruin, and the gesture made toward mournful remembrance. This arresting work, arresting at least in my own encounter with it, reads as such:
Du warst mein Tod
dich konnte ich halten,
wahrend mir alles entfiel.[1]

(You were my death:
you I could hold
when all fell away from me.)
It is this relationship to being arrested, in becoming a being-arrested, by an encounter, with perhaps the encounter – with an other, with a mysterious visage, with the face beneath a veil, with an unknown history, with an elusive memory, with a body in its fetishized brokenness, with the trace of unhinged ghosts haunting us from and beyond the margins of being with what remains of them, in their state of decay, perhaps, with surreptitious beauty itself – that becomes of primary importance for me here. Again, poetry becomes a way out for me – parlayed with its own limitations strewn along the way – to return to conceive of this almost inconceivable encounter between the beauty of natural decay and the praxis of remembrance, as I recall John Keats, from his ‘Endymion’, where he rehearses what we already know of the Romantics long drawn out love affair with beauty and the sublime experience, that experience which, evokes transcendence, transcends us beyond the culpabilities of our vulnerable and aging bodies, the psychic and physical materiality of everyday life and living, that perhaps assumes to bring us closer to an experience of divine revelation:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but it will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.[2]
Never allowing itself to pass into nothingness, yet keeping, at times dormant, at times awake; this seems to allude to an understanding not merely of our experience with beauty, but with our tenuous relationship to memory – never passing into nothingness, dormant and awake, sometimes simultaneously; an unnerving insomnia of sorts. What then becomes of beauty when it inspires memory, preserves it, pickles it for future use? What is the relationship between a divined transcendence that this beauty promises, or seems to promise, and the immanent wound that ruptures and cracks the skin of our consciousness when we attempt to remember, especially a memory of abjection, absence, and abnegation, further marked by decay, an object laid to waste, turned to ruin? What becomes of beauty when it is a beauty, decaying over time and beautiful all the more for this decay, that holds in its very fragility the memory of rejection and exile? What becomes of memory when it is conceived of as having the aesthetic possibility to undo us, be the cause of our undoing; “us“ being the ones who remain to gaze outwardly at the sheerness of the beautiful object presented to us, offered to us within the tender caress of our eyes, beholding and beheld by this ugly beauty, decaying, ruining, ugly for the memory it holds? The logic that ties together beauty, decay, and memory seems to be, at once, both labyrinthine and circuitous amidst this array of questions.

At this juncture, I am reminded of what philosopher J M Bernstein tells us of the purpose of what we have come to understand as modern art, where as Barnett Newman, before him, articulated that ‘the impulse…was [the] desire to destroy beauty’[3]itself. Accordingly for Bernstein:
The beauty being destroyed is classical beauty, whose cold perfection is at one with its pretense to timelessness. In its place is to arise an experience connected…[to] the violence of natural sublimity: an intensity of pain and pleasure in the experience of the formless appearing of the overwhelmingly large and powerful.[4]
It is this revelatory struggle between pain and pleasure – also, between beauty’s attempt to evoke something akin to sublime transcendence and the anxious nervousness of the memory that it inspires and that which is always and already immanent, especially when it brings forth to the now-time[5] of the present, from lost time, the memories of the rejected, the exiled, and the abjected – that seems to allow us to attend here to the distinct artistic endeavor made by David Maisel, through his series the Library of Dust, that recall, recoup, and recollect a specific kind encounter with the past.

Prior to discussing the particularity of the Library of Dust series, it is best to set it within the context of some of Maisel’s earlier, more sublime, projects. The term “sublime” is both crucial to consider and intentionally instructive, here. We are now, if only for a brief moment, entering the philosophically charged exploratory universe of the likes of Edmund Burke, whose study of the sublime becomes of canonical importance to address. For Burke, this experiential moment marked as the logic of the sublime is an attempt at tying together the tenuous relationship between pain and pleasure, between the cohabitation and comingling of both pain and pleasure:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling….But as pain is stronger in its operation than pleasure, so death is in general a much more affecting idea than pain itself; because there are few pains, however exquisite, which are not preferred to death; nay what generally makes pain itself if I may say so, more painful, is, that it is considered as an emissary of this king of terrors. When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible, but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience.[6]
A fine thread exists here under the heading of terror – terrific beauty, terrific decay, terrific ruination, the terrific processes of supernature – that holds both pain and pleasure together thus, informing the ‘violence of sublimity’ that Bernstein alluded to earlier. What reminds us of our own mortality becomes this invocation of pain; a dizzying sort of invocation that has the potential to undo our sense of self and selfhood. Accordingly to Burke, we see that this “pain”, this undoing, might give way to the apparently pleasurable – it is, if anything, enlivening; life-giving, while also reminding us of life’s potential to be laid to waste, come to ruin, decay, die, and rot.

Let us now return to what I referred to earlier as Maisel’s more sublime projects that preceded the Library of Dust. Here, I am speaking specifically of the aerial landscape photographs that belong to The Mining Project series and The Lake Project series. His attempt to address the relationship between nature and its use, corruption, and abuse under human prodding, plying, and manipulation is recalled, here, as we look, later, upon the corroding canisters of the Library of Dust series.

