This summer, Oslo based visual artist Christian Houge was another guest of Fotografisk Center’s digital gallery platform ON THE GO. His powerful photo series Death of a Mountain (2016-2021) on the melting Rhône glacier in Switzerland, invites us to reflect about the human relationship with nature and the increasing urgency of the environmental challenges caused by the climate crisis. Houge’s photo project was nominated for the Leica Oskar Barnack Award, the Prix Pictet, and received an arts grant from the Norwegian government.
interview by Charlotte Dossche and Margaux Fievet
As a photographer exploring the complex relationship between humanity and nature, you often go to extreme places or work with dangerous animals. For example, you travelled to the Norwegian archipelago Spitsbergen (near the North Pole) for your documentary Barentsburg (2000-2014), and you worked with wild animals like wolves in your series Shadow Within (2010-2013). For your latest series Death of a Mountain you went to the massive Rhône glaciers in Switzerland. What attracts you to these extremes?
Throughout the past 25 years what drew me, as a photographer, to many extremes was a search for meaning or purpose. I love what is out of the ordinary and seen as taboos in our culture, and I believe that these extremes help me find perspective and some kind of truth or understanding. I am naturally drawn to a subject without knowing in advance exactly how I want to shape the resulting series , or even whether it will be a series at all. Having this means ofexpression helped me to explore my curiosity and to understand myself in ways I probably could never have donewithout a camera.
Barentsburg fascinated me because it looks like a film set, a piece of history frozen in time: it is a coal mining community that is still operative while the world moves on at an exponential rate. The wolves in Shadow Within helped me understand my longing for nature and how culture in my upbringing was full of fear and superstition (mostly from fairy tales and old stories). This gave perspective to this amazing misunderstood creature who may soon be also wiped out because of our progress. The shadows we see in the wolf are actually our own.
Many of my series revolve around death from different perspectives, either in religion, culture, or art. My latest series Vanitas explores taboos and culture from the 1600s and the beautiful still life paintings depicting skulls, flowers and other symbolic elements to remind us of the transience of living. Vanitas stands in the memento mori tradition (remember you shall die in latin). Death has become a taboo in our society, and the human skull is one of its most symbolic objects. We have never been more disconnected from ourselves (and from nature) than we are today with our progress and technology, and the Dutch masters bring theperfect message for contemporary issues and dialogue. To me this again touches upon the human condition. I will exhibit this performance within a couple of months at the BuerGallery in Oslo and the Bold Gallery in Prague.
In Death of a Mountain we see the sharp shapes of the glaciers covered with white fabric to halt them from melting. What touched us in your series is the way the textile resonates in your photographs, forming abstractions and evoking associations – giving the landscape a certain weight and meaning. What are your feelings about this project?
Working with this series has been emotional for me, as it sums up humankind’s current situation when it comes to the effects of climate change. The UV-resistant fabric has been covering parts of this receding glacier for many decades, and it needs to be repaired each year as the summer winds rip open the cover and expose the ice. This is a meticulous job for glaciologists who, with climbing gear, sew new fabric to the existing cover with tender care, ‘humanizing’ the glacier even more. The ice covering in this series reminds me of bandages over wounded skin or a kind of death veil. The symbolism and references are numerous.
Paradoxically, by covering the glaciers, they become more visible. Just as in Christo’s famous work Shoreline (1969) it re-contextualizes and de-familiarizes a well-known natural setting and reveals its essential form. In what way does your photography contribute to this re-contextualization and de-familiarization?
Yes, I use Christo`s work Shoreline as one of my main references in this series as it invites, or even forces, the viewer to see the object or landscape in a new way with new references. It helps us, I think, to not take for granted the natural landscapes with which we are so familiar. In the case of Death of a Mountain, the textile distorts a landscape that we are so used to seeing, by bringing it in a completely different context, as the man-made fabric covers the ice. We know exactly what is underneath and what shape, colour, and texture it has, but still, only relate to the UV fabric. To me, it sets into perspective how Humans have ‘conquered’ nearly all Nature, and yet destroyed our very fundament for existence. The fabric also works as a solemn act of loss in something which has already vanished forever (as all glaciers on the planet will be gone within the next 80-100 years).
I find it interesting how we often see nature as something good to have, but not as a necessity.
