The art of looking
The need for images that can change us
An account of Christian Houges images.
A glacier is melting in the Alps. The consequences, if it completely disappears together with the other glaciers, will be catastrophic: The ocean will rise and livelihood will vanish for many. Yes, the very place we inhabit each and everyone of us, nation, the earth we walk on - the home we seek refuge for safety - will in part be completely gone.
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Christian Houge´s photo series Death of a Mountain (2020) does not document these great processes, but rather this glacier - not only as part of a general landscape that has made peace with disappearing, not only as an example for the accelerating climate crisis, nor a part of something that “everyone knows”, but as part of something distinctive: the glacier as an individual. I think that this entrenchment of the glacier´s body and our perception of it, is a sort of counter image towards the hopelessness, resignation or - even worse “realism”, understood as a certain calculation of whether something can in fact be done or not. Such an orientation of reality has never been the point of view of revolutionaries throughout history. In fact, the potential for change and clear thinking towards worthy aims is rather rooted in a radical lack of probability. A form of love, one might say, because a custodianship that binds us specifically to others - a person, a landscape or a memory - can also revolve around and focus on nature. I say love, because it is love which transcends realism and aims for truth and a connection to that which matters. Love is what affects us. It is love that, after all, makes life worth living. Right?
We know that this is the nature of our attitude towards people we care about. Most of us will do everything for our loved ones. There lies no calculated process to base this desire to protect those we hold dearest - because it is love. No one says “let me quantify this” when we can save a father, a brother, a friend from suffering. Is it not this attitude, to the glacier that Houge invites us to explore?
Therefore, conviction and belief mean everything. Blind devotion, unconditional care and a poetic sensitivity - because it anchors our gaze towards the object of change (here: the glacier) - is the only possibility if one really wants change. Because there are no other alternatives and because what you want to protect is something you need for your world to exist. Houge moves along the axis of this purposeful, loving poetry and change as he sees the individual in the glacier; he reveals its vulnerability, by documenting the draped UV- resistant tarp and by so, highlighting the necessity of acts of love. It is such, a vulnerable body must be guarded against violence, weather and wind in order to flourish, the mountain is naked, exposed, and nourished with care, just as one would any living being.
There is no necessity for any protection from Nature's own cycles, of which it is part of, but rather from Humanity´s own and the forces we have unleashed, which are part of the Anthropocene: the ruthless redesign of the ecosystems which makeup this world that we have developed in recent years. 500 years - and cultivated since the industrial revolution. For us, nature is a resource or something beautiful to look at, perhaps something sublime, or a source of health. But in itself? It is nature in itself we must show care, just as Man himself we must take care of, without instrumental motives. Modernity has ravaged nature, it has turned its identity against itself, yes, it is as if man has created a demonic element out of nature itself, which turns towards the glacier and threatens its origin: tsunamis, tidal waves, temperatures that destroy coral reefs and melts glaciers and releases the permafrost´s greenhouse gases that have been lying dormant since our predecessors.
Take a look at Houge´s glacier. The glacier springs out with a peculiar, beautiful fragility through all the ripples, folds and curvatures in the textile that creates baroque folds around the ice contours. Houge´s point of view anchors the gaze and draws it towards the tactile, to our relationship to reality per se: the small flap that, almost erotically, exposes the bluish icy skin under the UV-resistant tarp. Glimpses of the darkening tunnels underneath the surface, reminiscent of pulsating veins beneath your beloved´s blushing skin. But it is really just the glacier we see? No. The embrace of textiles about the body shapes of the glacier instructs our attention to detail and gives the gaze a weight that sinks towards things, the natural forms, the grass, the earth, the stones with a tenderness every loving body knows so well.
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There are many who think that if an artist is to be political, or have a political effect, he or she must throw himself or herself into demonstrations and action, chain themselves to state buildings and write slogans. But it is exactly at this point where we should not throw ourselves in with the troops fighting for the good cause, according to the Slovian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek. “Do not let yourself be caught up in pseudo-activist coercion to do something”, he says . Such formulations will be provocative for some, but he is talking about something essential: There is a conformism in doing and saying the right things, where lies difficulty to detect it as hollow - precisely because that is what one should say and mean. It is easy to take positions and talk about “ the Earth must be saved” and that we “must think green”, because despite the fact that all opinions are in the right place, such good intended words do not lead to anything in themselves. There potentially lies a crippling cynicism and apathy in this, which removes us from the fire that burns in all of us and leads us to do what is true and right. And this is Zizek´s point: that without us coming into contact with the passion for life itself that makes us do anything to protect something, nothing will happen. Nothing. We can say a lot, but nothing happens.