David Maisel, American Mine – Carlin, NV 6, 2007

His commitment to rethinking aerially the terrific and terrifying experience of such sublime expanses of various wounded landscapes – perhaps, in attempting to offer a kind of disguised critique of this very experience of the sublime itself through this rethinking of the self produced from on high – allows us to conceive of a transcendental quality to his earlier works that might be interpreted as all too unbearable for some of us. Humanity’s sea-level relationship to the expanse that we find in front of ourselves has led to the projects of domination, conquest, colonization, and environmental decay and degradation. The violent impulse to have dominion over the land that we set foot upon rehearses this sublime experience as that which enables it to be both undone by the sheer impossibility of the very desire to apparently “conquer it all”, this painful expanse, and to be pushed forth into the act of violent conquest nonetheless. It would seem that the wide expanse both humbles us in its painfully charged decay and craves the violent pleasures of conquest. It limits and delimits subjectivity’s relationship to the natural world, at one and the same time, by offering both pleasure and the prohibition and refusal of that pleasure through a pained witnessing which in turn rearticulates our relationship to what we understand as pleasurable, i.e. a pleasure that arises from pain itself. The beauty of these images seems to offer the viewer the promise of life, while at the same time reminding us that it can be violently taken away. This is what the apparent beauty of the sublime renders to us, the promise of a violent sort of extrication, while at the same time affording us the experience of enlivening us, where this ‘enlivening, coming to life, is indeed the moment in aesthetic experience that bears within itself an ethics and a politics’.[7]

What Maisel, in his earlier works, attempts to do is to take our sea-level gaze elsewhere – call it a bird’s-eye view (though I would propose it to be more akin to a God’s-eye view, if we were to take the experience of divine transcendence seriously for a moment) – to a place above, on high, from an almost inconceivable height. Through this seemingly transcendent enactment, he offers us images of deforestation, the violence done to land under the hands of uncontrolled mining, the effects of lake flooding, and a series of other environmental violences. Again, we are confronted with beauty’s double-edged sword, so to speak. We are offered images whose claim to beauty seems all too obvious at first glance. The images, textured and manipulated in regards to color, brightness, and lighting, heighten any and all experience we might have in regards to what we might otherwise happen upon as an encounter with the painfully pleasurable sublime, especially if we were merely looking at another seemingly beautiful landscape, from the perspective of a sea-level gaze. Here, however, the skeletal nature of the landscape is laid bare for us – almost, in a manner of speaking, as though it has been revealed to us through an X-ray device. The way in which the landscape has been affected, effaced, impacted upon, and dealt with, becomes clear. In a manner of speaking, it would even seem as though we are looking upon images of a grandiose crime scene. Dead earth, devastated land, detritus wasteland – all allude to a sort of witnessing, a sort of bearing witness to, a death, a dying-in-the-process or, even still, a decaying corpse where supernature, as process, continues its work in haunting silence. Enlivening – as aesthetic experience and encounter – then, becomes read through the lens of a confrontation with death itself where, then, as Bernstein reminds us:
Beauty’s life-saving power is always for us the return of the repressed, a return of the conditioning of life by death, death’s proximity, and hence indissolubly bound to the violence of the sublime, to the fracturing and fragmenting and tearing of form and proportion for the sake of aesthetic encounter. Perhaps we might say that the turn toward the aesthetic is implicitly a turn toward enlivenment as art’s governing orientation.[8]

David Maisel, The Lake Project 17

After such projects as these, marked by their grandiose quality and their magnanimous affectivity, we arrive at his Library of Dust, where the magnified magnificence of the earthly landscape has been replaced by another landscape of the more microscopic world of entropic and corrosive decay and rusty ruinous blooms, as they seem to appear on these copper canisters. At first gaze, we are drawn to these canisters and their beautiful ugliness, or ugly beauty – whichever way you would have it – by their sublimely ravenous decay and ruination, heightened only by the black galaxy-like darkness that encapsulates and acts to hold them as their tentative background.

David Maisel, Library of Dust 769

The image of each canister, set against the darkness of its black background, allows us to perhaps imagine the envisioning of another sort of more localized kind of a landscape. We are not concerned here with decay and degradation at the large scale; we are not seeking absolution or to be beheld by the terrifyingly painful wonder of the earthly devastation that we might have had a hand in causing; rather, we are asked to look at a smaller universe, and seek out an undoing whose object of specificity is but a mere decaying, yet seemingly beautiful, copper canister. The transition and translation from big to small in Maisel’s work – assuming we come to look at these smaller universes, having already some prior knowledge of his earlier work dealing with larger landscapes – is breathtaking and humbling precisely because of this move from the large to the miniscule.

