Okurimono is the latest photographic project by Norwegian artist Christian Houge, a series that explores delicate themes such as personal identity, sexuality, longing and gender dysphoria.
Okurimono (meaning both “gift” and “that which is in-between” in Japanese) - is a word that binds together this comprehensive project developed by Norwegian photographer Christian Houge over five trips to Japan between 2007 and 2018.
Entrance, Christian Houge. Okurimono series, 2007-2018
Okurimono series explores the personal pursuit of identity, at times with an underlying darkness as Houge had the chance to be introduced to Tokyo’s subculture. In exploring this theme, Christian Houge has ventured into delicate matters such as sexuality, longing and gender dysphoria. In this particular series, he uses staging as a method to create a story within a story.
The artist wishes to question the viewer and provoke a reflection on topics that are often seen as taboos in our contemporary societies. The viewer’s own associations are important in appreciating this work where ambiguity plays an important role.
The project started in the Harajuku district of Tokyo which is known as a center of Japanese youth culture and where Christian Houge found some of his first motifs: teenage girls dressing up in post-Victorian dresses or ‘cosplay’ costumes to identify with a character of their favorite comics. Here, the desire to express one’s uniqueness is central and the photographer explores the tension between personal identity and aesthetics shared by all (or at least by the same youth group).
Usagi, Christian Houge. Okurimono series, 2007-2018.
In many of his carefully staged photographs, Christian Houge’s models are masked, so as to echo the many social masks we wear in our day-to-day lives. In our post-modern information society, drained of wonder, these enigmatic masked characters also evoke the world of shamans and pagan rituals, therefore injecting a sense of mystery and spirituality that many people are longing for.
Symbolism and the many references to ritual and identity in an otherwise suppressed society, may at times create a sense of unease among viewers. The Okurimono project also explores the topic of identity and sexuality in gender dysphoria with Japan’s nyūhāfu (the transsexual ‘new halfs’). Here, the quest for identity coincides with a search of femininity and body image which results in complex physical transformations. Viewers may look at these portraits not having any clue that models are nyūhāfu. Yet, the photographs are staged so that viewers are placed in a disconcerting voyeuristic role while looking at otherwise closed world.
Shibari (the art of tying), which originates from the Edo period (1600s), is another territory explored by Houge in his Okurimono series. His striking photographs of female models tied with red rope on a white background take us into this powerful journey into vulnerability and surrender, power and freedom.
Through tradition, symbolism and technology, Okurimono also explores the hugely potent symbols that help define parts of Japanese culture and national identity, between old and new. As Art historian Erling Bugge put it: “Christian Houge guides us into a mystery. It resides between the ritualized shapes of the traditional and withdrawn Zen garden in Kyoto and the equally ritualized spaces of futuristic, urban Tokyo. For a westerner, Japan might look familiar, since what is held up for us looks like a futuristic spectacle somehow grounded in a western imagination. This judgment, however, is too easy. In Christian Houge’s photographs, the sense of sameness withdraws and a very different feeling of strangeness creeps up on us. In fact, what this series registers is a remarkable place of alterity in today’s global order, a radical difference bang in the middle of the familiar.”
The images of the Okurimono series share a ghostly, otherworldly quality. In reality and dream, ritual and play merge while the boundaries between the known and the unknown dissolve.