©Elena Helfrecht, The Black Hole, from the series Plexus, 2018-ongoing.
Elena Helfrecht is a German photographer currently based in London.
Helfrecht uses photography to examine consciousness and the inner, psychological space. Her interests reside in the formation and influence of said inner space, and its origin. She uses photography as a tool to make visible what cannot be understood through oral storytelling. The culture, history, and folklore of Bavaria have heavily influenced her visual exploration of consciousness and historical family narratives. Plexus is a body of work that investigates family narratives through the reconstructions of storytelling, consisting of still lifes that have surfaced from an autobiographical perspective of inherited trauma and post-memory.
Archivo Platform (AP) | Your work Plexus evolves from this investigation into your family history. Family and the maternal are subjects touched upon and where your ideas originate from a lot in your practice, Unternächte (2019-ongoing) or The origin of touch (2017-2020). Was it these previous works that encouraged the embodiment of Plexus?
Elena Helfrecht (EH) | It is very difficult to look for a chronological order, as somehow these works emerged around the same time, and home and the maternal are important and recurring topics throughout my practice. I carried ideas for ‘Plexus’ and ‘Unternächte’ with me for a very long time already before deciding to fully commit to working on them. The idea for ‘Unternächte’, for example, came much earlier than ‘Plexus’, but back then I didn’t quite know how to approach it in a satisfying way. And the basic idea for ‘Plexus’ existed already back in 2015 after the death of my grandma.
‘Unternächte’ derives from the myths and legends I was taught as a child in Bavaria, whereas ‘Plexus’ starts out from my direct family history. However, in a way, these works are interwoven, as the legends told within my family and the connected trauma are also a core part of ‘Unternächte’, while ‘Plexus’ also drifts off into the space of myths and legends to distil a universal essence from these very personal experiences. And finally, ‘The Origin of touch’ was born out of my Master’s thesis at the Royal College of Art, and acts as visual research accompanying my writing, which is basically about the process of creation.
AP | What is it about this space, the family home in Bavaria, that implements your imaginative process of creating such symbolic and surrealist images?
EH | I see my ancestral home as a great gift. To me, it resembles a living organism, which grows with every generation. It’s more than 200 years old, and there are many fragmentary and enigmatic structures that connect with my own associations, which inspire new narratives and scenes related to the subject matter I explore. This is probably just how my mind works. The house is an important symbol, somehow it incorporates both life and death for me. You are born within its walls, and often, this is also where you die, and where a great part of your life takes place. Bachelard’s writings have also been very inspiring, as well as Marianne Hirsch’s research.
©Elena Helfrecht, The Spiral, from the series Plexus, 2018-ongoing.
AP | There are many temporalities within this work, ideas are fed by different narratives and explorations of the past. By interacting with this space in the present time, how do you consider this can activate the rethinking of historical events?
EH | I believe it is important to look at the past and learn from it, so one can gain control of the present. History does not exactly repeat, but certain patterns recur, and in order to break them, it is important to learn to recognize their reappearance first. This is basically the discussion I want to trigger with the images.
AP | These photographs are formed from an imaginative perspective. Could you tell us about any particular information that was shared with you which influenced the progression of your visual development?
EH | My visual approach was not exactly influenced by particular information, but the reason why I decided to solely work in black and white, for example, is strongly related to the conceptual core of the project: the search for re-emerging patterns, which appear on a personal, psychological scale as well as on a political, historical, and societal one. By removing all colours, the eye is guided towards these patterns, and all of a sudden, materials relate to each other which previously would have been perceived as very different. Everything is connected. National backgrounds don’t matter - war is always the same, and so are the results. This is one of the things we all have in common.
AP | Considering that your starting point with this body of work were intergenerational memories based on conversations with your mother, how has she responded to your constructions of her memory and your objectives to understand your family history, and with that did you find commonalities amongst what you created and the memories aiding your imagination?
EH | I wouldn’t say that I try to construct or reconstruct any specific memory, or that ‘Plexus’ is just an attempt to understand my own family history. Rather, I want to use it as a starting point to manifest the processes of how trauma and memory is passed on. It is very personal, yet abstract – which is necessary to enable the viewer to step into this universe and to associate their own experiences within it. That being said, my mother’s help is essential for the work. We talk very openly about all the aforementioned issues, and we are the first ones to discuss how to untie this old ‘knot’ of trauma, which nobody touched before. She also assisted me for some set-ups or helped with the lighting, so she knew in advance what I was going to do. We definitely found a lot of commonalities, and I’m very grateful she’s talking about all of this so openly and is allowing me to incorporate her experiences in my work.
AP | Whilst the work is staged and is heavily fictionalised, there are elements of the real that exist, i.e the props, space. Your consciousness of the space and your inherited connection to these material things allow you to imagine scenarios and play with elements of fiction, which couldn’t exist without the essence of your grandmother, her belongings, the intergenerational memories. Would you agree?
EH | Yes, absolutely. Moreover, the whole house acts as a representation of my own consciousness, and the mind (and society) in general, in which these psychological processes, the inheritance of experiences, happen. I wouldn’t exist without my grandmother’s experience and trauma to begin with, as she would have never met my grandfather, had her father not disappeared in the war previously. It truly is a butterfly effect.
AP | Can you tell us more about the people who appear in the work? The work rarely shows people or archival images. For instance, the image titled Eugen (2018), could you tell us more about it?
EH | This is one of the very few photographs we own of my great-grandfather, whose disappearance during World War II acts as a catalyst for the trauma within my female lineage. I consciously want to keep people and their identities out of the work for the largest part (though not entirely) as to preserve a more universal meaning. I want to manifest this space between the generations, and what is left in this domestic and mental space of the following generations after one dies.
©Elena Helfrecht, Eugen, from the series Plexus, 2018-ongoing.
AP | You use these transitional 'props' i.e the dollhouse, the mirror, in the house, as a way to transport us to your imaginary. What influenced the choice of the different objects that you chose for the series?
EH | Yes, they do act as transitional objects in a way – Melanie Klein’s and D. W. Winnicott’s research are also very influential to my practice in this regard. The concept of playing is always present when I create an image, and I think I approach my choice of objects similarly. As a result, I can’t explain this choice rationally. It is a purely associative process, a very personal symbolism that emerges from a place deep within myself and which I hope will inspire the viewer to find their own conclusions related to these issues. Often I have visions and I take images without even fully knowing what it means in the first place, and I only piece it together weeks, months, years later.
AP | The black hole (2018) is an interesting detail to this work. What surprises me is how it disrupts the flow of the images presented, with its uncanniness. Also, the fact that it is not a photograph creates further curiosity about it. Would you care to comment on this image and its connection to the rest of the work?
EH | I found this image in an old magazine in the attic and was immediately struck by it. Through my own associative filter, it made complete sense. The missing part is actually eaten by mice, my only intervention was to photograph it. I associate this silhouette with the vanishing of my great-grandfather, for example. I also connect the house in the background to my own home, and to the model house in ‘The Spiral’ (the image with the snakes). With the shoes, which the soldiers hold up, I also connect ‘Grandma’ (the duck feet), and the saying of walking in somebody else’s shoes – which, of course, is never entirely possible. And the mice, which ate a part of the image, can be found in the series, too – they were actually caught in the house, as they were eating away the archive and the insulation. Somehow this image connects a lot of other works, and ties the whole narrative together. But this is just what I see. I’m sure there are way more and different connections. There’s no wrong interpretation, and I love the viewers’ multifaceted ideas and perspectives.