In Conversation: Elena Helfrecht

Elena Helfrecht was born in Bavaria, Germany and is now based in London. In 2014 she graduated in Art History and Book Science at Friedrich-Alexander-University in Erlangen and completed her Master in Photography at the Royal College of Art in 2019.
Through photography, Elena examines the inner space, consciousness, and communication. She is interested in how inner space is formed and influenced, where it originates and how it can be made visible. Her images are created from multiple layers of meaning, characterised by a visceral iconography. She is influenced by the culture, history, and folklore of her home in Bavaria and her active and continuous passion for Art History and Psychology.
Her work has been shown internationally and has been selected this year as one of the Bloomberg New Contemporaries and as a winner of the Association of Photographers Student Awards, the Ginnel Foto Award, and Magenta Flash Forward.

“Das ist das Böse. Alle haben es in sich, keiner will es haben, und wo soll es hin?
In die Luft? Es ist in der Luft, aber da bleibt’s nicht lang, es muss in einen Menschen hinein,
damit sie’s eines Tages packen und töten können.”

Max Frisch, Andorra

“This is the Evil. Everyone is harboring it, nobody wants it, and where should it go?
Into the air? It is in the air, but it won’t stay there for long, it has to enter a human,
so one day they can seize it and kill it.”

Plexus

‘Plexus’ is an exploration of a suppressed and unfamiliar past, entangled with numerous layers of personal and collective history, trauma, memory, and silence.
In this work, I investigate the complex routes of my ancestors using my family house and archive. The fabrication of accounts through objects and spaces reveals bridges between the now and then. Observing the past through the inheritance of previous generations’ trauma and memory decades later frames an individual and national narrative of German history. This photographic case study provides a familiar terrain to explore the influence of the family in the discovery of psychological and cultural processes within history.
The creation of dream-like environments and symbols interlinks all that is remembered and simultaneously forgotten. Constructing a home and a sense of identity, spanning across four generations, provides grounds for a detailed investigation of postmemory, mental health, war, and history.

BD: Elena, thanks again for taking the time to speak about your latest series “Plexus” with us. I understand that some of your other photographic works, such as those in “Origin of Touch,” also examine ideas of place and consciousness, however, “Plexus” is more heavily based on the history of your family and personal events. Can you speak more about what drew you to start this series?

EH: I think the need to work on my family history was there for a while, since I feel myself to be heavily influenced by inherited trauma and the memories of my ancestors. I started to work on ‘Plexus’ after my grandmother died. While my mother and I were sorting through her documents, photographs, and belongings, we began to talk a lot about her. Together we grew more aware of how my grandmother’s life, even before my mother was born, has influenced the both of us.

I believe ‘Plexus’ and ‘The Origin of Touch’ are essentially two sides of the same coin and complete each other in a way. While ‘Plexus’ is staged, planned, research-heavy and somewhat ‘accurate’, ‘The Origin of Touch’ allows me more freedom. There I work in an associative way, rather than staging. I am very much a collector in this body of work, I take these images with me when I encounter them. Both series revolve around consciousness, but ‘Plexus’ is specific and more related to a clear history, while ‘The Origin of Touch’ is more open, an accumulation of thoughts and questions I have since childhood. I feel the need for both: freedom and spontaneity, but also the research, accuracy, and straightforwardness of ‘Plexus’. I feel that only with these opposite approaches I can develop my practice in a satisfying way.

BD: In your statement, you speak of trauma, memory, but also silence. Do you feel that creating these images has revealed narratives of your familial history that had been suppressed or otherwise forgotten, or even sparked conversation between relatives to open up about the trauma of their past?

EH: Yes, absolutely. After starting the project, I spoke to many people from different backgrounds about this topic, and it seems like the generation of our grandparents never talked openly about those issues internationally. Uncomfortable truths and experiences were silenced and locked away. I just wonder how much this has changed since I observe the same happening now in Social Media. During my research, I also stumbled upon documents and facts formerly unknown.

I talk very openly with my family about inherited trauma and how certain behaviours are passed on and repeated, and I regret not having asked my grandmother more about her experiences when she was still alive. Her knowledge is lost now, and my grandfather did not particularly care or pay attention, but surely he also pushed things away. Nevertheless, I try to speak to him as often as possible, to gather more information and to gain a better understanding of myself and my environment. I also experience this open communication as healing; it is a process of repair.

BD: You talk about the concepts of both individual and national narratives in your work. Was this a conscious decision in the early stages of “Plexus,” or did you start close to home and then slowly branch out to examine the historical narrative of Germany in its entirety?

EH: I did not consciously decide to work on my national history, but my family narrative is so intertwined with it that I cannot leave it out. There is so much suffering and trauma from this time in German families, and only a few people are conscious about how close this past is to us, still, and how much it impacts our present times. Usually, you don’t have to dig deep in order to find remains from the Second World War, and there is no family unaffected.

I feel I can only work on a topic with intensity and acquire sufficient emotional knowledge when I am directly involved. It would be very hard for me to work on something I have never experienced, and I would fear to treat it in an inappropriate way.

The project started from researching my family history, it then went on to national history, and by then it even crossed these boundaries. While ‘Plexus’ is deeply rooted in my own story, it is just a metaphor for a truth that is not bound to any nationality, and my own narrative becomes just a parable for the processes in every war and conflict. I want to make the symbols I use legible in many different layers and interpretations, and though I am aware of my national origin being very present in the images, I hope people can associate their own histories with it.

BD: I love the “dream-like” environments within this series, and it’s what really drew me to your work initially. While they seem simple in composition, they are so successful in connecting the concepts of history and memory, even when the narratives are rather dark. Can you talk more about your working process when creating these images?

EH: Thank you for this! The process in the creation of these images is quite multifaceted. I think one important factor is creative play, and Winnicott’s ‘Playing and Reality’ was an important book for my practice in general. I am constantly discovering new stories, and making those images is like connecting a puzzle with some parts missing. Most artifacts have lost their narratives, and I connect their fragmented histories with my own thoughts and research by arranging them in a new way. Some images are based on dreams, like ‘The Spiral’. Even though I would consider the process of staging as ‘play’, even in a theatrical way, it can be quite tiresome, and some setups take me hours, days and even months, once I have an idea. Sometimes it works, sometimes I have to create many different versions of one image until it conveys the right emotion. Often I work in layers, and I have several associations with the images, though I want to keep them open for interpretation.

One constant aspect of my practice, since childhood, is my attraction to dark narratives and the abysses of our consciousness. In fact, I am now at home in Bavaria and started re-reading one of the most influential books of my childhood, ‘Krabat’ by Otfried Preußler. To my surprise, I did not notice until now how much the whole mood and aesthetics of ‘Plexus’ are influenced by it, and this notion of conjuring, which is so connected to the story.

BD: Wonderful, thank you so much, Elena! I am definitely adding Playing and Reality and Andorra to my list. To conclude, I’d like to ask one final question – What can we expect next from you and your work?

EH: I see “Plexus” as a book one day, a metaphorical family album, but I want to give it more time, let it develop for a few years and create more images. I will also keep working on “The Origin of Touch,” but next to this I am currently researching on Bavarian folklore, very much involving the darkest time of the year and all the myths and legends I grew up with. The further I live from home, the more I value and miss it somehow, and the more I feel the need to make work about it.

To view more of Elena Helfrecht’s work please visit her website.



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