The series took place from 2016 to 2021, leading the eye to explore every little, yet crucial change – from a short instant to an extended period of time. How did this dimension of time change your way of perceiving the fragile glacier?
Coming back to this ancient mountain of ice again and again to find new compositions and meanings has been essential for the whole process of what I wish to convey. The glacier alters each year as it melts and gives further personalities, if you will. In that sense, it is like meeting the same human subject and making new portraits, each time from a different approach. The right light is crucial and working with large format analogue cameras makes the approach much more ‘present’ than if I was working digitally.
Spending days at a time with this living organism puts things into perspective as the impact of humankind’s so-called progress in the Anthropocene1 is causing major shifts in the climate. For example, scientists warn that all the glaciers in the world will disappear within the next 80 years. The consequences of this are as staggering as those of the immense forest fires that occur more frequently around the world: permafrost thawing, loss of biodiversity, polar caps melting and sea levels rising, storms becoming more intense and deforestation.
The perspectives I learned to see through making my different series have given me a broader understanding of how everything is connected. I hope to provoke new feelings and references in viewers; to invoke perspectives outside of what we see in the daily news.
A constant element in your work is the use of panoramic 6 x 17 cm formats, which affects our way of looking. In Death of a Mountain, we walk through your photographs, guided by the shapes and curves of the glaciers. In a way, this makes it rhythmic and playful. Yet, knowing that at the same time these glaciers are melting – and eventually fading – there is also an underlying pervasive sadness.
The panoramic analogue format is a natural way for the eyes to see. This is why the cinema is so pleasing to us, as it gives us a wide perspective. I am very critical when it comes to composition, and the 6 x 17 format allows me to create a movement/rhythm in the frame that is impossible to obtain with a standard frame. The quality of these negatives is also amazing.
The fact that it is a technical analogue camera with which a lot can go wrong, is pleasing to me. It is slow photography, if you will, where one must be totally present both in terms of technique, composition and lighting conditions. It becomes a meditative process.
Yes, I feel sadness while working with my environmental series. But I also feel a sense of wonder and energy as I may be able to reach a wide audience with whom my series can open a dialogue around the issue. Working with both beauty and decay creates cognitive dissonance, as we can have two conflicting emotions at the same time. This visually pleasing discomfort is used in most of my series.
In most images of your series, we recurrently see the covered outside of the glaciers. In the others, we suddenly enter their flesh. In these images, the space becomes invaded by a poignant blue that constantly increases, pushing the viewer to follow its last luminosity. We found this transfer from the outside to the inside an intense motion in your series. Why did you make us encounter this space and texture?
The tunnels in the intense blue ice are so visually stunning that I first wanted to leave them out of the series. Therefore, I did not photograph them until my third trip to the glacier. The juxtaposition between the somewhat dystopic outside and the lively and alluring inside was a great contrast in the series. What seems to be living in these endless blue cascades of melting ice is actually the death of the glacier itself. The feeling of standing inside this powerful piece of nature, hearing the melting process and thinking of our way forward does something to you.
Finally, we are curious to hear which sensation marked you during your process.
Each time I first see the glacier, I feel humble. Working on top of the glacier with my heavy equipment, between deep crevasses in the ice, waiting for the last bit of light to get the image I am visualizing, is my most powerful moment. Working hard and trying to see how I can make the series better while also being in a calm and very much present state, feels very special.
I feel truly blessed to be able to further explore my series with full dedication.
1 The Anthropocene is the current geological age where human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
About the artist
Based in Oslo, Norway, I have been making photographs for twenty years, and new insights continue to open. Exploring Mans condition and the relationship between Man and Nature has been an ongoing theme in my work throughout the past two decades.
By exploring this relation, I better understand Mans condition and Mans` ego, the consumer society along with the last remnants of pure Nature and identity, which are recurring elements in my work. I often like to juxtapose the visually aesthetic with an underlying sense of dystopic uneasiness. All of this usually emanates a cognitive dissonance in the viewer to invite deeper truths and personal references.
Looking at our actions and place in the environment, which we are so dependent upon, is a recurring theme in the almost obsessive exploration in my series. I can use everything from digital cameras to large format and panoramic analog cameras for specific projects.
for more information, please visit: www.christianhouge.no
On behalf of Fotografisk Center, I would like to thank Christian Houge for his cooperation and contribution during the online exhibition on our digital platform ON THE GO.