Nature in the eye of the collector

24 January 2014

Nature in the eye of the collector

Norwegian photographer Christian Houge talks about his "Evolution" project which explores Man’s relentless efforts to study, label and define Nature, building collections of human species that fuse mystery, art and science.

Chrysaora (USA, 2004), by Christian Houge. 42 x 60 cm (16,5 x 23,6 in). Edition of 25.

In the artist’s own words, the "Evolution" project aims at "reinterpreting evolutionary studies through the lens of contemporary photography". Developed over a course of two decades with a very experimental approach, it takes us through the fascinating collections built by entomologists and paleontologists to systemize and categorize the thousands of animal species. Like he does in most of his photographic series, Houge here explores the relation between nature and culture, and pursues his investigation of the beautiful and the brutal, the organic and the artificial, the familiar and the unknown. "Evolution" is a prolific, multifaceted, visually impacting project which addresses many taboos, arouse conflicting emotions and questions our very conception of beauty. 

Artistics: The "Evolution" project is made up of various series that you have developed over the course of 16 years (1995-2011). Is that correct?

Christian Houge: Yes, that is correct. It has been a fascination of mine and a natural ongoing process throughout all of these years. As I have evolved so has the "Evolution" series. Looking both closer and broader at the theme at hand, I have come to understand a lot more of my - what some people would call "strange" - fascination. 

The first of these series is called "Deformatia". What is it about and why did you choose to start exploring the theme of evolution from this perspective?

Well, I like to explore beauty in the hidden and the not-so-obvious compared to what we are conditioned to see as beauty in society. The esthetic in the brutal or that which is first looked upon as hideous in society is a theme which I have worked on previously with other projects. For instance, my architectural series called "Organism" explores Man, architecture and habitat in the brutal concrete minimalism of the skytrain system in Bangkok. The name "Organism" comes from the fact that it mimics -to me- an organic system, with skeleton, veins and blood flows, a living organism of transport and living. This brutal, but yet beautiful net of transport links, develops in several levels: the higher you travel, the more you pay, meaning that it is set up physically to define people and their status. At the very bottom, you’ve got homeless families who use the bridges as shelter, trying to adapt to an ever changing modern society.

The "Deformatia" series was developed over a longer period in Oslo in a veterinary school where hundreds of deformed animals in formaldehyde are stored for study and research. This is a way to understand the world we live in and aberrations in the "normal" stream of how things are "supposed to be". I have definitely been inspired by DaVinci’s stunning morgue drawings and texts of the art critic and humanist Celio Calcagnini from the 1500s saying that : "Some things are beautiful just because they are distorted: they please us through the discomfort they create".

I have always been fascinated by how Man, in culture, has collected, studied, labeled and defined Nature – Nature being at the same time something we ourselves are a part of, and which is a part of us. We are a species too and I think some people in their egos tend to forget that sometimes. Collecting plants and animals has, for hundreds of years, been a way for Man maybe to feel that we have some sort of control over the world we live in. Man has always strived to understand more outside of himself.

All of the "Deformatia" images are made with a large format camera (analog 4x5 inch negative plate polaroids) which is why the quality and feel is so spectacular. The rough edge is from the border of the Polaroids which, unfortunately, are not produced anymore. The actual camera was made over 40 years ago. 

Cranipphoraco-Pagus Monosynetos Palatoschises (Oslo, 1997), by Christian Houge. 42 x 60 cm (16,5 x 23,6 in). Edition of 25.

From there, you developed other series focusing, in turn, on animal skeletons, bugs, jellyfish, and human skulls…

The urge to explore different ways of collecting nature has been in me always, I think. I might be somewhat out of the ordinary, but I see a lot of people connecting to this work and the whole idea of what the French call "curiosité". I guess this fascination lies hidden deep within most people even though not everybody would want it on their wall. Look at how the human skull has been used in the arts for hundreds of years, for instance. It is symbolic of life/death, nature, ego, vanity and at the same time an anatomical study of our own species. 

Some pictures look like a celebration of the strangeness in nature and the beauty than can be found in it. Others are more frightening or disturbing, so that viewers always oscillate between two conceptions of nature: one that would be some kind of Eden, where man and nature live together in good harmony; the other one where nature is seen as an hostile environment that man has to fight in order to survive. Is that the type of questioning you intend to arouse?

I like that question because you are really resonating with something very important. Hitting a nerve of human psychology. I like to try inviting the viewer to have two conflicting emotions at the same time. A type of ambivalence in contradicting feelings about something visual. This makes the image and series a lot more interesting to me and hopefully people will see totally different things in these. Some can feel a sense of discomfort while others will see beauty. Isn’t it what art should be? A perception of an image mixed with your own personal references and history. This invites the viewer to talk, discuss and share.

Pictures from this series are very diverse as a result of the many photographic processes you used: there’s colour and b&w photography, solarization, colour and light editing… Why is that?

