The shocking news blared from the headlines of outlets from CNN to The Guardian to The Atlantic last October: humanity had colluded in the extinction of more than 60% of the world’s wildlife population in just 40 years. Some hyperbole was discovered to be at work – but the chilling essence of the story remained the same.
Art sometimes reacts to great tragedy by aggressively storming the barricades (see: dada vs. war, punk vs. political corruption). But other times it merely subconsciously absorbs the zeitgeist, and responds in a more subtle, nuanced fashion.
Artist Christopher Tennant perhaps found himself at the intersection of a trio of zeitgeist points: the rise of technology, the growing fascination with historical (i.e. pre-20th Century) imagery and aesthetics, and, of course, those news reports of our shameless decimation of so many (non-human) creatures great and small. The sometime media exec (he was a co-founder of Radar magazine, and author of The Official Filthy Rich Handbook) had developed a fascination with Victorian dioramas, something which was cultivated via Ebay – and it eventually greatly influenced an artistic style that now seems in perfect step with the times.
His own dioramas, incorporating mostly taxidermied birds and sea creatures, are not so much macabre, as they are haunting, and even thought-provoking in their jarring juxtapositions. Some have a genuine meditative quality, some an underlying melancholy.
You come from the magazine / media world? Had you grown tired of that business?
Who hasn’t? It’s pretty exhausting. It’s my first love, and I still keep one foot in it, but it looks almost nothing like the business I grew up in. To the extent I’m involved, my focus is on building out a better business model that can sustain the values and ideals of quality journalism, which is under threat from all sides. When I’m not doing that, I’m doing this.
How did you come to start making art?
By accident, and I’m not just saying that. I started out collecting Victorian dioramas on eBay in the early 2000s, when they were dirt cheap. Typically, the seller was in England and in the process of cleaning out a dead relative’s house, and just wanted to get rid of them. Invariably, the cases would arrive with their glass fronts smashed, and I’d need to go in and do a little cleanup. In the process I figured out how they were put together, how the artists created the illusion of life. One day, I bought a loose dogfish that looked like a great white shark on eBay and decided I’d try my hand at making an underwater ocean scene, which I’d never come across. I found a wine crate outside my apartment in the Village, wired it up with leds, and here we are.
Who were some of the artists, visual or otherwise, who you drew inspiration from?
Paul Thek, Joseph Cornell and anyone else who ever thought of putting something intriguing in a box behind glass. But I only came to them later on. Damien Hirst, who cribbed from both of them, loomed large when I first started. It’s shocking how many ideas he’s had over the years. You think you’re on to something new until you discover he did it better thirty years ago.
Your work is described as Victorian, from an aesthetic point of view. But do you find in a postmodern world, those classifications are insufficient?
Maybe? I’ll leave that to the experts.
Love Bird Egg Thief
Why do you think it is that around the turn of the Millennium the visual zeitgeist was so forward-looking – and yet now for the last decade or so, we’ve been reaching back to historical references?
Sometimes I think we’re just running out of culture. The Ancient Greeks had the ground rules of beauty figured out – the golden ratio, and other laws – and there are only so many possible combinations of things that are pleasing to the human eye. Having run through them all over the past several thousand years, maybe the only place to go is ugly, like you see in streetwear…or to recontextualize existing references. If we’re stuck in a loop, I don’t think that it’s for lack of trying.
How do you feel about all that taxidermy on the walls of hip restaurants?
I wish there was more of it! There’s a natural human response to seeing life depicted realistically. You can’t help but stop and stare. When it’s done right, there’s magic in it.
Looking at your work, I am reminded a bit of Alexis Rockman. Does your work also contain a cautionary element, about our current relationship with the natural world?
There’s certainly some of that. The natural world I’m depicting is chaotic and decadent and out of balance, with species interacting that would never cross paths unless something was fundamentally wrong. I try to capture the beauty and wonder in those precarious instants.
Birds and creatures of the sea show up a lot in your work. Is there something you find particularly fascinating about sea and sky?
Not to sound all hippie about it, but there really is nothing more beautiful than nature. It’s where all human art comes from. Whatever the shape, color, texture, or composition, nature has done it better. The more of it you see, the more obvious this becomes.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently on the hunt for a pre-1947 vintage stuffed stork…if you know anybody.