2020-2021 / KUMA, Mannheim, Allemagne

Elsa Guillaume (*1989) is a traveller. On her journeys around the globe, she records her discoveries in her travel diaries. Back in her studio, she brings these memories to life in her ceramics that amaze the viewers. When en­ countering her works, it is therefore not surprising that the observer imme­diately feels exposed to a wide variety of associations – finding the familiar, but also horror, some may feel reminded of their own kitchen at home, others see themselves connected to the artist‘s humour.

In order to contextualise Guillaume and her work in art history, we first should dare to look back, as she follows a series of artists, but also writers and traders, who have travelled the world since antiquity to bring a piece of the ‘foreign’ back to their homeland. The history of the museum as an exhibition space for the public, however, only begins in the late Renaissance Era and goes back to the cabinets of curiosities, in which the returned rarities were presented under the terms artificialia and naturalia. The naturalia, as their name suggests, consisted of natural objects such as seashells, tortoise­ shells or even stuffed animals such as the armadillos that seemed strange at the time. The artificialia, on the other hand, were man­made and included valuable measuring instruments or elaborately processed souvenirs. To this day, ostrich eggs encased in gold functioning as drinking vessels or coconuts decorated with filigree carvings can be found in museums. The early forms of exhibiting these objects, however, did not entirely have entertainment as the sole purpose. Rather, they are to be understood as an encyclopaedic attempt at Christian rhetoric; by documenting the diversity of the world, the divine creation is captured and can thus be admired and understood. Gradually, the forms of presentation became more and more complex and downright cura­ ted. One of the best known examples preserved to this day, can be found in the Green Vault of the State Art Collections in Dresden. As early as the mid­16th century, exotica, ivory, goldsmith‘s work, sculptures and jewellery were pre­ sented in successive rooms, planned down to the smallest detail, following a heightening tension course that ended with the most precious objects.

photographie: © Heiko Daniels

With the increasing popularity of the Wunderkammer, it went from being a collection to becoming a tourist attraction for many travellers on their way to the East, resulting in the invention of the museum. While in the Middle Ages trade with the Arabian or East Asian powers took place via the complex network of the Silk Road, it changed significantly in the 17th century. New inno­ vations in sailing and the preceding discovery of the sea route to India shift traffic to the sea routes. The East Indian Companies, above all the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, conquer large areas of land, beginning not only the globalisation of the trade market, but also the colonisation of the world and the consequent exploitation of the colonised countries. Private individuals from Europe now have the opportunity to travel safely on well explored and much travelled routes – tourism as we know it today.

A journey to a foreign country always involves crossing borders, meeting other people, their cultures, their languages and also their habitat. On the journeys, which at that time still lasted many years, contact with home was kept by writing letters, but the most important utensil that many travellers carried with them was their travel diary. As a result, letters and travel diaries were collected in order to compile them as travelogues. The demand for new impressions from faraway countries was great and so the travelogues were eventually published and printed. Decorated with lavish etchings and of very different truthfulness ­ some were written from memory after the return – these became „bestsellers“ of the Baroque era.

Despite the many innovations in recent centuries that have changed touris­ tic travel, the basic idea has remained the same. If today you travel by air at high speeds, in much greater comfort and, above all, in larger groups at more or less affordable prices, it is still based on the same motivation as three hundred years ago: The essential goal of travel is to discover other countries, to cross borders and, today more than ever, to share this with those at home. Nowadays, countless images on social media testify to the presence of tou­ rists in all parts of the world as well as the urge to capture every moment and show it publicly. Elsa Guillaume is one of these globetrotters. She is cha­ racterized by special affinity with the travellers of the past: in her capacity as an artist she also constantly carries her travel diary with her. She illus­ trates them with a love of detail, records feelings, or writes down names and different dishes. She captures her impressions in colourful watercolours, some of them becoming fantastic depictions like submarines made of whales, some appear like a comic book, humorous with charming characters diving in harmony with nature and bustling among fish.

After her return to her studio in Anderlecht in Belgium, Guillaume transforms her travel impressions into versatile ceramics. Her main work takes up the diversity of the oceans and their inhabitants. The artworks she creates bear witness to a living tradition of fascination with the concept of „foreignness“ and the principle of the Wunderkammer. In this day and age of a fully explored planet, there may not be many land areas or cultures that seem as „exotic“ to the tourist­minded as they did in the Baroque era. In contrast, howe­ ver, the world‘s oceans form an enormous part of the earth that will remain unknown to most people, or even stay completely unexplored like the deep seas.

Elsa Guillaume lets us immerse as viewers into this own unknown and mysterious world. Squids, fragmen­ tary oversized gills in bright red or whole fish are formed by the artist in clay and then cut into pieces. The virtually dissected animals achieve an effect that raises the question of

whether one is ultimately in a cabinet of curiosities. The materials used for her earthenware or porcelain ceramics radiate coolness and smoothness, standing in complete contrast to the carnality of the animals depicted. The works are decorated with a fictitious organ system and muscle flesh. The skin surfaces are delicately painted with brushes, bluish grey tones with de­ licate shading attest to the artist‘s graphic origins and make the works ap­ pear alive. The burnt­in bright red quickly gives rise to the association with fresh blood, which may seem off­putting at first glance, but at second glan­ ce also reminds one of a meal of fish or seafood. Between macabre cruelty and realism, viewers are suddenly confronted with what makes humans a biological species: they are omnivores.

Guillaume is a passionate cook and makes herself and the viewers aware that the cut and prepared pieces on dinner plates were once living beings. With the increasing demand on the globalised world market for fish and seafood, it is definitely also one of the big problems of our time that one faces here. As animal protection laws are often violated when it comes to fish farming and numerous other species, oceans are overfished, ecosystems are per­ manently damaged in such a way that it has been clear for decades now that they are dying bit by bit. Nevertheless, this marine habitat, unknown in many respects, remains an abstract construct for many people. On her travels, the artist herself repeatedly sees the

plastic mountains piling up and the damage caused by human hands. With her work, she wants to draw at­tention to the underwater and bring awareness to her fellow human beings that it is worth preserving. It should be emphasised, however, that Guillaume does not only do this with a moralising undertone and her intentions are not only hortative, but rather she wants to inspire and show the beauty of the created creatures according to real models. She astonishes and, in addition to her realistic works, she also creates fantastic creatures, which are to be under­ stood as humorous, or artificialia, such as diver‘s fins made of fish fins or diver‘s goggles made of fish eyes. Thus, in her own way, she transfers the principle of the Wunderkammer and the great macrocosm worth preserving into a microcosm in the exhibition context. Hope remains that a new and positive focus will be placed on our planet‘s oceans, which are worthy of protection, and that the viewers will be inspired to commit themselves to a sustainable way of life, so future generations will still be able to admire the fascinating diversity of the world.



© 2023 / Elsa Guillaume