David Maisel, Library of Dust 1210

This move addresses us as a shock to the visual system, in a way. The shocking move within the size, scale, and scope of his work, while retaining something of that sublime violence we described earlier is definitely worthy of consideration. The shock might be felt in regards to how we conceive of beauty within this move, and how we perceive the work of the shock of beauty itself– as something that gives forth the possibility to enliven us through our awakening to the proximity of death, decay, and destruction. In this moment when we find ourselves awakened to what both the landscape images and, as well, the canister images produce in us, as shock and as affect, or rather, as shock as a form of affect, we begin to understand what Bernstein, so eloquently, reminded us of:
The shock of beauty, its enlivening, is a violent tearing of the self from out of benumbed half-living that beauty…makes vivid the proximity of death to the lived, hence to the fleetingness and transience of life; and thus the experience of beauty is bound up with or is a form of mourning.[9]
What, however, is being mourned, in the context of Maisel’s canister images? Or, perhaps, the better question to ask might be, what about these images might incite within us the possibility and potential for, the very condition that inspires within us, the desire to mourn? Still further, we might want to consider what sort of loss is signified here that demands a mourning to occur, especially in light of the image’s perspicacious beauty? These are some of the questions that will direct my exploration in the next section.

Life, Loss, Inscription, Mediation, Mourning

While large-scale devastation, when we are made privy to it, becomes, for some of us, an unbearable and obdurate sort of undoing of our own culpability in the acts that led to those moments of destruction, the humbling that comes with the sublime experience of the beauty found in these canister images has a different tenor of culpability that seem to resound with their presentation. What, then, is our culpability, here? What are these canisters reminders and remainders of? What does our undoing for us in regards to these smaller ever-decaying, ruinous universes, these miniscule calcifying spaces of supernature?

To elaborate upon this feeling of a specific kind of “culpability”, it would be worthwhile, now, to attend to how and where Maisel discovered these canisters. By doing so, we might be able to better tie in how subjective life and its loss might be inscribed, remembered, and mediated through that memory, in how we look upon the photographs of these canisters. A context and a biography seem to be particularly essential here, as we attempt to analyze these images. Maisel discovered the objects of his project’s fascination at what is now known as the Oregon State Hospital, a psychiatric institution, which had been previously referred to as the Oregon State Insane Asylum. It had been active ever since it was first built in the 1880s and still continues to function, while also being in the process of being rebuilt and renovated. He learned about the canisters he photographed while reading about them when the hospital first publicly acknowledged their existence in 2005; they were, at that time, stored in an outbuilding on the grounds of the hospital. During the period between 1883 to the early 1970s, over 5000 wards lived and died there, and their bodies were disposed of through cremation. What remains each canister, then, signifies and what remainders they come to act as signatories for are the ash remains of these wards, most of whom were left to be institutionalized by the state, and their ashes left uncollected by friends, relatives, and families.

David Maisel, Asylum 16, Oregon State Hospital, Salem, OR

What seems to offer a tragic strain, then – tragedy becomes painfully inscribed into the sublime experience of these images – to these canisters and their contents is that they were left uncollected and discarded. They were labeled with the names of the patients, as well as numbered. According to Maisel, most of the canister labels, however, did not remain for long; most probably a result of them having been stored in an underground vault that flooded. There were medical privacy laws that dictated that the names remain private and confidential. However, as Maisel himself mentioned, more recently the hospital began releasing the names of the patients, in the hopes that descendants of the patients may come forward to reclaim the canisters.[10]

Representing, according to one commentator of these photographs, Geoff Manaugh, ‘literal gravesites…[each] canister holds the remains of a human being, of course; each canister holds a corpse – reduced to dust, certainly, burnt to handfuls of ash, sharing that cindered condition with much of the star-bleached universe, but still cadaverous, still human…[it] is not a library at all – but a room full of souls no one wanted’[11]. Souls that no one wanted signify the triple layer of rejection that this decaying beauty of loss seems to allude to – the rejection of their mental illness by families, relatives, and friends, the rejection of the State’s concern or care, and finally the rejection of their ashes by families, relatives, and friends, due to them being left uncollected. The tragedy makes the story all the more moving, all the more compelling, all the more beautifully sublime in the pain they evoke – causes us to remember and take account of the memory we associate to the exiled of society; the nameless, the faceless, the subaltern, the foreign, the other.

The beautification of the other through their crypt, their miniaturized grave, being re-inscribed as a moment of divination is enacted through the sublimation afforded to them through the art practice, here being photography – where our culpability in regards to our forgetting or the potential to forget the abject and the other-ed is stark precisely because of what remains these crypts contain and what forgetting and remembering they subsequently account for. Entropy, or rather entropic break down or wasting away, gives way to ruin and decay as visualized in how these canisters have changed over time; it also offers us the discourse by which supernature as a process of perennial decay becomes a site for aesthetic sublimation. The entropy, here, manifested through the rusting, the rotting, and the corroding of these canisters, thus causing the unsettling disarray of these miniscule universes as represented within Maisel’s series become a metaphor for decay, a simulacra of the production of a ruin outside of what we understand the ruin to stand for more colloquially, which is a breaking away and down of sites of architecture.[12]

