Mary-Jane Duffy – 12 March, 2018
Perhaps the best way to experience the exhibition is to encounter the wall works first with their description of Hjelmar's person, the warrant for their arrest, their tabloid photo, the book cover of Dr Lahmann's book, 'The Airbath', the ad for the Health Home and the love letter; and then to watch the video work and feel more hopeful about Hjelmar's fate.
8 February - 10 March 2018
hardening by Aliyah Winter is tightly structured containing only seven works—six wall works and a single channel moving image. There’s a big story here. The wall works are reproductions of archival material and include a 1917 letter in elegant cursive hand-writing from the Ministry of Defence archives. This letter to Dr Hjelmer von Danneville implores the Doctor to reveal their whereabouts and to visit. And that absence and a correlating absence of difference and diversity in 1917 and in 2018, is also what this exhibition longingly addresses.
Dr Hjelmar von Danneville arrived in Aotearoa around 1915 settling in Wellington and working in the Lahmann Health Home in Miramar, a German-style health spa for convalescents based on the principals of Dr Heinrich Lahmann (1860-1905). Lahmann advocated rest and a vegetarian diet for his patients along with the hardening treatment or air bath from which the exhibition takes its name. The treatment encouraged patients to spend time outside in as little clothing as permissible—to allow the air to circulate over their skin. Lahmann believed that over time patients’ constitutions would be ‘hardened’ and strengthened into good health. This outside treatment also encouraged a kind of healing in commune with nature.
Aliyah imagines this treatment, this healing, in the dreamy, single channel work, hardening. A figure in a loose white cotton nightshirt stands in the grounds of the original Health Home—now owned by Peter Jackson and used as a workshop for Weta. A breeze ruffles at their shirt and long hair as they pad around on the exquisite lawn in a trance. Their clothing suggests illness, and the trees and house communicate a beautiful unease. They are the Doctor returned to the Health Home following the mental breakdown that occurred after they were interned on Matiu Island in Wellington harbour.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Even without being German, Hjelmar was never going to pass unnoticed in 1917 parochial Aotearoa. Alex Frame quotes the Solicitor General, J.W. Salmond’s comments about Hjelmar in his book Salmond: Southern Jurist (1995): “There is grave ground for suspicion that this person is a mischievous and dangerous imposter who ought in the public interests to be interned during the war, and I recommend that this course be adopted… It is very doubtful whether she is a man or a woman. She is very masculine in appearance and habits. There is very much reason to suspect that she may be a man masquerading as a woman.”
As a German and person of indeterminate gender, they were duly arrested and interned on Matiu Island in Wellington harbour. But their mental health declined to such a degree that they were released into the care of the Lahmann Health Home, where they had formerly worked, after only six weeks.
Perhaps the best way to experience the exhibition is to encounter the wall works first with their description of Hjelmar’s person, the warrant for their arrest, their tabloid photo, the book cover of Dr Lahmann’s book The Airbath, the ad for the Health Home and the love letter; and then to watch the video work and feel more hopeful about Hjelmar’s fate.
This body of work forms the basis of Aliyah‘s Master’s submission at Massey University in 2017 falling out of her research on indeterminacy, queer history, and androgyny. Hjelmar’s story became the vehicle by which to explore these themes historically and to think about them in a contemporary context.
As part of the exhibition, one Saturday morning Aliyah lead a tour around the sites on Matiu Island related to Hjelmar’s internment. We saw the brick remains of the quarantine building where people were fumigated before being allowed on the island, walked the paths of the island admiring the new waharoa and regenerating flora. Our final destination was the animal quarantine building that replaced the internment centre. We trailed after Aliyah past the animal pens as she read the love letter to Hjelmar confiscated by the Ministry of Defence. The writer wondered where Hjelmar was and whether they would be able to visit. Aliyah’s voice echoed around this strange building with the sadness of this story—a story of xenophobia and ultimately of dehumanisation.
I’ve wondered whether Hjelmar’s story overwhelms this exhibition so that the work is secondary to the narrative, but I come back to the single channel work which is mesmerising in its black and white beauty and its undertones of the work of Modernist experimental film maker Maya Deren. It quietly speaks of endurance and resilience and the healing power of nature. Hjelmar did recover from their experience on Matiu Island and left Aotearoa in 1919 for Sydney. Aliyah hasn’t been able to find out what happened to them after that.
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