The last time I saw Paul Koudounaris, he was sitting, cross-legged, atop a small table in front of an old medieval church. He was regaling an audience with stories of demon cats, using language that was as colourful as the clothes he had donned. One of his slides featured a rendering of Da Vinci’s Last Supper, with a giant cat replacing Christ as the central figure.
After that experience, I thought I knew Paul well enough to conclude that he could do nothing to surprise me. And yet when his new book, Memento Mori, arrived at my doorstep, I actually gasped. The cover itself is a thing of extraordinary beauty. Its satiny binding is cobalt blue, and reminds me of the type of cloth in which Renaissance artists often draped the Virgin Mary. It is rare to find a book these days that could be considered a piece of art in-and-of-itself.
I washed my hands before holding it.
Over the years, I’ve come to think of Paul as a wordless storyteller. It is through his photographs that he tells a great many tales about the diverse ways in which humans, both past and present, have interacted with the dead. From the burial caves of Indonesia to the colourful celebration of the Festival of the Skulls in Bolivia, Memento Mori features photographs from more than 250 sites and 30 separate countries.
Flipping through the glossy pages of this extraordinary book, I begin to understand just how varied our treatment of the dead has been across time and space. But what of the similarities?
‘As diverse as their sources may be’, Paul tells me, ‘there is nevertheless a lot that is similar about a decorated skull from Tibet and the jewelled bones I photographed in Europe, for instance. Or an old Christian charnel house and a burial cave on Sulawesi’.
Paul—who has a PhD in Art History from UCLA—is nevertheless cautious about drawing too many parallels.
‘Judging on those external similarities invites ethnographic projection, which can often be highly deceptive. The underlying belief systems between all these cultures can be vastly different’.
One of Memento Mori’s most striking features is the flashes of colour which pop up throughout the book. To most Westerners—who are used to thinking of death with some degree of solemnity—the hot pinks, bright yellows and fiery oranges can be shocking.
‘That’s our context’, Paul says. ‘It’s the vision we’ve created. We’ve determined over the last century and a half that death is a one-way portal that indelibly erases a person from society… That makes death ultimately a lonely and tragic event. So, yeah, in our culture we think of it solemn terms’.
But this isn’t the case for all people, some of whom ‘conceive of death as an open door through which a dialogue is still possible’. For them, ‘the “dead” can be a very lively group’, Paul explains.
‘The first time that dichotomy ever really made a big impression on me was when I initially went down to the Fiesta de las Ñatitas in La Paz, Bolivia. All the European charnel houses I photographed in Empire of Death were still very solemn sites to me. Even though I later came to realize that they were once very lively, loving places, we had managed to project our modern Western solemnity on them. Down in La Paz, with the incredible beauty, colours, love, and general atmosphere of celebration the dead were being feted with, I realized very quickly how culturally conditioned I was’.
Was he surprised by this new, colourful way of treating the dead?
‘Not really. I think unconsciously I had been gravitating towards this vision for a long time, and that’s no doubt why I was seeking it out. It didn’t really surprise me as much as it liberated me’.
At the beginning of Memento Mori, Paul tells a story of a guide he met on his travels to Indonesia who, as a boy, slept in the same bed as his mummified grandfather. This man’s life has not just been shaped by his relationship with the dead; it has been defined by it. That got me wondering about how Paul’s own life has been affected by his interactions with the thousands upon thousands of the dead he has photographed.
‘I am sure that over time I will discover more and more ways that this has all affected me. One thing it has done, however, is impress upon me a sense of unity. Dealing with the dead has made me understand that no matter how different we think we are, we are all part of cycle that transcends place and time—whether you want to define it in spiritual or existential terms, there’s an underlying oneness, death makes all that very clear’.
Although Paul’s work focuses on the dead, the story he is trying to convey in Memento Mori is one of life.
‘I would have called it “Memento Vitae” if I could have, because it’s as much if not more about being a reminder of life as of death…In my parlance, death and dead are two different and very specific things. The dead are a group, those who have passed on. Death is the border between us and them. As such, it’s an intellectual construction that is culturally relative’.
‘This is something that I have a hard time getting some people to accept, but it’s true. Once you start realizing that the border is something more than just defining where life ceases, it becomes very arbitrary. Where do we keep the dead? How do we treat them? Do we allow them to still have a role to play within society, or is the space between us and the impassable? So the book is very specifically about places where the border is at its most passable, and that makes it as much about life as about death, or rather about the unity that I mentioned’.
In Memento Mori, you will not find the same level of historical and cultural contextualization that you found in Paul’s previous two books, Empire of Death and Heavenly Bodies. This book, more than the others, is a testament to Paul’s extraordinary skills as a photographer and as an artist. It is a feast for the eyes. With its heavy emphasis on images, Memento Mori invites the reader to gaze unashamedly into the world of the dead, and to find the beauty that lies within.
‘With the previous books, I felt frustrated as a photographer because the photos were captive to the text’, Paul tells me. ‘I never felt like their voice and their power were fully being heard. The text predicated which ones we would use, where they would go, how they would be displayed’.
With Memento Mori, Paul worked closely with the book’s designer, Barnbrook, first grouping together the photos in a way that made visual sense, and then adding text later after everything had been laid out.
‘Its approach is drastically different than the other two books. This time the photos do the talking, not the author. Because of this, I think Memento Mori is a much more beautiful, nuanced, and moving book’.
But what about the historical and cultural context? In Western society, we often have to intellectualize our interactions with the dead in order to avoid appearing voyeuristic. For instance, we can gaze upon body parts floating in jars as long as we rationalize that experience using a medical narrative. Flipping through the beautiful pages of Memento Mori, however, we must ask ourselves: is it possible to appreciate the dead purely from an aesthetic perspective?
Although Paul has his own view on this matter, he won’t tell me. ‘This question is central to the book. I want people to look through it and come up with their own opinion’, he says. ‘Letting people make that judgment is the very point of Memento Mori.
Memento Mori goes on sale next month. You can pre-order your copy by clicking here.