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Photo: © Elena Helfrecht.
“People don’t issue things that are just plainly lovely, ” says Elena Helfrecht. Rather, the appeal of the particular German artist’s work much more perverse: influenced by the rich folklore and natural scenery of her upbringing in the Bavarian countryside, yet rich in darkness, discomfort plus, at times, the grotesque.
Part of a wider practice rooted in exploring human being consciousness, Helfrecht’s Plexus – joint runner-up for the BJP International Picture taking Award 2020 – is really a metaphorical survey of postmemory, or the relationship that young familial generations bear towards the trauma of those who came before them. “After the death of my grandma, my mother and I began to talk a lot about her, ” Helfrecht remembers. “How the lady raised my mother, also, how my mum influenced me. We found the difficulties she had skilled in her life really form a large part of our own consciousness. ”
Helfrecht’s genealogy, much like that of many Western european families today, is inextricable from the pain wrought from the Second World War. Time for her family estate in Bavaria, she began uncovering old objects, artefacts plus archival documents. In Plexus , the girl employs them as “protagonists” – the grand previous house their “stage” – in an allegorical play regarding mental inheritance, and the battling legacy of Germany’s troubled past.
“The house is over 200 years old, and every era changed something; they took in walls, built brand new ones, made extensions, ” Helfrecht says. “So I almost see it as a living organism that grew with the generations who inhabited this. ” Inspired by thinker Gaston Bachelard’s book The particular Poetics of Space (1958), in which he employs buildings as metaphors for the thoughts, Helfrecht’s childhood home turns into just that: a collective mental space traversing centuries, exactly where trauma is hereditary, and seeps through each department of the family tree.
The images in Plexus are visceral, ornate plus studiously crafted. A small jewellery box sculpted by Helfrecht’s great-grandfather, who died at the frontline, is staged in her grandmother’s doll’s house in order to portray an ornamental coffin. Severed pigeon heads are arranged in a saucer associated with milk, alluding to a time when Helfrecht’s grandfather butchered the birds he bred to feed the family for Sunday lunch. “This has been my earliest confrontation along with death, ” Helfrecht recalls. “But it was an ambivalence [towards death]… This idea that the wheel at all times moves on; something dies so something else can live. ”
Permeating the imagery is a figurative search for repeating patterns in history. Real memories clash 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 interest and uneasiness . “I try to strike a balance so vague and abstract that, while my work can be deeply personal, it’s furthermore about something larger than personally, ” says Helfrecht. “I want the viewer in order to find themselves in the image too. ”