That is why we must start with who we are and where we are. We must begin with what we can do and what it is that we want, and what corresponds with our innermost feelings and fibers of our love capacities - and what they relate to. For some it is political actions that create the necessary vibrations, for others it is reading and writing philosophical dissertations that generate sparks in the mind. For Houge, it is producing photographs and series that affect him. For me, it is writing. Why is this important? Because we need to synchronize who we really are with who we want to be. We need to merge our real ambitions, our beliefs, what makes us happy, with the bigger matter here in a way that not only reflects us and who we are, but also creates an unbreakable connection between the inner and the outer.
Žižek often refers to the character Bartleby in Herman Melville's short story Bartleby - The Scrivener (The Scribe) (1853), to illustrate this point. Bartleby was a boring clerk, says Žižek, but he was also a revolutionary. Not because he took part in demonstrations or joined a political party, but because, when asked by his employer to do his boring office work, he replied that he "preferred not to do so". Why and how can this be associated with some revolutionary act, one may wonder. Yes, Žižek continues, because he refuses to play by the existing rules. He does what he wants and therefore comes to a place where sincerity is made available for determining the outcome, not duty, or "what others say and do". This works, because when he turns his back on the play he - and most others - who are pressured into, he refuses to give in. Social control does not work. He refuses to do his job, but he does something more radical than that: he creates an openness in the very symbolic web of reality that is intertwined. He opens a space where we can think differently.
Christian Houge also creates such a space through Death of a Mountain.
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Through the act of caring - the textile, the lens, the gaze - Houge cuts through platitudes, to avoid kitsch when it comes to a type of climate-conscious reminder. Images and works of art and texts that tell us to "look, oh how terrible to watch the world disappear" with superficial pathos and self-absorbed sweetness. There are many versions of nature in danger reminiscent of a moose in the sunset: phrases that confirm what we know and fear, but that are designed only to evoke emotions in us, not thoughts. Emotions that are not directed at the real processes outside us, but rather a pleasant melancholy we can caress when we have love grief or - oh, it is relatable - when something we love is about to disappear. But this is often a form of narcissism, a form of self-reflection, where it is not about the acute danger someone or something is exposed to, but instead a polished mirror that becomes so shiny and fine that you can see your own vulnerability within the drama of exposed reality in them.
In contrast to this cognitive fog, one could consider the fabric's vicarious embrace of the glacier body in Houge's work as a humble and loving point of view that renounces the desire to reproduce one's own reflection or, if the relationship is scaled up, to master or extract natural resources. The fabric tells us an alternative story than the narrative of dominance and restrained pleasure that the colonizing gaze of romance rushed across the mountains as in the form of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich's back-turned figures as they tower over the plateau. In his notable work (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer) (1818) we see a broad-legged man who confidently looks beyond a nature that is his - through the gaze, but also through his attitude, the broad-legged and confident stance seems to articulate Man´s control over nature that modernity for hundreds of years had realized - and continued to realize afterwards, during our time. The lyrical attitude can be considered as an attempt to cover up the violence in the dominance, but let us not be fooled: it is this desire for mastery, this willingness to consume nature as an object of raw materials or aesthetic pleasure that has led the glacier Houge embraces through the camera lens to such a vulnerable place.
Houge has previously addressed and dealt with our attitude towards Nature and climate in his works, especially in the project Residence of Impermanence (2018-) where he, at first glance, chooses a different strategy. Instead of expressing care, he chooses to draw the violence of Man's colonial ambition to its ultimate consequence by burning trophy animals: the flare of flames that devours them resolves a process that has already in reality been completed. The animals are already dead, they already are transformed into decorations, into property, into something we can boast about and display in museums or private collections. The beauty of the flames is overwhelming, and the enormous pathos of destruction exposes the ambiguous, poetic nerve that is aroused when the truth is exhibited. Because the remaining value that lies in the dead animal has nothing to do with life, only money, only owning, buying and selling and boasting off something we have conquered.
And is it not here, in the supremacy of Man, that Nature and animals kneel under the weight of our ambitions? Is it not here that our endless urge to subjugate land, animal species, alien peoples and cultures, where the whole of human reality meets itself in the mirror? For it is narcissism that lies in our hubris also on a collective level: a desire to recognize their own excellent reflection in everything we touch and are able to comprehend that this is ours, this is something we own, this is something we have taken, conquered, bought or understood.
Most of what we see, and the ways of seeing, have in other words historical roots.
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I have already mentioned Friedrich's mountaineer as a picture of dominance, but he was also part of another trend that began in the 19th century and has continued to this day - albeit in other forms. Through the Romantic era, a number of nations began to initiate mapping of what kind of territories were within the kingdom's borders: Cartographers and surveyors were sent out to calculate the national landscape in heights and latitudes. In this way one could objectively calculate what was ours. What was the volume and inventory of our abode.
