“People don’t question things that are just plainly beautiful,” says Elena Helfrecht. Rather, the appeal of the German artist’s work is more perverse: influenced by the rich folklore and natural landscapes of her upbringing in the Bavarian countryside, yet steeped in darkness, discomfort and, at times, the grotesque.
Part of a wider practice rooted in exploring human consciousness, Helfrecht’s Plexus – joint runner-up for the BJP International Photography Award 2020 – is a metaphorical survey of postmemory, or the relationship that younger familial generations bear to the trauma of those who came before them. “After the death of my grandmother, my mother and I started to talk a lot about her,” Helfrecht remembers. “How she raised my mother, and in turn, how my mum influenced me. We found that the difficulties she had experienced in her life actually form a large part of our consciousness.”
“My grandma’s side of the family is shrouded in silence,” Helfrecht continues, “and we don’t know a lot.” But she does know that her family history, much like that of many European families today, is inextricable from the pain wrought by the Second World War. Returning to her family estate in Bavaria, Helfrecht began uncovering old objects, artefacts and archival documents to bridge the gaps. In Plexus, she employs them as “protagonists” – the grand old house their “stage” – in an allegorical play about mental inheritance, and the enduring legacy of Germany’s troubled past.
“The house is over 200 years old, and every generation changed something; they tore in walls, built new ones, made extensions,” Helfrecht says. “So I almost see it as a living organism that grew with the generations who inhabited it.” Inspired by philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space (1958), in which he employs buildings as metaphors for the mind, Helfrecht’s childhood home becomes just that: a collective mental space traversing centuries, where trauma is hereditary, and seeps through each branch of the family tree.
The images in Plexus are visceral, ornate and studiously crafted. A small jewellery box sculpted by Helfrecht’s great-grandfather – suspected to have died on the frontline in 1944, though the exact circumstances are unknown – is staged in her grandmother’s doll’s house to portray an ornamental coffin. Severed pigeon heads are arranged in a saucer of milk, alluding to a time when Helfrecht’s grandfather butchered the birds he bred to feed the family for Sunday lunch. “This was my earliest confrontation with death,” Helfrecht recalls. “But it was an ambivalence [towards death]… This idea that the wheel always moves on; something dies so something else can live.”
Permeating the imagery is a figurative search for repeating patterns in history. Real memories collide with dreams, associations and imagined occurrences. Together, they construct a haunting and enthralling narrative that traverses both personal and national boundaries; a heady mix of intrigue and uneasiness. “I try to strike a balance so vague and abstract that, while my work is deeply personal, it’s also about something larger than myself,” says Helfrecht. “I want the viewer to be able to find themselves in the image too.”
Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently Commissioning Editor across awards, Studio and partner content. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.