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A Norwegian nature lover and artist who sets fire to stuffed animals hanging from the most luxurious wallpapers with wild nature motifs. Christian Houge’s purpose is to shed light on Mankind’s lack of humility when it comes to our place in a bigger picture. Amazingly beautiful photographs with a message that heat things up in the exhibition Residence of Impermanence.
These dramatic images of burning animals elicit a strong emotional response. Even though you know they’re stuffed animals, it feels like the crackling flames bring them back to life. Then there’s the aspect of the wallpapers.
“These English wallpapers symbolize imperialism and colonialism of an era in which people were obsessed with conquering nature, new lands and each other. Wallpapers with wild nature were brought into our homes, together with stuffed animals, to show our prowess over nature. These wallpapers replaced the lavish hunting and exotic animal paintings for aristocrats. One of the most famous artists in this field was was Peter Paul Ruben, which portrayed the supremacy of humankind and the right to reign over Nature itself," says the artist Christian Houge.
Trophies have long served as powerful symbols for us, their exact meaning varying with context in all cultures around the world. When colonialists began hunting and killing animals in the countries they considered “their colonies”, naturally they wanted to exhibit these lions, giraffes, buffalos, tigers, leopards, wolves, elephants and many other now endangered species – and an entire industry centered on taxidermy blossomed. The animals were stuffed in postures that we humans consider typical of the symbolic values we’ve assigned the animals.
“The photographs are of such a nature that they elicit an immediate reaction from the viewer. What is it we’re actually looking at? How can Houge, in his exhibition Residence of Impermanence, make such beautiful artwork from something as emotionally charged as burning mounted animals? Naturally, these are questions that many people will ask themselves in the exhibition hall here at Fotografiska. And we’re a place that loves to ask questions, rather than always offer answers,” says Lisa Hydén, Exhibition Manager at Fotografiska Stockholm.
Houge’s work forms a message rooted in the now outdated concepts of colonialism, combined with a questioning of the overexploitation of Earth’s resources. And, unfortunately, the latter remains an urgent issue. Today, old trophy animals such as these fetch high prices at auction, sold to new social groups who want to display them as status symbols. These old animals are old and often damaged goods and it is not unusual that Houge have to repair the animals before burning, because they are in such bad shape. In this process he takes an object out from the market and closes the circle for the animal, without inspiring new hunts.
“This very personal project is an extreme act in extreme times made to provoke questions and hopefully a discussion and it’s extremely personal. We Humans are violently exploiting nature and consider ourselves superior above all living things. Of course, the truth of the matter is that we’re totally dependent on Nature for our survival. This is why my purpose of burning hunting trophies on such lavish wallpapers makes total sense to me. Where’s the humble acceptance that we’re part of a bigger picture? Where’s the discussion about how, thanks to our extreme population growth, we’re simply continuing to selfishly snatch Earth’s natural resources and kill off animal species forever?” says Houge.
We Humans have a long tradition of using animals as mirrors to understand ourselves and our behaviours. We’ve given them symbolic values in all areas of culture. We seek their gaze whether they’re dead or alive. Just consider sayings such as “strong as an ox”, “wise as an owl”, “sly as a fox”…
“Conceptually, the series comprise a performance in which the animal is broken down. Existentially, I’m setting the animal free, I’m closing the circle. And physically, I’m destroying an object and thereby removing it from the market. Part of the process in this ritualistic performance concerns letting go, abandoning control as the combination of the flames and the animal creates the final expression. The animal is given a last breath of life and dignity, after having been locked in limbo due to Mankind’s perverted idealisation of nature. This says a lot about our ego, the idea that we have an insatiable need to conquer”, says the artist.
Houge grew up in the forests of Norway, developing a special relationship with both nature and animals. A relationships that Houge – having lived in environments where hunting is part of culture. He continually explores the relationship between humans and nature, with a desire to ask new questions and spark personal discussions.
“For him, the act itself is a ritual in which he closes the circle and finally brings the animals peace, that is, this is done in order for us to break the cycle and liberate the animals from our crazy desire to dominate,” Hydén continues.
With the use of fire, a tool that humans alone in the animal kingdom have learned to master, he explores new techniques of expression. This is why the ties between us and the animals portrayed in the images are so highly charged.
It all began with a fire in an luxurious taxidermy boutique in Paris, which inspired Houge to start collecting trophy animals to create a series of photographs in which he sets them on fire. He’s spent eight years and a great deal of money acquiring these old trophies and creating his works to highlight issues centred on our relationships to the animals and the environment he is concerned about. These works are now going on display at Fotografiska Stockholm in the exhibition Residence of Impermanence – and they’re guaranteed to elicit an emotional response. The title alludes to Buddhist teachings on the transience of life, its impermanence.
“The situation with all these stuffed animals and their exorbitant prices is absurd, especially since they begin to rot as soon as the taxidermist is completed his work, eventually falling apart. Under the skin you find all the different synthetic materials over which the skin is stretched, which I continue to study even after they’ve been burned,” says Houge.
Unsurprisingly, this work may upset certain people, but the fact that Houge creates these works to ask important questions in a very much disconnected era and approach to the planet’s resources is essential.
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