Thinking with entropic decay, again, we might find Bernstein to be quite instructive, here, when he reminds us that our experience of death is always a distantiated one, precisely because ‘our own death is unimaginable…each envisagement of it involves our survival as spectator’[13]. It always seems to happen to something outside or beyond our own bodies and our selves. Death, as represented through what we might come to know in regards to what the canisters contain, sits alongside our awareness or our perception of these images as being “beautiful”; “beautiful” because they symbolically re-present and re-cast death through the space of entropic break down, through what we know as the on-going process of atrophy, calcification, representing almost a continued vestigial decaying life-death, or dead-life – supernature, surreptitiously, at work. What we come to realize, however, is the difficult nature of this beauty, the beauty of Maisel’s canisters, which for someone such as Bernstein acknowledges the notion that we, as viewers, continuously become tossed between the tenuous positions of being either spectator or held within the embrace of benumbed grief:
We keep death ‘other’ by representing it: death always happens to an other self as we look on. This naturally infects our relation to the death of actual others. In mourning and melancholy we mimetically adapt to the other’s death, dying to life, while simultaneously and secretly being relieved by the fact that it is truly the other and not oneself who has died. This cycle of spectatorship and benumbed grief is thus presented in a manner whereby, for all intents and purposes, conventional relations toward death are, in truth, forms of defense against it; but in defending ourselves against death we simultaneously insulate ourselves against life.[14]
The beauty thus, here, inscribes a shock of death, a shock to life, an enlivening shock, precisely because death, its remainders and its continued reminder becomes so palpably shocking, wherein the shock only adds to the vital propensity of this indescribable and inconceivable beauty of decay. It renders itself shocking precisely because we are left to wonder how such beauty could sit up against what Judith Butler, invoking the politics of silent anonymity entrenching biopolitical formations, refers to as ‘ungrievable loss’[15], ungrievable all the more because these mentally ill patients whose remains are left in these canisters were marked as either less human, or inhuman, and thus, forgettable. Maisel, it would seem, attempts to call forth their memory through the simultaneous contradiction and juxtaposition of this very memory of the forgotten exile with the potential appreciation that the beauty of these canister photographs might incur. At the precise moment, when we thought it was just another pretty picture, we are reminded of what they hold – a memory of absence, abjection, and abnegation. We are also reminded of their subsequent and continued decay, calcification, and ruin. Supernature, here without any knowledge of temporality or any concern for the ineffable nature of historical accountability, continues to be, almost pristinely, at work. Beauty then, to echo Bernstein, ‘is difficult, and enlivenment necessarily Janus-face’.[16]

Citing art critic Peter Schjedahl, in a brief essay Maisel himself wrote about his Library of Dust, the latter reminds us ‘much resistance to admitting the reality of beauty may be motivated by disappointment with beauty’s failure to redeem the world. Experiences of beauty are sometimes attended by soaring hopes, such as that beauty must some day, or even immediately, heal humanity’s wounds and rancors. It does no such thing, of course’[17]. While devastation could be held to be aesthetically captivating within the realm of its artistic rendition or inscription, the question, then, becomes this: can beauty remember or mourn? It might be pertinent, then, to think of an ethics of and for the image as such when it conceives of memory, for if these images are, as Rebecca Comay effectively reminds us, like ‘memorials…[they] take the place of memory…what appears “for us” is not only a function of our conceptual mediations but may reveal the impossibility of every standpoint [including that of the artist, their potential audience, or the one who takes up the challenge of theorizing upon what they represent] from which to mediate…[inscribing] the limits of the possibility of inscription’[18]. If, then, inscription is what the work of art does in the time of memory – the present time, perhaps, and the future time to come, that it effervescently anticipates – then this inscription of beauty holds us in its rapture, and while it might insist upon us the possibility to remember the exiled, it may also prove to evacuate that memory of its own subject.

The redemptive quality, however, of Maisel’s photographs might be further explained by again briefly returning to a discussion about the sublime, while thinking along with Adrian Parr’s compelling work Deleuze and Memorial Culture where she attempts to explain this transcendent experience within the abstract work of Mark Rothko. While speaking of his paintings, specifically the sublime experience she describes they appear to offer, she explains that ‘[he] did not attempt to ‘represent‘ the sublime experience of horror in all its alienation…rather introducing a humanist edge into abstraction the problem of presenting the unfamiliar becomes one of ‘evoking’ a sublime experience in the viewer’[19]. As such what Parr points to is that ‘[Rothko’s] work is not abstract enough because they articulate redemptive experience as the condition of possibility for the unfamiliar’[20]. This makes immediate sense when thinking about Maisel’s canister images precisely because while we might think of these photographs as standalone images outside of any sense of them being representations of death and loss, and while the aesthetic value of entropic ruination might give them an indexical value outside of their mournful history, what is redemptive precisely about them is the memory of the history behind these canisters and how it cannot so easily be abstracted or wrenched away from their presentation to an audience.

