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(CAMBRIDGE · USA · 2022)


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The Wardian: Confiscated Dendrobiums and Displaced Identities addresses issues around displacement and migration.


By retracing the personal journey of this illegally traded, ecologically endangered, confiscated - then rescued - Dendrobium orchid, currently held in quarantine at the Botanic Garden of Smith College, this project investigates the mechanisms by which institutions and legal systems transfer and detain plants.

The installation consists of five hand-welded metal structures, the primary artifacts for my research. Each structure stands as an individual signifier of the legislative, the sociopolitical, the biotic, and finally the ethnomedicinal knowledge systems. Together, the artifacts enter in a dialogue which invites the viewer to question, beyond the journey of the Dendrobium orchid, our relationship with one another as living beings.

The project began in 2021 when I encountered a group of confiscated plants at the Botanic Garden of Smith College. While some plants were displayed as part of the general collection, others were hidden in storage, not accessible to the public.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialists confiscate over 4,000 prohibited plants, animal byproducts, and seeds daily, which are then assigned to botanical gardens and research institutions under the Plant Rescue Center Program established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1978. 

The decisions and rules behind the confiscation are mysterious. Botanists from the garden do not know why they would receive certain plants, but when they receive requested calls from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for transferring confiscated plants, they always say yes.

Among the confiscated species, there is one Dendrobium orchid from Cambodia that was designated to Pheng Mai, Wichita, Kansas, but arrived in the Los Angeles port in 2000 and has been housed at the Botanic Garden of Smith College since 2001. Despite being rescued over 20 years ago, its specific species remains unidentified.

When cultures and colonial powers set out to explore new lands, they loaded their boats with exotic plants and animals. Throughout history, the displacement and transfer of plants and seeds have gone hand in hand with the forced migration of human labor. Thus, the acts of planting, gardening, botanizing, cultivating plants, and institutionalizing them in botanic gardens can be seen as visual forms of knowledge and power dissemination. Ordering, naming, organizing, and trading plant species have been integral to the wealth of empires since the eighteenth century. As a scientific discipline and taxonomy, botany became a vast and profitable enterprise due to the colonists’ exploratory voyages.

The capture and classification of exotic species reinforced the primacy of colonial systems of science over indigenous knowledge forms, turning botanical gardens into colonial laboratories. Migrated plants, enacted as archetypes of the foreign, project an ideology. Even today, plants continue to be transferred between gardens, often for political and diplomatic reasons, with strict border regulations governing the import and export of native and non-native species.

Botanical gardens preserve herbaria and living specimens outside their natural environments, refining them under a knowledge-based system akin to museums. These gardens served as exchange points and "shunting stations" for seeds in the global transfer, making them centers of calculation for imperialism.

In the 18th century, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, an East London doctor and amateur horticulturist, invented the Wardian case. This nearly sealed environment maintains humidity through condensation and evaporation, radically altering global environments. The Wardian case facilitated the transport of fruits and colonial plants, transforming diets across social classes. Robert Fortune used it to smuggle 13,000 tea plants out of China, ending China's tea monopoly. It also led to a dramatic and bizarre horticultural boom, known as Orchidelirium, by allowing more exotic orchid varieties.

In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault used vivid spatial metaphors to describe how the spatialization of knowledge constitutes science. He focused on the classification of Linnaeus and natural history, showing how plants were studied based on visible elements without microscopes. The classification was spatialized based on the number of elements, physical arrangement, size, and height of the plant. The illustration used specific printing techniques, and the reproduction of plants occupied concrete space.

The name and intention of each artifact in my project draw inspiration from spatial metaphors that are not merely geographical but socio-juridical analyses. By juxtaposing the complex narratives and knowledge systems intertwined in botanic history, legislation, ethnomedicinal belief, economic activity, and human immigration, I aim to create an open space for listening and reflecting on how we perceive nature and ourselves.

A Speaking Dendrobium is a looped video featuring artificially generated and morphing Dendrobium species created by a machine learning algorithm. Using 1,000 digital photos of Dendrobium orchids, the algorithm re-creates, re-presents, and deconstructs the natural taxonomy of plants and hybrids according to its own rules. The voice-over includes excerpts from interviews with eight international students, workers, and refugees who anonymously discuss their experiences of being "temporarily confiscated" or living in "in-between" spaces at borders. These interview scripts are intentionally fragmented and transformed into unnamed AI voices, intertwining with the animated yet artificial purity of the Dendrobium plant forms.

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