Christopher Tennant (b. 1978) captures our shared present through the thoughtful recombination of vintage taxidermy, household items, and consumer castoffs. His handmade dioramas and light fixtures, which recall the aesthetics of early-twentieth century excess, extend an urgent invitation to reflect on the shifting landscape of our cultural sensibilities toward the natural world.
In his first solo exhibition Related Searches, Tennant looks to the 1920s to explore an alternative poetics for natural history—one that is based less on temporality and phylogeny than on the remnants of other forms of connection. Through assemblages composed of sourced and found objects, Tennant plays with the concept of “nature,” treating “the natural” as if it were a byproduct of early commodity culture. In this creative reimagining, Tennant’s work offers viewers valuable insight into the cultural dynamics involved in the framing of non-human life. It makes the mechanisms of science visible by refracting the material culture of animalia through the discourses of economics, nostalgia, and technology.
Although there are many ways to approach his artwork, Tennant’s cases and light fixtures are best understood as specialized kinds of machines, processing everything from historical data to general systems theory, speciation, and domestic design. In doing so, these objects physically express an alternative set of circumstances where the desire to accumulate commodities structures the world’s becoming. If viewers find this world Tennant develops familiar, it is perhaps because it is marked by a series of tensions that threaten its stability. Surplus items, discarded by consumer society, sit alongside impossible ecologies, and disordered animal relations become a theater for action figures and littered beer cans. The tableaus are apocalyptic, sublime, and yet somehow all too common.
Animal welfare remains a concern for Tennant, even though his use of taxidermy resists much of the ready-at-hand moralism that characterizes most representations of wildlife overwhelmed with waste. His specialized machines work instead to elicit complex reactions that serve to direct his audience’s attention beyond normative positions. Revulsion, awe, and apathy are just some of the emotional responses provoked by Tennant’s work. These feelings are like caustic agents, dissolving the boundaries that undergird the appearance of distance required for scientific objectivity and the traditional rhetoric of natural history. Under the new, nebulous conditions Tennant presents, the artist’s core concern becomes highlighting the primacy of human experience, specifically expressed in the desire to collect, and its role in forming a syntax of relation.
But what does this new natural history look like if it no longer respects the aesthetics of distance the discipline developed during the early twentieth century? How is it shaped if it privileges castoffs—traces of the desire to collect, of connection itself—over discursive calls to dispassionate objectivity? Perhaps, as Tennant suggests, the visual culture of nature would resemble digital culture’s “related searches.” The related search is an outgrowth of algorithmic society, an automatically generated suggestion for an individual who pursues something: information, material goods, connection. It relates uneasily with a record of past actions, individual or otherwise. What is suggested in the “related search” is not the consequence of some innate or necessary connection between things—a hallmark of traditional natural history—but rather a prediction, based on the past, of how the act of searching might evolve. In this sense, it is a mode of connection that more effectively captures the interconnectedness of things: human and nonhuman, manufactured and natural. It indexes the possibility of the future, the prejudice of the past, and futility of discursive structures that are dependent on what desire opposes—arbitrarily defined distance.