Along with those scientists, was also often artists - usually painters, who in their own way were to document the national landscape. The objective here was of a different kind, where also usually laid a strong idealizing impulse in these paintings; a desire to dig up something specific to each country and what it looked like. The national romanticism in Norway was nevertheless particular, since over the centuries it had bred a very peculiar peasant culture with its own stories, folklore costumes, music and storytelling which through these paintings were woven together with all the country's mountains and valleys. The peculiarity lay in the common denominators, the «specifically Norwegian», and the national romantic painters could therefore not paint this mountain, this stone or this farmer - nature as it was or is - but as we (they) wanted to imagine it. They thus created fictions, generalized images of nature, which moved away from individual points of view and covered up vulnerability.
This was the task of national romanticism: To create images of Norway, exemplified through the Norwegian landscape, that could become "a common object of love", as the father Augustine wrote it 1500 years earlier: A symbolic space that allowed us to imagine the same with the purpose of creating a home. Something recognizable, a common ground under our feet and soil, grass, rocks and sea where we could return to when we needed grounding, anchoring, or form a conceptual home in our heads when we were away traveling. This was also what the anthropologist Benedict Andersson called "imagined communities": ideas, images and thoughts that could frame and gather people around this notion. It was not so important that the map and terrain matched, whether the ideal image matched the dreams of the population. We can state today that this worked according to plan, but the question that quickly arises is how such an idealized images of nature can be understood in relation to today's reality - and not in the least the growing threat to nature, which I have already touched on.
In this context, another series by Christian Houge becomes interesting, because it not only sheds light on the national romanticism and the kind of historical movement it is part of, but also because it provides us with a critical look at how we imagine landscapes, and we are reflected in them, in the historical and social sense. In; In;Human Nature, Houge transforms Svartisen - an ideally typical Norwegian landscape - into a topographical wireframe landscape showing shapes and volumes, but also heights, widths and all conceivable dimensions. In this way, he relates more to the landscape presentation that the surveyor's or cartographers' ambitions sought, which, of course, were to turn the landscape into quantifiable forms. Which in turn can be translated into something that can be divided, mastered, colonized and - in the end - refined into resources and raw materials. This grid is placed as a topographical landscape, namely on the Moon, more specifically NASA's images from the lunar landing in 1969.
This double exposure leads us to the essence of what the human urge for conquest springs from: On the one hand, we will conquer new places, peoples, and natural areas to use them as raw materials for the production of goods, on the other hand, the landscape is used as a mirror of the human urge to to surpass oneself as sovereign in the broader sense. When the American flag was planted on the Moon, it was marked as a conquered territory and thus it could also serve as a mirror for humanity - in this case: the excellence of the Americans. When the contours of Svartisen form the background for the first steps on the moon, two imaginary communities are as a result connected and root the human colonial thought in the form of desire for control which has led us into the disability we and the Nature around us have ended up in. It is as the national romantics and its avatars show us, that Nature itself is not that which is important, but how we can transform it into either a surface we can reflect our uniqueness on or a mass that can be transformed into something we can generate money from.
Houge once again radicalises how we think about our relationship towards ourselves and towards the world around us, but this time it is not only the destruction of Nature or the planet itself that he addresses, but also the background for this development: the aforementioned idealization of the landscape as the scene and its attachment to an imagined community. The radicalization lies in how the nation-building's idealization of landscape is reduced to its basic forms. That man's urge to transform everything in his own reflection or transform everything foreign into something familiar, covers, after all, the vulnerability that both the individual human being, animals and nature itself are most deeply defined by. As long as we do not understand this, we will as a consequence overtake everything and everyone, including our own fragility in the whole, immersed in our own reflection, even if we find nothing there but blindness and fantasies about our own invincibility. For we are no better as people, as Humanity, than those we hold dear and cherish, as Augustine says, for if we think only of money or conquest we will be poor in spirit and lose touch with what we care about. Or to put it another way: if we only care about our own reflection, we will never see the one who reflects - yourself - because the reflection replaces the original. But conversely, even such common objects of love as the care Houge shows the glacier I started this text by describing the potential to create community and directions for community that take into account both who we are, what we love and what is worth gravitating towards.
Sooner or later, this fantasy will burst, that is if it has not already done so, and so it may be too late - the damage has already been done. Not so much on ourselves, perhaps, but on the world we have navigated in. That is why it is so important to create images that make it possible to penetrate this rather silly mirror image that prevents us from viewing reality outside and inside ourselves and how essential it is to show care. This is where Houge's images have their roots in what we love most: life itself. Both our own and the world we live in. If we manage to recognize how far from ourselves and life the colonial fantasies have taken us, we may be able to save the remains.