The “unfamiliar” causes the viewer to remain grounded in the experience of viewership, whereby as Parr rightly points out ‘the libidinal charge of [the unfamiliar] and the horror of the sublime is connected to a unified subjective ground so that the creative potential of generating other associations (perhaps, art historical or aesthetic in tendency) is frozen within one interpretation of sublime horror’[21]. As such for the viewer, ‘subjective affect is assigned a place in the consummated experience of the picture and [her/him]’[22]. In such a scene, there is no complete transcendence in the hold of beauty per se, and more specifically the beauty of that which arises from decayed matter and/or the memory of exile or abjection; it always and already tells us, the viewers immanently interpellated into the act of viewership, of other stories beyond the aesthetic structure of its own decay – one cannot merely hold beauty, to remember, when all else seems to fall away, as Celan announced earlier. The insistence and persistence of the ethical continues to echo beneath the translucency of the skin of the aesthetic.

Supernature, Sig-nature, and the Decay of Photographic Time

In this section, I want to pause and explore briefly another sort of decay – beyond that of nature, or object decay, or ruination that impacts itself upon space, place, and/or surface. I want to consider, here, the decay of time, of the temporal itself, and particularly the decay of time in relation to what is captured or captivated within the space, the prison, of the photograph. The photograph acts, then, as temporal holder of something we might assign the value of being the extreme present, the absolute – this “absolute” being a word we must be very cautious in using – now. Additionally, it might be worthwhile to explore the relationship between the decay of time – halted within the extreme present of the photograph – alongside natural decay and supernature as process, especially within the context of Maisel’s canister photographs. What happens to time within this logic of natural decay? What becomes of the object, decaying, captured within the space of the photographic present?

Herein, it would seem that Maisel’s images rehearse almost efficaciously and without doubt Roland Barthes’s provocative commentary on the photograph and its process of becoming “horrible”:
If the photograph becomes horrible, it is because it certifies, so to speak, that the corpse is alive, as corpse: it is the living image of a dead thing. For the photograph’s immobility is somehow the result of a perverse confusion between two concepts: the Real and the Live: by attesting that the object has been real, the photograph surreptitiously induces belief that it is alive, because of that delusion which makes us attribute reality an absolutely superior, somehow eternal value; but by shifting this reality to the past (“this-has-been”), the photograph suggests that it is already dead.[23]
The “eternal value” – a temporal marker is assigned here – of the photograph converts the reality it seems to attribute to the canisters with an apparent aliveness. This aliveness is, simply put, layered. On the one hand, the canisters hold the remains of those who died in the asylum; they act as containers, of memory, of the once-alive patients. The photographs bring their memory to life, to a living in the present moment, to the surface of its audiences’ consciousness. Within another register, the canisters themselves have a life, a deadening decaying life of sorts, as their surfaces calcify and rot under the pressures and processes of supernature. The rupture in the seeming reality, as exposed by the layered nature of this aliveness comes from within the temporal break that is issued upon the “eternal” attributed to the photograph. It becomes an object that bridges, albeit tentatively at best, the past recorded within its space and the present moment within which it is viewed. What then, more immediately, is this notion of the present, or rather the extreme present of photographic time here? Arthur Schopenhauer, in his compelling work The World as Will and Representation, seems to gesture toward a definition, of sorts, to this seemingly most ungraspable of concepts when he writes:
Above all, we must clearly recognize that the form of the phenomenon of the will, and hence the form of life or of reality, is really only the present, not the future or the past. Future and past are only in the concept, exist only in the connection and continuity of knowledge in so far as this follows the principle of sufficient reason. No man has lived in the past, and none will ever live in the future; the present alone is the form of life, but it is also life’s sure possession which can never be torn from it. The present always exists together with its content; both stand firm without wavering, like the rainbow over the waterfall.[24]
While the past and future render themselves as conceptual frameworks – as in, we address the past as either a memory or a history, a temporal map upon which we can situate a narrative of an event happening or occurring, and the future as some hoped for, anticipated time to come that does not fully ever arrive – the present, or more precisely the extreme present, might be captured in that fragile word “now”. A question, then, begs reflection here – have we ever thought about how fragile, delicate, and untenable a word (at least within the space of English dictum) this "now" of the present is? The meaning of this “now”, at least if we are meaning it temporally, ceases to exist the moment we utter the word itself. Since, it has passed, is always in the moment of passing, and will continue to pass us by, "now" can neither be anticipated nor has it ever existed per se. It becomes lost time, a time that sediments as it decays, a time dying already as it happens to be born. In a way, it eludes symbolization and in this sense, it seems impossible to feel melancholia for it (or even nostalgia, for that matter) because it is the object, perhaps the object par excellence, that always and already having been lost to us, can neither be gained; hence, it becomes pure phantasm or ghost time. For Benjamin, we would know this as the now-time, Jetztzeit[25], where in ‘every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter’[26].

