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Contemporary photography: the Shibari in Christian Houge’s work

22 April 2020

Through a series of photographs taken during numerous trips to Japan, photographer Christian Houge invites us to re-visit the Japanese ancestral practice of Shibari. This work is part of a larger project, called: ‘Okurimono’, an in-depth exploration of Tokyo’s underworld that has been 10 years in the making. 

 

Christian Houge re-thinks the link between nature and culture, the theme of his artistic productions, in a completely new way. The ‘Okurimono’ series makes reference to the impossible choice between distinct and often juxtaposed realities. This situation is particularly felt by the younger Japanese generations who find it difficult to place themselves in between tradition, a very present Japanese heritage, and the modern manners, a symptom of opening up to the world that started in the Meiji era (1868).

 

Kauzan II, Christian Houge, Série Okurimono, 2007-2018

 

Japanese culture now extends internationally and exerts such a powerful fascination that certain themes tackled in the ‘Okurimono’ series are part of a certain ‘pop culture’ world, capitalised by art photography. As an example, the ‘Cosplay’ phenomenon, the practice of adopting the appearance and attitudes of a fictional character. Its aesthetic work makes it an eminently suitable art photography subject. This theme is shared out with others, such as ‘Nyūhāfu’ (an Anglicism translated into Japanese meaning: ‘New Half’ or ‘Nouvelle Moitié’ in French), a nickname given to transgenders in Japan.

All these topics showcase of many underdeveloped realities of Japanese society as they are not an integral part of tradition. The fact remains that they are helping to build a new Japanese identity, witness to the country’s world opening which was historically so isolated and mysterious.

The ‘Okurimono’ series aims to explore Japanese aesthetics and traditions from a contemporary, inquisitive and original point of view. In this vast photographic project, the Shibari is distilled into a series of seven photographs, making a series within the series.

 

The term ‘shibari’ means ‘tied’ and refers to a ritual and traditional practice first practiced during the Edo era (1608–1868), as a method of torturing enemies of war. Tying techniques were and remain numerous. We would hardly be exaggerating in describing the practice as ‘personalized torture’ and ritual, since the techniques of tying up are numerous, adapted to each sex, the age and the social class of the tortured.

  

Shibari I, Christian Houge, Série Okurimono, 2008-2018

 

In the 1960s, Shibari emerged as an art and it is this aspect that fascinated Christian Houge. Through this series within a series, it is once again the uniqueness of this Norwegian contemporary photographer that shines through. Shibari has become a recurrent theme in Japanese artistic productions on the one hand and also internationally. This practice has left the ranks of the army to firstly join those of contemporary Japanese art, then globally. Thinking, in particular, of the famous Nobuyoshi Araki’s photographs, with the theme of Shibari set against the backdrop of Japanese interiors loaded with decorations, whose violent and sexual aspects appear aggravated. It is exactly by this absence of sexual connotation that Christian Houge focuses, it is through a very refined, de-sexualized and delicate staging that he offers a new interpretation.

Certainly, the Japanese practice has been reinterpreted many times with a Western point of view, even diverted into real sexual practice, bondage, whose link with domination and the intrinsic violence are the attraction.

 

  

             Shibari III, Christian Houge, Série Okurimono, 2008 – 2018                                

 

These Shibari photos stand out from the rest of the ‘Okurimono’ series as they are the result of an independent creative process.

During his various trips to Japan, all Christian Houge's interest was in subcultures. It is an unusual way of dealing with culture and tradition in Japan, as the Japanese underworld is not easy to access. We can rightly speak of exploring in all its adventurous and mysterious dimensions. After one of his intermediaries introduced him to invisible discreet locations, usually inaccessible to foreigners, Christian undertook a real creative process ‘using four hands’ with a master Shibari and his model in order to create these photographs in the studio. Another difficulty, the Shibari technique needs to be learnt and is part of all the so-called ‘don’t try this at home’ rule, so professional collaboration was much more than just obvious, it was compulsory.

The photographic project developed to such an extent that certain hangings and knots were done for the first time during the series, thereby including the photographer into the process, guided by an authentic desire to pay homage to Japan and to its culture. The symbolic value of the colours of this mini-series (white and red) are a subtle reminder.

  

Shibari IV, Christian Houge, Série Okurimono, 2008 – 2018

 

As we said, Japanese aesthetics have influenced many works of art on the international art scene. There are countless exhibitions and other retrospectives given by major museums highlighting Japanese objects, clothing and practices. As such, it seems clear that the ‘Shibari’ series is typical of this Western attraction for Japanese culture. However, if in the ‘Okurimono’ series mainly manifests the way in which openness to the world and entry into modern day have upset Japanese society, these latest photographs help to reverse that relationship. They are a delicate tribute to the Land of the Rising Sun and its history, embodying the considerable influence Japanese aesthetics represent to the rest of the world.

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