This is the only series throughout my twenty years of work where I have felt totally free in mixing whatever technique that feels right and exploring that further. For instance, I experimented with sewing different material like Swarovski Crystal into the Canson cottonpaper (I did this with the jellyfish series) or dying prints in different types of tea and using Japanese ink on the wet surfaces. These are obviously one-offs and have their own personalities. Other images are edited digitally. I find it interesting to work with huge old analog cameras and organic material AND let digital imagery be mixed in. All the images are printed on high quality Canson paper with archival ink (also called Giclée/museum quality) which has twice the longevity compared to normal c-print prints.

Solarized (USA, 2001), by Christian Houge. 42 x 60 cm (16,5 x 23,6 in). Edition of 25.

Some of these pictures were shot in the natural history collections of museums, which questions the reasons why these collections were established in the first place i.e.: to understand nature based on scientific evidence and not religious beliefs, reminding us that debates about theories of evolution still exist nowadays in some countries. Did you have that in mind when you initiated that project?

I do not get into debates about religion. My job is to invite the viewer into something unknown with which they already have a relation to, inside of them. Just the fact that Man has always collected nature and categorized a lot of it is fascinating to me. To not just understand nature, but also oneself and our place in the scheme of things. I do bring religion into some of my projects to represent culture. We are all born as nature, as part of something ancient and holistic. I find it fascinating how culture, which we also need, often stands juxtaposed both within and without us next to nature. It seems like somewhat of a battle, at least for me. My series "Shadow Within" explores this quite a lot and I am actually in the middle of a new series now working with these contradictions as we speak. The battle between good and evil, right and wrong, light and dark has always been important to us in terms of place, ego and identity. At the same time, one needs both of these opposing concepts to see clearly and define what is what.

In the text you wrote, you describe "the tedious systemizing and categorizing of species" made by the entomologist as fusing of "mystery, art and science". Could you develop that idea?

I want to leave much of this to the viewer so that they use their own references, but I can say that explorative art, nature’s mystery and holistic science have always gone hand in hand. Albert Einstein, said that "If you look close enough in Nature, you will find all the answers". I think this has many layers of meanings and to me also reflects upon how the answers are also usually in us, even though we strive, as we have always done, outwardly. Beyond limits into the unknown. Maybe that is what keeps humanity going. The urge to explore that unknown and conquer/subdue or master. The major problem is obviously what happens when greed and ego come into this in terms of environmental issues threatening to wipe out the species of Mankind in only a very short amount of time.

Remember: if you look at the Earth’s evolution as a whole in a 24-hour period, Man only arrived a few minutes to midnight. I love reminding people of this and hope they will join me in marveling curiosity and wonderment.

Beauchêne Skull Study 2 (New York, 2011), by Christian Houge. 42 x 60 cm (16,5 x 23,6 in). Edition of 25. 

The last series you developed within the "Evolution" project is about the Beauchêne skulls, which both question our position in the animal realm and act as vanitas in still life painting. Is there a reason why you chose to address the place of man in nature at the end of the project? Why did you look at it from this particular angle (the Beauchêne skull)?

Well, I wanted to finish this part of the project with studying ourselves. By looking at man as a species, just like what all the other images are about. The outer, then the inner. It’s like when you are pointing at something with your index finger, you have three fingers pointing at you. The skull has always been used in the arts, either as a stark reminder of death or a very romantic symbol. Our vanity quickly comes to mind when seeing a skull. That which we all walk around with, just like the important and symbolic human heart, but seldom see in real life, open and unveiled. The immediate thought of death and no longer being alive in this form can be frightening for many, especially when materialism and ego has taken the place of faith and religion. This juxtaposition interests me.

I work a lot with the concept of death and dying especially in my series "Moksha", shot in India, which has been made throughout the last ten years, where I keep coming back to the same places, death houses and rituals to film and photograph. I seem to be pulled towards the beauty and realness of the theme so to understand myself and integral part of my being. The personal stories of the dying, pilgrimage and burnings 24 hours a day isn’t the most comfortable situation for me to be, but there is something beyond that which I want to discover. That’s why I come back.  

The anatomical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci were a deep inspiration for you. What did you like about these drawings?

He certainly broke a huge barrier when illegally drawing human anatomy at nighttime from the light of oilamps. This was totally taboo in the 1400's and he was thorough in his detailed drawings of not just skeletal structure, but also nerves, veins, organs and how all of this was connected. The work is so beautiful and dreamy, yet stark and real. The movements that he was able to draw in limbs and connections is truly amazing. It is said that his text was written in mirrors, backwards, so that it would be difficult to decipher. When I was first introduced to this work I was blown away and have been ever since.

Flying Fish (USA, 2004), by Christian Houge. 42 x 60 cm (16,5 x 23,6 in). Edition of 25. 

 >>> See the series "Evolution" on Artistics