While it eludes symbolization, much like that which decays under the elaborate entropic workings of supernature, perhaps the most immediate place where the now-time of the present is attempted to be given a value is within this tenuous space of, or rather scene within, the photograph. Photography, in this case, becomes the impenetrable prison of the now, that lost time of apparent stillness that has become ghost-time, hovering, if only momentarily and liminally, between the now exposed concepts of the past and the future. Although, it was alluded to earlier that we cannot feel a melancholia for the now, because it never existed, except in some articulation of the extreme present that is always and already passing us by, the photograph becomes the object that seems to permit a relationship, though melancholic in nature, to that lost moment of the now. How does this decaying time and its seeming imprisonment within the photograph, then, relate to the structure of decay occurring to the physical object of the canisters Maisel discovered? Peter Schwenger, in his groundbreaking essay Corpsing the Image, addresses this precise issue when he contends:
…the decomposition is that of an image, shuttling eternally and emptily between subject and object. The image decomposes, decays–or, more particularly, because of the crucial implications of the body’s image, it can be said to corpse. And this is not morbidity, but the normal state of perception. The metaphor of the image as corpse is not likely to occur to one whose eyes drink in greedily the pleasures of seeing…They arrive at our eyes already mourned, decomposing even as they compose themselves around embodied subjects–who must continually reforget that the state of these images is also our own.[27]
Thus, to look upon an image is to be aware of our own relationship to the once-alive, to death and also to dying, to be always and already within the grip of the work of what it means to be corpsed, to become corpse and to be mourned in the process of becoming corpse, the process of supernature in and of itself – to find oneself in relation to decay as such. It would seem, therefore, that there are several relentless scenes of exposure, so to speak, here that underpin how we experience photography’s relationship to death and how we understand photography within the temporality of death and dying itself and the teleology of the object that is being photographed. The photograph as corpse appears to be the first scene of exposure here. The second scene might be when we come to understand the photograph of a corpse, or in this case the copper canisters of Maisel’s series, as being further corpsed within the space of the photograph itself or in the act of them being photographed. Furthermore, time itself is dying, decaying, because that present time in which the photograph itself was first taken is now long gone. The photograph remains as the remnant of a near tragic love relationship we have with that now, now long behind us. Jacques Derrida, in his posthumously published critical work on the photographs of Jean-Francois Bonhomme, Athens, Still Remains, gives us a contemplation of what such a photograph might signify; a reflective insight that quite adequately becomes relevant in how we address the images that make up Maisel’s own Library of Dust:
Whether we are looking at the whole picture or just a detail, never do any of these photographs fail to signify death. Each signifies death without saying it. Each one, in any case, recalls a death that has already occurred, or one that is promised or threatening, a sepulchral monumentality, memory in the figure of the ruin.[28]
What deaths or decays do these photographs signify, then? For one, and perhaps most importantly, they signify the death of the wards of the asylum. In another manner of speaking, the photographs signify and capture the living-death or the dead-living that calcification and atrophy signals, in how decay, the decay of supernature, has impacted the canisters themselves over the course of time. Still, in another sense, they signify the death, decay, and the irretrievable passing of time itself.

Earlier, I mentioned that the photograph captures what I referred to as an apparent stillness. This “apparent stillness” is important to think through. For while the photograph itself is “apparent stillness” personified, statuesque or stone-like, in the way it holds time and freezes it, what is happening is quite the opposite, outside of the realm of the frozen crypt that is photographic time. In fact, what is happening, even while the photograph captures the extreme present of a now, is the death of that very now, of every now, its decay; a decay that is happening almost in uncanny simultaneity with the decay of the physical object of the canisters themselves.

The photograph, then, according to Derrida ‘[demonstrates] an affection for what has fallen into disuse, a mourning that keeps within itself what it loses in the keeping’[29]. It becomes a monument to what is lost and then also acts as ‘a fetish [object which] fetishizes in its turn its own abyss’[30], which in this case is the loss that comes in the form of the decay of both object and time. Disuse, as metaphor or as stand in for both decaying time and decaying object, then allows us to realize that any conversation about supernature, as processes of decay and ruination, would not be complete without considering the decay of this now, seemingly simultaneously both grasped at and lost, in one and the same moment. Use (of the photograph as art object, as monument put forth toward the practice of remembrance, as testimonial artifact witnessing loss and abjection) and disuse become radically intertwined at the site of this signature, the site of that which signifies traces, the sacral remains. If decay, in the form of rust, calcification, and atrophy, is and acts as signature to supernature as it plays its part in the wearing down of the canisters, then the photographic still of the decayed object, what remains of it, acts as signature for the ghost time of the now, the trace of that time and its immediate decay. Supernature exists within something akin to supertime, perhaps. Space and time meet at the site of the photographs of these canisters, always and already themselves a monument, not only to decay, but as well of decay, in and of itself.

Closing the Tomb: Can Beauty Remember?

What remains? The tomb, or what now remains to hold it, its photographic referent. Signature, inscription, text – the logic of decay, its weight bearing down upon both spatial and temporal parameters, seems to orbit these three moments that underscore the trace of supernature that is presented by the canisters themselves and re-presented within the context of Maisel’s photographs, photographs we might come to qualify as either “sublime” or “beautiful”. The photographs become remainders of what is left behind of a fragment of humanity, fractured by and within space and time, after decay, and while decay, has allowed for the ruin to tempestuously take hold. If the image, then, becomes signature, the signifier of authority and presence; or inscription, the imprint of, perhaps, sacral and vestigial remains; or, still yet, a text, a monument, architected, toward and for memory’s ability to witness and testify for the past, then we are left standing in front of these images, as if dejectedly and unnervingly, in front of a tomb itself asking the question of, what is it that these texts, these visual photographic texts, are trying (but also failing) to tell us? What story is left behind for us, to carry, and to carry on with? Or, perhaps, more immediately, the image, the tomb, the remainder itself asks the question to us: what will you remember, from here on in, after the image has been viewed, or rather witnessed?

