Christian Houge guides us into a mystery. It resides between the ritualized shapes of the traditional and withdrawn Zen garden in Kyoto and the equally ritualized spaces of futuristic, urban Tokyo. For a westerner, Japan might look familiar, since what is held up for us looks like a futuristic spectacle somehow grounded in a western imagination. This judgment, however, is too easy. In Houge’s photographs, the sense of sameness withdraws and a very different feeling of strangeness creeps up on us. In fact, what this series registers is a remarkable place of alterity in today’s global order, a radical difference bang in the middle of the familiar.
This is pushed to the limit in the technological and virtual wonderland of Akihabara in Tokyo, where shop after shop trades in electronic products and computer games, while a weird costume play, “cosplay”, is being performed in the streets. A similar kind of simulation is being acted out in the district of Harajuku, where Houge found some of his motifs. There is no authenticity here, no western “essence” or “reality”; instead, the virtual conquers the carnal body in a purified play of surface, image and the hyperreal. This is exotic. All the while as we are conscious of these notions as pinnacle points in a western idea of the post-modern. But in this sense Japan has always been “post-modern”. It has always integrated the most refined culture and technology from the outside while somehow retained an identity for itself. So, what would this identity be? Houge takes the view of ritual and play. Indeed, Japanese culture seems to be grounded solely on ritual, in business and in sex, in its relation to nature and in religion.
This play transcends the notion of authenticity altogether, unlike the West which is haunted by the “ghost” of origin and beginnings. In Japan, “now” would mean just that; it is a “no looking back”, but rather a flow of intensities integrated in the play and ritual of the ever-present, okurimono. There is no threat of being eaten up by western culture and technology here, for, like in Zen practice, the ritual oversees everything and has no historical drag. Japan becomes weightless, shot into orbit outside the material of earth itself.
Is acting out the role as Lewis Caroll’s Victorian girl driven by a sense of nostalgia? I think not. It is a striving for a moment of perfected presence, in dialogue with Houge’s optical machine. It is the moment of Now. The girl, the Zen garden and the image shares in a perfection modified by small uncertainties, coincidental imperfections that become somewhat oblique points of entry for us - a discarded handkerchief or seemingly unremarkable shapes and reflections in the prismatic play of surfaces.
There is a ghostly, otherworldly quality in these images, even in the fleeting blossoming cherry tree and the play of shadows across a concrete minimalism. The doubly exposed or reflected light on the lens reminds us of the uncertain beginnings in photography’s history, with its widespread belief that the camera was able to perceive more than the naked eye, like spirits and ghosts. In Houge’s images there are different specters, skeletal, natural shapes on the one hand, the machine and the virtual on the other. Here, like some scene from the film Blade Runner, there is an uncanny confusion and mix between the human and non human.
Maybe the search for a perfect moment in the perpetual flow of things is a romantic or melancholic longing for transcendent wholeness, a drive that is harnessed in a rigorous attention to visual detail. This compulsive discipline might seem absurd to any western observer, while longing itself forms a common ground and will ultimately be the basis in our meeting.
— Erling Bugge
Editor's note: Viewing our high-resolution slideshow is much more satisfying because the images will be much larger on your computer screen. Please be patient — it may take a minute or two for the files to load before the slideshow starts. You can see some of Christian Houge's earlier work here in Lens Culture.