Ilona Schneider – Solastalgia, by Raymond Arnold

This essay was written by Raymond Arnold, for the exhibition ‘ Solastalgia’, at Landscape Art Research Queenstown (LARQ), 2015. 

 

The gods of war thunder continuously over the horizon.

Man Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan’s novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North draws us back into visceral experiences of the Japanese war and particularly that of my parents’ generation. My father’s friends, whom I met during the 1950’s had been, in turn, a Bren gunner on the Kokoda, a sailor who was bombed out of three destroyers and a member of the occupation force on the Japanese mainland. I inherited a respect for these men who are now all dead. I keeping with this sentiment I spent seven years in France making art work about my Great Grandfather. Hancock ended up an amputee after battle with the Germans on the Somme battlefield in 1917.

However Richard Flanagan’s earlier novel The Sound of One Hand Clapping is my real starting point in introducing Ilona Schneider’s work for this LARQ 2015 exhibition titled Solastalgia.

Here is an Amazon Website ‘blurb’ about Richard’s novel:

In the winter of 1954, in a construction camp in the remote Tasmanian highlands, when Sonja Buloh was three years old and her father was drinking too much, Sonja’s mother walked into a blizzard never to return. Some thirty-five years later, when Sonja visits Tasmania and her drunkard father, the shadows of the past begin to intrude ever more forcefully into the present – changing for ever his living death and her ordered life… The Sound of One Hand Clapping is about the underbelly of Australia, the barbarism of Europe, and the destiny of those in the country beyond hope who seek to redeem themselves through love.

The film version contains one of the most beautiful scenes in Australian cinema. Sonja played by NZ actress Kerrie Fox approaches a big, darkly forbidding dam wall and gently seeks to kiss and embrace the megastructure in an act of reunification/conciliation with that earlier life.

So I’m beginning here! With thoughts of the displaced, the casualties of that big World War. Men and women coming from a ravaged Middle Europe to work in harsh conditions in the Tasmanian mountains on big hydro-electric projects.

Thirza Hazelwood’s memories of her time at Butlers Gorge in Heather Feltons Ticklebelly Tales – The History of Hydro construction villages include moments such as these:

A friend of mine had set up a laundry with another woman to do the washing for the Staff house, the hospital and so on. I don’t know what happened this day,but one afternoon my friend went home leaving the other woman to finish up.After school the woman’s children came round to meet her, and found her standing with her hand on the washing trough and water running everywhere. She had been electrocuted and was standing there dead!

There were some other sad things as well. There was a young man from Yugoslavia who’d been in the Second World War and had been beaten up terribly. His shoulder blades had been smashed on both sides.

I’m purposely drawing out these memoirs in my introduction to Ilona because her exhibition features images of dams, aqueducts and mines amongst other constructed realities and they chart a particular Tasmanian story. The story of people such as Thirza.  Weather, water, concrete and rock are depicted in their complicated embrace but there’s something else!

Ilona’s pathway to Tasmania some 60 years after the first wave of post war Germans, Austrians, Poles, Serbs et al has a strange coincidence to their story. From my point of view I believe she was meant to come here and visit sites where an earlier generation of her countrymen and women laboured and sometimes died. These sites are now mostly over-grown and abandoned or silently humming away in a type of post human automated language expressed through the hum of the generator or the buzz of the electricity through the pylons.

Ilona’s story is that she was apprenticed as a photographer in Salzburg, Austria in the 1980’s. Her studio was renowned for portraits of artists and performers such as Herbert Von Karajan . Later she worked as Camera Assistant to different Photographers around Europe before migrating to Tasmania in 2007.

In a recent statement Ilona has said:

My recent work revolves around the inter-zone of industry, technology, and landscape. Following the paths of the industrial history here in Tasmania, I found the debris of an industrial landscape – an industrial civilization that made Tasmania into the place it is today.

Kevin Frost in an essay on Ilona’s work on her website describes her as entering Australia’s premier landscape locale, a place made famous by noted photographers such Olegas Truchanas and Peter Dombrovskis coincidently other emigre’s out of post war Europe. However being from the high country of Central Europe Ilona could not accept even the idea of an uninhabited land. Wilderness photography made no sense to her and so she began to venture into an aesthetic world marked out by the US ‘New Topographics’ movement and such photographers as Edward Burtynsky. i.e. images of both presence and absence within technology

As I bring this introduction to a close I arrive at my key point. Ilona’s images represent a type of mausoleum of the social progressive aims of a past generation. The images are full of traces, loose ends, and reverberations from times past that lie dormant and yet remain, inherent in the country.

In keeping with the philosophical position that links photography with mortality and in the words of Christopher Allen the Australian newspaper’s critic in an article he wrote recently:

Photographs, in particular, are always more or less haunted by mortality – no one sees a photograph of themselves or anyone they know without reflecting on how much they have changed and grown older.

As I read the  personal anecdotes of Thirza Hazelwood or Horst Kutzner in Ticklebelly Tales I reflect on the fact that most of those lives and towns have gone – are buried and gone! All that’s left are grey green concrete forms channelling and holding back the flow of nature. The subjects of Ilona’s remarkable pictures!

However after watching a film titled Damnation, which was about the contemporary trend to remove large hydro dam structures from US rivers I also know that these concrete megastructures are far from permanent and will also most likely disappear through the impact of changes in power generation technology. A quote from the film is:

Just because a dam has been sitting on a river for fifty years doesn’t mean it’s going to stay there for another two hundred years.

Restore the original Lake Pedder I say.

Raymond Arnold