interview : Dr. Paul Koudounaris

The venerable Dr. Paul Koudounaris talks about his internationally esteemed book, The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses and gives us a look into the eclectic world behind it.

photographer : Jessica Jewell
interview by : Jessica Jewell

Dr. Paul Koudounaris spent years traveling the world to tell the unspoken stories of centuries-old charnel houses. His photographs document the lonely inhabitants, skeletons, and mummies draped in ornate robes, personified and given life even after death claimed their mortal souls. His book, The Empire of Death has been catching the attention of people around the world, landing Dr. Koudounaris interviews with all types of publications. His morbid subjects draw peoples’ attention from all ends of the social spectrum because despite all their differences they do hold one thing in common for certain: death. Auxiliary had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Koudounaris in the comfort of his colorful abode to learn more about what kind of person is behind this brilliant madness.

Your domicile is morbidly opulent. Why do you have a shark head mounted on your garage driveway, and can you share with us about your love of taxidermy? I’ve never seen so many pieces in one place outside of The Natural History Museum!
Dr. Paul Koudounaris : I was at a warehouse where they had a bunch of fiberglass animal heads. I looked at all of them, the only ones that would look good coming out of the garage were the shark and the triceratops. Unfortunately there’s no great answer because there’s no great philosophy about sharks on a garage door. You might have noticed that I did shove a sign in his mouth, “maison du requin” which is, “house of the shark” in French, so I kind of tied him in that way by giving him a mosaic sign. But no, there’s no extended meaning behind the shark, it was a formal decision.

Regarding the taxidermy thing, people either understand right away what I’m talking about because they understand it intuitively or don’t get it at all. It’s not about death. It’s never been about death. Obviously I’m a morbid-minded person, I have this great love for the macabre. But I didn’t collect these things because I thought they were morbid, I never thought they were morbid, I think they’re beautiful. The first one I ever got was when I was living in the South Bay. I was living in a converted garage, it was this awful little place. And the people living in the front garage sold stuff at the flea market. It was this little white trash kind of family from Lawndale, and I came back one day and they were unloading their car and they had this horrible, tattered taxidermy goat head that was sitting in this box and I remember looking at it and thinking it was so sad because not only did someone take your life, but they threw you away. It filled me with this kind of profound sadness and loss. I felt this total disrespect and this total loss, not just of life, but of spirit that the thing wasn’t appreciated after it died. The goal was to not celebrate death, but to create a context that puts these dead things into a new, organic environment that they are part of a new whole, a spirit was taken from them and to create a new sense of spirit by creating a holistic environment that is dependent on large part upon them. The liveliness, the spirit of the environment is dependent of them by the way they’re used.

read the full interview in the August/September 2012 Issue

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