Christian Houge’s newest series could be described as: 'Portraits of animals on fire'. But this description would fail to encompass the whole scope and complexity of the project, both as a performance and as a body of work in conceptual art, which digs into symbolism, mythology and spirituality. This barely imaginable vision of (long-dead and stuffed) animals being burnt to ashes is the latest chapter in the artist’s examination of the relation between man and nature.
Developed over eight years, the 'Residence of Impermanence' series deals with man’s insatiable appetite to conquer nature, his role in the extinction of species (possibly including his own) and, ultimately, his blindness to understand his place within the world. In doing so, it asks many questions we don’t have the answer to but need to face, now maybe more than ever. The Pandemic that has changed the face of our world in only a few months is proven to be a direct result of humanity’s excessive intrusion into nature. This visually thought-provoking series, that some may find difficult to look at, offers no escape from thoughts we have been evading for too long.
The 'Residence of Impermanence' series was first shown publicly in a solo show at the Fotografiska museum in Stockholm last year (Aug. 30 - Nov. 24, 2019). Some pictures of the series are currently featured in the exhibition “Facing Fire: Art, Wildfire, and the End of Nature in the New West” at the California Museum of Photography in Los Angeles (Feb. 22-Aug. 9, 2020). We talked with Christian Houge about his series.
You started collecting hunting trophies more than seven years ago. Did you have the idea of this series right from the start or did it occur during the collecting process?
I collected for two years without having the exact idea of how I wanted to work with them and ultimately destroy them. My concept had to mature, as is the case with all projects that develop over a decade or so.
You have lived among stuffed animals during all these years. Did that change the way you look at them and how did that impact your final work?
The animals are stuffed, or rather their skins cover moulds. The taxidermy work is often meticulous, and the eyes of the animals are always looking straight at you. It took me a long time not only to find the right animal in the right posture, but also the expression and gaze of this once very alive being.
I spent many months with them in a concrete tower and at an abandoned petrol station in Oslo while I was getting everything ready. Many of the old animals needed care and repair before being burnt and I personally had to learn how to master the enormous lights and complicated Phase One digital camera (150 megapixels). During this preparation time, the animals covered the walls of the concrete room in my tower, waiting for the final ritual of burning and transcendence.
All of the animals have personalities which we humans have put upon them through culture. All these associations from childhood and experience play a great role in the way these animals are perceived. It is an unusually personal process.
Can you tell us more about the technical side of the project? Where did it take place and how was the preparation work? It must have been quite a challenge to organize and control the burning process in order to get to the result you wanted?
The preparation and logistics were a much bigger deal than I could have imagined. With almost 100 animals of different sizes to store, I had to look for different locations once my own attic and basement were full.
My dear mother, Sidsel, ended up with her attic full as well, and she could not even park her car in her garage in winter, because it was occupied by a huge standing polar bear and a lion!
So many people have helped me with this series. I could not have done it without all the assistance I have received from a very dedicated crew who joined me in exploring what this concept really meant and how it could convey larger matters at hand.
Buying the stuffed animals was very costly. It was quite a risk to take, but I have always felt obsessed with taking this series to an end, no matter what. Without this obsession, it would have been difficult to find the energy and conviction to do what I did. I think many artists will agree with that.
To find these animals -some of them quite rare, I have mostly spent time on auctions around the world. Many come from Germany, Sweden or Denmark. Some have been donated by people who don’t think it is fit to even own stuffed animals as we have come to a shift in society: the world around us is changing very quickly because of our own ignorance and ego. These animals represent part of that.
Burning the animals was very much trial and error, but I was able to find which flammables worked best on skin, hair and other surfaces. The flames need to be just right and are very difficult to 'capture' correctly in a photograph.
Did you get into some kind of psychological and physical preparation yourself? How did you feel during these performances?
This project is deeply personal as I have always loved animals and nature. When I was a child, my biggest wish was to work in a zoo. Now, these thoughts have changed. After reading `Why we look at Animals` by John Berger, my view of animals in culture has totally changed.
As nobody had done anything like this before, I had to explore all dimensions of the concept, as it grew. This included going out of my own comfort zone to really understand myself in a bigger picture, even though this project has always been so much greater than just me. Exploring our relationship, and conflict with Nature has been a recurring theme in all my series throughout the last twenty years. 'Residence of Impermanence' is for sure the most expressive and thought provoking yet.
Since the first 'art' of Man depicting animals in the Chauvet and Lascaux caves in the south of France, animals were shown as something spiritual, as well as crucial for our survival. Animal symbolism has always been crucial in all parts of culture and helps to better understand ourselves. Without animals and fire, we would not have evolved into the species we are today and I think we tend to forget that.
To me, this series is a reminder and a celebration of that. It is also a protest and a ritual designed to free the animals which have been locked in limbo, for decades. Neither alive nor dead. A cremation is something that most of us also want symbolically, I think. Existentialism comes to mind with this. What happens after we die? Do we have a soul? If so, do animals have one also?
Setting the animals free and closing the circle is very ritualistic to me and that the animals are treated with dignity. In the process of setting them free and hopefully creating dialog as to where we are coming from and possibly where we are heading, I am also physically taking an object of desire off the market for further sale. Some people have been furious because I am destroying something so expensive and beautiful. This says it all, I think :-)
These images will undoubtedly find a particular echo in France where they will remind many people of the fire that occurred in 2008 at Deyrolle, a Parisian institution for taxidermy, natural sciences, and entomology. Is your series somehow linked to this event?
The idea of burning expensive objects of taxidermy came from seeing the amazing shop in Paris, Deyrolle burnt to a crisp. Both violent and beautiful at the same time. The vision of charred animals juxtaposed with the remains of these heritage interiors had a huge impact on me. This was the perfect combination I had been looking for! After that my project grew stronger and more decisive.
The Victorian tapestry that appears in the background of the images was chosen because of its strong symbolic significance. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
House of Hackney's lush expensive wallpapers were used as backdrops throughout the entire series. They represent imperialism and Man’s urge to conquer Nature. After Melchior d'Hondecoeter and Peter Paul Rubens made their huge exotic paintings for the wealthy, wallpapers of wildlife, and subsequently, trophy animals became popular in homes.
Fire is an element whose symbolism is ambivalent. Aristotle for instance made a distinction between creative and destructive fire. Is this ambivalence also at play in your photos?
Yes, destruction but also new life. This goes for Nature as well as symbolism in religion for instance. Fire gave us the chance to evolve as a species. It protected us in every way. When energy was not spent digesting uncooked food, our brains grew.
Thousands of animals are being killed every day with a relative indifference, not to mention the almost invisible and silent Holocene extinction. Do you think that, in order to raise consciousness, it is necessary to challenge people with disturbing images, like the ones you have created in this series?
YES ! The exhibition ‘Facing Fire’ at Museum of Photography in Los Angeles which includes some of the images from the series, explores California's wildfires and the devastation despite the fantastic technology at hand to prevent or stop it. I think that this exhibition addresses part of a very important problem. Of the photographs that are featured in the show, I burned only North American animals, so that spectators could relate more easily to what they see: a mountain lion, a wolf, an eagle, a bison, an owl, which are also Native American spirit animals.