Limbe Botanical Garden, 1:600, 1896

Ella den Elzen

2023 | UV Druck auf Aluminum, 50 cm x 40 cm | 20.09.2023 - 15.05.2024

On the special occasion of CURRENT – Art and Urban Space Ella den Elzen addeed an artwork to the display of objects found in nature by the artists of the previous exhibitions in WUNDERKAMMER – NATURALIA I ARTIFICIALIA

Ventilation, hydration, and humidity systems regulate the false environment of the botanical garden. Within its glass-encased wrought-iron skeleton, the metallic, subdued hum of machines reveal the artifice that without such controls, tropical plants would not survive – for they have been transported to countries that are far too cold, too dark, too gray to support their life. Here, in the space of botanical garden, plants have been collected not only for their aesthetic value, but for profit.

Plants have sited and relational histories that predate colonization, with narratives that have become secondary to their value as commodities within capitalism. The uses of plants, for medicinal remedies, recipes, rituals, while known through oral history and embodied knowledge, have been superseded through their systematic accumulation and cataloguing.

The site of the Berlin Botanical Garden, in particular, operated with the goal of expansion into and extraction from the German colonies through its collection of plants.  Many of the tropical species displayed for local publics – commodities such as coffee, cocoa, palm, andteak – were used as a means to justify German imperialism into present-day Rwanda, Burundi, and

parts of Tanzania and Mozambique (the former German East African colonies), Namibia (the former German South-West Africa), Togo and Cameroon. In Cameroon specifically, the Limbe Botanical Garden operated as an agricultural testing ground used to analyze and study the viability of economically lucrative plants. Much of this work was carried out by African botanists whose names and labour have been supplanted by German scientists who were credited with enriching the country through an accumulation and distribution of natural goods. The space of the botanical garden is intrinsically linked to the space of the plantation, where monocultures were later raised based on the research conducted within the garden.

The trouble with disorderly detail reflects on the violence of the botanical garden, as a site of knowledge, and how it is inextricably tied to capital, land, and property. The archival record always lies, we know this by now. Sound offers a mode of “critical fabulation”, in the words of Saidiya Hartman, that cannot reconcile the violence of the archive, but it offers us an opening: a method of troubling the colonial narrative, seeping through the fragments and transforming how we encounter it. Poetics pushes against paper as a form of refusal.

This work was generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts.

With thanks to the Freie Universitaet Berlin, Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin, Science History Collection

With the kind support of CURRENT – Art and Urban Space, Akademie Schloss Solitude, Kulturamt Stuttgart, LBBW Stiftung, Rosspartner Werbetechnik, Ritter Sport, promoted in the impulse program “Culture after Corona” of the Ministry of Science, Research and Art Baden-Württemberg.