The Trouble with Disorderly Detail

I recently met with artist Ella den Elzen to speak about her first solo exhibition at Wunderkammer Naturalia Artificialia Stuttgart, The trouble with disorderly detail, which focuses on the Archives of the Botanical Garden Berlin. What followed was a multifaceted conversation about den Elzen’s research on empire, accumulation, and plants; her background in architecture and hence attentiveness to questions of space and scale in her practice; and how working in institutions has led to a heightened awareness of the power therein as well as a particular interest in the archive as a contested, discursive site. Probing the impulse to survey, map, and collect botanical specimens, and in turn, the archive, den Elzen explores the connections between the Western imperial endeavor and apparatuses that reinforced it. In the process, she unsettles the archival record, creating a space for critical fabulation.

Ella den Elzen in conversation with Vashti Ali — Jan 12, 2024

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Trouble with Disorderly Detail

All images: Ella den Ellen, The trouble with disorderly detail, installation views, Wunderkammer Artificialia Naturalia (as part of Current Festival), September 2023, Stuttgart, photos: Jan Nicola Angermann

Vashti Ali: Last year, you had a solo exhibition at Wunderkammer Naturalia Artificialia Stuttgart. How did the exhibition The trouble with disorderly detail come into being?

Ella den Elzen: Yes, this work arose from my time at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, but it is also linked to some earlier research I had been doing about empire, accumulation, and plants. In those earlier works I was specifically looking at the link between Kew Gardens, in the UK, and Jamaica (as well as Bath Botanical Gardens there). I was also interested in colonial World Fairs as spaces in which plants and flowers are presented as commodities that were used, in some ways, to justify colonialism.

When I arrived in Germany, I became interested in exploring how the country’s relationship to its colonies could be understood through plants and botanical gardens. It seemed like a natural evolution of the project, since German botanists used Kew as a template when developing the country’s botanical gardens, and many ideas were borrowed from British imperialism. I was also curious to see if I could find clear links between the plants that were taken from Jamaica (a former British colony), for example, and ended up in Cameroon (a former German colony) because of the trading across botanical gardens that took place in Europe.

»When I arrived in Germany, I became interested in exploring how the country’s relationship to its colonies could be understood through plants and botanical gardens.«

VA: You have a background in architecture and curating. How have your experiences in these areas informed your artistic practice? Does this exhibition reflect a broader research trajectory?

EdE: The biggest influence that these backgrounds have given me is an interest in space and scale in relation to the human body, and an interest in archives and institutions as spaces of power. I’m interested in how knowledge or power is transmitted through architecture. You feel a certain emotion when you enter these spaces, whether it’s reverence, intimidation, or some kind of affinity, but I think that their design intentionally reinforces affect. More and more I find myself borrowing architectural elements or references in my work, as a way of co-opting that kind of visual language. I also like to visit archives, as a starting point, even if documents and records can be unreliable narrators at times.

This exhibition is tied to a current curatorial project I am working on – it will take place in Montreal in January 2024. The project began as an exploration of the Plantationocene – the notion that our current geologic age is tied to forms of colonial expansion and extraction, under capitalism.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Trouble with Disorderly Detail

»The frame references the architecture of the exhibition design of the Jamaican pavilion at the Colonial and Indian exhibition, which took place in 1886 in London, inside the Crystal Palace, whose first exhibition took place in 1851.«

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Trouble with Disorderly Detail

»German botanists would send plants and seeds from other colonized countries that had been collected by other gardens, such as the one at Kew, to places such as Tanzania, Namibia, Togo, and Cameroon.«

VA: I am curious to know more about the exhibition’s title. Where does it come from?

EdE: »The trouble with disorderly detail« is an adaptation of a quotation that comes from a conversation between Saidiya Hartman, Huey Copeland, Leah Dickerman, and Pamela M. Lee.1 In their exchange, Hartman and Dickerman refer to Ann Stoler, who writes extensively about the archive. To paraphrase, Hartman describes the »disorderly detail« as something that challenges the archive’s messiness and its »imposed frame,« or things that we take as a given or fact. I liked the phrase but I also thought it was a good title, since it hints at a concept that the archive is unfinished and incomplete, and that there are narratives that will never enter into it, but nevertheless complicate what we can understand about it.

VA: The exhibition, installed in a vitrine space that can only be accessed from the outside, comprises two framed light boxes showing photographs. On the floor is a series of model trees, and a sound piece can be heard outside. To me there appear to be many layers to this exhibition. Can you tell me about the relationship between these elements?

EdE: The photographs (titled Taken from Cameroon, with their respective dates, if known ) are all images that were in the Botanical Garden Berlin’s archive. These are all photographs of what is now known as the Limbe Botanical Garden (its colonial name was the Victoria Botanical Garden), which was a plantation in Limbe, Cameroon, developed as a scientific site to test how well certain crops could grow. German botanists would send plants and seeds from other colonized countries that had been collected by other gardens, such as the one at Kew, to places such as Tanzania, Namibia, Togo, and Cameroon. With these samples they would send instructions to Cameroonian botanists about the number of plant samples that should be sent back to Germany. Imperialism is always tied to the amassing of economic power but I wanted to explicitly point to how the disciplining of plants through forced human labor is part of that, and that the botanical garden was actually instrumental in establishing those forms of power.2

The photographs are housed within a lightbox that has been adapted with a laser-cut aluminum frame. The frame references the architecture of the exhibition design of the Jamaican pavilion at the Colonial and Indian exhibition, which took place in 1886 in London, inside the Crystal Palace, whose first exhibition took place in 1851. I wanted to juxtapose these entirely different geographies –Jamaica, England, Cameroon, and Germany – to speak to how these spaces have been linked through the extraction and transplantation of plants. Also by placing this image of Cameroon, inside of this architecture of a world’s fair in London, to speak to the way in which it was understood that these landscapes were very much viewed as spaces of productivity and profit. I also anticipate that the images within the lightboxes will change depending on the context in which they are exhibited – that is to say that the work is also conceived as a system of display that can evolve.