A memory of abjection – the unmarked, ungrieved, abject subjectivities – left without even the signifier of immediate claimants that could be attached to them seems to be, at once, both called for and elusive. If the image, as Maisel offers it to us through his canister photographs, renders memory both possible and impossible in one and the same moment, then the question of whether the beauty of decay can remember becomes superfluous, at best. We are left to wonder how we might metonymically translate aesthetic considerations of the ruin’s beauty to political clarion calls for memory, remembrance, and the possibility of and for conscripting this remembrance within the embedded space of a viable archive; an archive here, supernatural as it is, that continues to decay. The text, which the photograph offers itself up as, is perhaps a testimonial to abjection, at least in how one might “read” the abject as that which exists outside of the unsettling logic of the normative and, hence, the apparently grievable, seemingly outside the parameters of readability itself.

This readability, or the conceptual impossibility to read, is of central importance to Julia Kristeva whose work on abjection is remarkably well known, to say the least. This impossibility to read the abject, or rather the abject as informing the very conditions of unreadability, comes from what exists within the logic of a thing being produced as “abject”, for as Kristeva so rightly describes, ‘there looms, within [abjection], one of those violent, dark revolts of being directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable’[31]. These “violent, dark threats” retell for us effectively the story of the violence of sublimity itself which was discussed earlier, wherein the sublime experiential moment arises from the pleasure of pain, the shock of the unfamiliar and the horrible being thrust upon us, to remind us of our relationship to the dead, to death itself, to our own dying, and above all else what we resist, this dying, in order to live or feel alive or be enlivened. As such, Kristeva’s abjection locates itself in:
…the corpse (or cadaver: cadere, to fall), that which has irremediably come a cropper, is cesspool, and death; it upsets even more violently the one who confronts it as fragile and fallacious chance. A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death…I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theatre, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live.[32]
To read abjection within the site of Maisel’s photographs – be it in the abject refusal of placing the mark or title of grievable subjectivity upon these patients, whose remains are now contained within the canisters; or abjection, itself as embodied by the supernatural decay of the canisters themselves; or furthermore, the abjection of beauty itself here, the abjection that such beauty becomes articulated as, or rather the beauty that is made possible through abjection in and of itself – would be to engage in the task of situating the aesthetic alongside the ethico-political in our consideration of supernature as process of decay and ruination, to insist upon the ethical as always and already a demand through which we make realizable the possibility to remember and recall the abject that has been aesthetically represented here. For Kristeva, this task, the task of the ethical as practiced within the space of remembrance and memorialization here, might very well be the work to be undertaken by the deject, ‘by whom the abject exists’. Accordingly, the deject:
…separates (her/himself, situates (her/himself), and therefore strays instead of getting her/his bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing. Situationist in a sense…(necessarily) dichotomous…s/he divides, excludes, and without, properly speaking, wishing to know her/his abjections is not at all unaware of them. Often, moreover, s/he includes himself among them, thus casting her/himself the scalpel that carries out her/his separations. A deviser of territories, languages, works, the deject never stops demarcating her/his universe whose fluid confines–for they are constituted of a non-object, the abject–constantly question her/his solidity and impel her/him to start afresh. A tireless builder, the deject is in short a stray. S/he is on a journey, during the night, the end of which keeps receding. S/he has a sense of the danger, of the loss that pseudo-object attracting her/him represents for her/him, but s/he cannot help taking the risk at the very moment s/he sets her/himself apart. And the more s/he strays, the more s/he is saved.[33]
Here and in this sense, the ethico-political stance of (or rather, command upon) the deject – the one who is audience to the images of Maisel’s series; the one who both, at one and the same time, is evasive of the memory of loss and death and hailed into that memory through these images – “straying” is one of always and already negotiating and mitigating the tenuous task of realizing her/his ever compromising relationship to abjection as such and as represented by and within the natural world, living and dying under the pressures of supernature. Abjection reminds the deject of her/his own destruction, her/his own relationship to the grotesque and the vulnerable (the corpse or the process of becoming corpse), as such, within her/himself. This ethical task within the context here commands upon the deject an imperative toward a recognition of (and recognizing) the logic of decay that might attempt to close up the gaps within history, as we attempt, as well, to understand the abject figures left outside of historical logic within the photographed canisters. By extension, the task of the abject other outside of history much like the task of the ruin, and the task of the ruin’s photographed evidence then, perhaps, becomes the task of longing itself, a longing already embedded within the deject’s enactment of her/his own straying both to and away from abjection. This interminable longing becomes one of an unending desire within abjection itself to be read, to be articulated, to be given, or rather, to have voice, to be heard, to be seen, and to be, above all else, recognized as, first and foremost, subjects, or worthy of subjecthood.

