Animals are powerful symbols. We attribute traits and personalities to them, we model plush toys after them and name then. For most, our first words are imitations of animal sounds. No wonder Christian Houge’s images of animals in flames make us uncomfortable.
Text: Caroline Hainer
Photo: Christian Houge
For seven years, the Norwegian photographer collected preserved animals. He bought them for big amounts of money at various auction houses around the world, some were found in taxidermy stores and among the hunting crowd, collecting trophies. The industry of animal conservation goes hand in hand with colonial history. Colonialists in African and Asian countries were keen on hunting, the bigger animals the better. Hunting was a rich man’s game, and a hunting trophy was a symbol of strength and power.
“My intention is not to provoke but to ask questions.”
Christian Houge’s animals were never killed and stuffed in modern times. Rather he chose old specimen of different species such as parrots, cobras and deer. Against a background of expensive, English wallpaper that brings to mind the British upper class and colonialism, he then set fire to the animals, one by one. The photographs in the exhibition Residence of Impermanence show animals on fire.
– I want to direct the gaze at people, through the animals. Man has constantly strived to tame nature and master it. A stuffed animal, sentenced to eternal life in limbo, is a symbol of man’s view of nature.
Setting fire to the animal is highly ritual to Christian Houge. He works methodically, there is a tenderness in his process that ends with the annihilation of the stuffed animal. He sees it as liberating the animal, setting it free. Having existed in a frozen state without being neither animal nor nature (but rather part of a humanly constructed culture), the dead animal gets peace. It also disappears from the market, and is thus free from being sold again.
– It’s very emotional for me. Most often it is the smaller animals that touch me the most, to see them disappear in the flames. Even though I know they have glass or plastic balls for eyes, I can’t help but meet their eye. It is universal, we try to seek the eye of another being. Look at the photograph of the deer on fire, look at the trust and the honesty that is there, in its eyes. Even though we know the animal is dead.
Christian Houge remembers very well the first animal he burned and how his emotions rose. He grew up in the forest of Norway and in his art he has always explored the relationship between man and nature in various ways. As a Norwegian, he has a special connection with the polar bear, which in many ways is a symbol for Norway. Burning a stuffed one in natural size stirred up feelings not only in himself but in his countrymen.
– The polar bear is sacred, you simply do not touch it. Seeing the polar bear in complete contrast to its natural element, disappearing in flames, caused wild emotions. I bought that particular polar bear at an auction in Norway and afterwards the auction house told me that they will no longer sell taxidermy, they can’t stand behind it.
The most heated emotions, though, have come from a British lady who was fond of fox hunting. She considered his so-called art upsetting because it wiped out beautiful creatures from the earth. It is at such times, Christian Houge notes, that our absurd relationship with animals and nature becomes particularly clear.
Christian Houge has always explored man’s relationship to nature, both as opposing and unifying forces, in his photography. He has lived with wolves, documented how technology brings changes to remote Svalbard, and photographed climate impact in Norwegian mountains. His art has been recognized around the world and exhibited in New York, Paris, London and Beijing, among other places.
For the Residence of Impermanence series, he acquired around 80 stuffed animals which he then sat fire to. The project took him eight years.