»Imperialism is always tied to the amassing of economic power but I wanted to explicitly point to how the disciplining of plants through forced human labor is part of that, and that the botanical garden was actually instrumental in establishing those forms of power.«

The sound piece was always integral to the work because I see sound as a way of unsettling the archival record. The audio work predominantly comprises the mechanical sounds of the enclosed botanical garden – things like the sound of the ventilation systems blinds shuttering. Many artificial systems regulate these spaces, making the continued growth of tropical plants possible even in a Northern European context.

The model trees (titled Trees) are readymade model trees, as you mentioned. I wanted to include them as they speak to the way in which land is captured, delineated, and demarcated for development. To me, there is something about model-scale that implies a sense of control or dominion over space. There is also a very large model of the Limbe Botanical Garden in the archive, that was made by a German architect in 1896.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Trouble with Disorderly Detail

»I was also interested in what it meant to unearth these materials and then present them as art objects rather than documents or photographs.«

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Trouble with Disorderly Detail

»While the photographs have been digitized by the archive, they are not readily accessible.«

VA: There seems to be a focus on materiality in your work, the document as a material …

EdE: I like the experience of going into an archive and being able to engage with a document as material. There is something that can feel almost ceremonious about encountering a physical archival record or object, especially when so much of what we engage with now is digital. I was also interested in what it meant to unearth these materials and then present them as art objects rather than documents or photographs. The status of the object becomes more slippery or uncertain in this new context, but that’s what I find interesting about the difference between making art and curating. In a curatorial practice, displaying the object would require a specific historic framing which may only work to reinforce the archival record’s one-sidedness.

VA: This repositioning also involves making things visible or accessible in the first place, right?

EdE: While the photographs have been digitized by the archive, they are not readily accessible. I know it is a cliché but I encountered a lot of very slow bureaucracy in Germany that made the research process incredibly drawn out, and in some ways, incorporating the images in the work is a way to make something that is not generally easily accessible literally visible. It made sense for me to look at the Berlin Botanical Garden archive, since it is one of the oldest and largest gardens in Germany, but also, because its model was based on Kew, and many of its own plant records were exchanged with Kew and Jamaica.

VA: What else are you trying to achieve through exposing these archives?

EdE: The photographs contain photographs of Cameroonians in these landscapes. I always think about the way in which Black people are portrayed or depicted within an archive, especially one Black people did not author. Part of the violence of the archive is that many of the figures in these images are unknown and the documentation does not keep a record of their names or who they are as people. I was struck by how the people in the photographs are engaging with the camera – in all of the cases they are directly turned toward it, or turned away with their full back to the photographer. I saw this posture as a form of resistance to being captured by the photograph.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Trouble with Disorderly Detail

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Trouble with Disorderly Detail

VA: Thinking about accessibility, I wonder how accessible your exhibition is to a general audience. The way you overlap economy, history, and geography, while also dealing with aesthetic questions is quite complex.

EdE: This is something I have thought about and struggled with, if I am being honest, as I was making the work. As a curator, my impulse would be to explain the work in detail to make it all legible. As an artist, I wanted to avoid being overly didactic with the text and reveal these things through the titles of the works, or clues in the text. I am aware of questions about the audience and that maybe this is not the most accessible work, which is why I also wanted the lightboxes to be accompanied by audio work. The sound was a way to access the work in a more embodied way.

VA: I feel like sensation and bodily experience are also important somehow, and that there is a more visceral aspect to this exhibition. The sound, for example, provokes something else …

EdE: Yes, sensation or feeling is important. The sound can be interpreted in different ways by different people. For me, there is something about the mechanical sounds that also feels a lot like white or brown noise, but the way that the piece builds there is an insidious or oppressive quality that starts to emerge after maybe initially seeming quite soothing. I felt that the sound was really critical in order to complicate the visual parts of the installation, especially since so much of it is referencing this colonial, historical language and archival material. I wanted to use it as a way of drawing people in, or expanding the space of the vitrine out to the street using sound.

VA: In the exhibition text you reference Saidiya Hartman, writing »sound offers a mode of ›critical fabulation,‹ that cannot reconcile the violence of the archive, but offers us an opening.« I find this idea of sound making space for interpretation and fiction interesting.

EdE: Hartman uses this term »critical fabulation« to talk about her writing process, which often involves using archival material but then departing from it and expanding on it using fiction or narrative, in relation to the depiction of Black people in the archive. I liked this concept as a way of understanding how to complicate what we find during an archival encounter. I thought that sound could become a method for fictionalization or expansion – a way to trouble the imposed frame or understanding imparted onto us by the archive as something that can leave room for interpretation or an embodied experience that feels more intuitive than reading a document.

Ella den Elzen is an artist, curator, and spatial designer based in Tiohtià:ke/Montréal, Canada.
Vashti Ali is an editor and writer based in Berlin.

Akademie Schloss Solitude - The Trouble with Disorderly Detail

  1. Huey Copeland, Leah Dickerman, Pamela M. Lee: »Between Visual Scenes and Beautiful Lives: A Conversation with Saidiya Hartman,« in: October 2022 (No. 180): pp. 81–104. https://doi.org/10.1162/octo_a_00454 (accessed 15 November 2023).

  2. Katja Kaiser: “Exploration and exploitation: German colonial botany at the Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin”, in: Sites of imperial memory: Commemorating colonial rule in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, eds. Geppert, Dominik, and Frank Lorenz-Muller. Manchester 2016, pp. 225–42.

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