The instructive word in the statement that I have rendered above is the word “interminable”, for this longing only ever seems to reside in the place of longing and nothing more – an interminable longing for things that apparently disappeared to appear, or reappear. This seems to be the case in point for Maisel’s canister images. This is both what is its promised possibility and its notional impossibility as photographed decay and ruin; it is that which both limits and delimits its potential to remember within the spatial and temporal logic of supernature, especially as it becomes characterized as an object’s process of death and dying, a thing, of beauty; a text, made beautiful all the more, apparently, for its intrinsic and abject unreadability. The rusted tombs that the canisters come to signify become the site for both the opportunity for readability and remembrance, and the monumental figure whose silence becomes all the more unbearable because what forces this silence is, perhaps, the re-presentation of supernature’s beautiful decay within the ruined space and dying time of the photograph itself.

[1] Celan, Paul, ‘Fadensonnen’, trans. Michael Hamburger, in Poems of Paul Celan (New York: Persea Books, 1972, 1980, 1988, 1996), 283.
[2] Keats, John, ‘Endymion: A Poetic Romance’, in John Keats: The Poems (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1906, 1944, 1999), 61.
[3] Barnett, Newman. ‘The Sublime is Now’, in Charles Harrison and Paul Woods (eds.). Art in Theory: 1900-1990 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 573.
[4] Bernstein, J M, ‘In Praise of Pure Violence (Matisse’s War), in Diarmuid Costello and Dominic Willsdon (eds.). The Life and Death of Images (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008), 41.
[5] Walter Benjamin’s comments on now-time, the “Jetztzeit”, the time of the present, was explicated upon within the context of his famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, where accordingly as in Thesis XIV, ‘history is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now [Jetztzeit]’.
[6] Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 36.
[7] Bernstein, 2008, 39.
[8] Ibid., 41.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Information garnered from an email dialogue the author had with the photographer to clarify details about the discovery of the canisters, and how and in what state they were discovered.
[11] Manaugh, Geoff, ‘Mineral Kinships’, in David Maisel (ed.). Library of Dust (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2008).
[12] Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss’s article ‘AUser’s Guide to Entropy’ in October, Vol. 78 (Autumn, 1996) was instructive in garnering a better understanding of how entropy has been explained and utilized conceptually by artists such as Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark to think about how architecture finds itself within spatial settings. Accordingly, both Smithson and Matta-Clark looked upon architecture differently in regards to the processes of entropy, waste, wasting away, and ruination. For Smithson, architecture was a way to combat waste and structurally respond to waste and ruination, while for Matta-Clark, he considered ‘waste as architecture’ (p. 59), wherein the entropic quality of wasting away itself contributed to the very architecting of spatial parameters and how we might think about the structures working within those parameter. In either case, entropy as it related to the ruin was a productive venue to thinking through the ways by which natural decay might be aesthetically mobilized. Moving from a conversation about entropy as it relates to architectural structures to a discussion about Maisel’s canisters is made possible precisely in how the aesthetic value of corrosion and decay is heightened within his photographic series; in how the entropic break down of these canisters comes to be re-articulated within the space of his photographs as having a value adherent to how one might think about what we may be deemed aesthetically beautiful or pleasing.
[13] Bernstein, 2008, 39.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Butler, Judith, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 36.
[16] Bernstein, 2008, 39.
[17] Maisel, David, ‘The Library and its Self-contained Double’, in David Maisel (ed.). Library of Dust (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2008)
[18] Comay, Rebecca, ‘The Sickness of Tradition: Between Melancholia and Fetishism’, in Andrew Benjamin (ed.). Walter Benjamin and History (London: Continuum, 2005), 92.
[19] Parr, Adrian, Deleuze and Memorial Culture: Desire, Singular Memory and the Politics of Trauma (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008), 39.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 92.
[24] Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, 1969) Vol. 1, Fourth Book, 278.
[25] Again, we revisit Benjamin’s conceptualization of this now-time within Thesis XIV of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”
[26] Benjamin, Walter, ‘Thesis B’, trans. by Harry Zohn, in Hannah Arendt (ed.). Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 1968, 2007), 264.
[27] Schwenger, Peter. ‘Corpsing the Image,’ Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No, 3, 413.
[28] Derrida, Jacques, Athens, Still Remains, trans. by Pascal Anne-Brault and Michael Naas (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 2.
[29] Ibid., 41.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 1.
[32] Ibid., 3.
[33] Ibid., 8.

Ricky Varghese is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. His work attempts to bring together the fields of literary theory and criticism, history of psychoanalysis, and Jewish philosophy of history. He is currently completing a dissertation entitled Ruins as Scenes of Exposure: On the Enigma of Looking Back between Mourning and Melancholia where, using the trope of the ruin, he is attempting to explain the relationship between memory, history, and the psychical experience of loss. His other research interests include film theory, art criticism, history of photography, trauma studies, and historic memory.