Photographer Elena Helfrecht discusses genetic memory and inherited trauma

An artist of German origin revisits her roots through the award-winning photo series titled Plexus, a journey triggered by her grandmother’s passing away.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Jan 09, 2021

Buddhist teachings suggest that one’s soul goes through multiple lifetimes, in a process known as samsarā. Western psychology points to the notion that trauma can be inherited through genetic memory. A doctor of nearly any kind from allopathic to Ayurvedic would agree that some diseases and mental health conditions are hereditary. Whichever school of thought you choose to pursue; it seems to be that some (if not many) parts of our earthly experiences are directed by events which took place before we ever popped out of our mother’s womb. Elena Helfrecht’s telescopic attention focuses on the matrilineal inheritance she is able to make visible through reflection, research and photography. Plexus is the creative focal point of this personal journey.

Plexus on display at a solo show curated by Silvia Camporesi at Galleria Civica Cavour | Plexus | Elena Helfrecht | STIRworld
Plexus on display at a solo show curated by Silvia Camporesi at Galleria Civica Cavour Image: Elena Helfrecht

Helfrecht, a practicing artist of German origin, says, “My work as an artist started out with self-observation, and with how consciousness and mental illness develops and is influenced. Through this process, I realised how much of it is heavily impacted by inherited trauma and post memory, which then was an initial starting point for working on Plexus.

I remember that I experienced some behaviours of my mother and grandmother very intensely, and later on caught myself acting in a similar way, suddenly reaching a completely new understanding. I believe matrilineality is a very intense bond, and the more I dug into my grandmother’s past, the more I understood her actions. What struck me, even more, is that my mother and I would very likely not exist, had she not suffered this trauma. It really is a butterfly effect.

Working on this has also led me to better understand myself, my roots, and why I act in certain ways. Awareness is the first step to breaking the cycle, and not passing this trauma on to a further generation”.

From left to right: Entrance (2019), The Spiral (2019). Archival inkjet prints on baryta | Plexus | Elena Helfrecht | STIRworld
From left to right: Entrance (2019), The Spiral (2019). Archival inkjet prints on baryta Image: Elena Helfrecht

The photo series employs light as a tool to guide the spatial aspects of the images, elevating their surreal nature into a sort of dream-like atmosphere. As I look through the images, they remind me of a dark place in my subconscious which I am only able to visit and revisit through my dreams. This points to the deep roots unearthed and excavated by the artist during her process of creation. The way Helfrecht uses space in the images brings it alive to the viewer, teasing the eye and drawing in the mind. The installation of the images too, in particular cases, underline the spatial aspects of the works. She elaborates saying, “The architecture of the images emerges directly from the architecture of my ancestral home, as well as from the imagined architecture of my head. I am literally searching for patterns, in psychology as well as in history, through generations, and this is reflected in the images. Removing colour means removing a distraction, and emphasising patterns and structures. Through this filter, the connection between materials becomes visible in a metaphorical and even poetic way, as you described it. The scales of the snake merge with the scales of the roof, as an example, and the lines and fractures appearing and reappearing within the space of the photographs join together like a puzzle when looking at the whole. It makes sense, even though the fragments were never really meant to connect - it is the same, all-encompassing materiality, and makes me think about how we are all woven from the same fabric in the end”.

From left to right: The Garen (2020), First Signs (2019). Archival inkjet prints on baryta | Plexus | Elena Helfrecht | STIRworld
From left to right: The Garen (2020), First Signs (2019). Archival inkjet prints on baryta Image: Elena Helfrecht

Helfrecht uses animal motifs abundantly in her work, a symbolic language which is formed by her lived experiences and interactions with her family. The artist shares, “The animal parts I use are all real. I only work with leftovers and would never harm a living creature, for art and in general. Somehow birds, specifically pigeons, have become an important symbol within my artistic practice. My grandfather kept pigeons for as long as I can remember, and finding their heads scattered in the backyard was my first confrontation with death as a child. They represent the perfect cycle of life and death, of love and need. He kept them close, fed them, and cared for them with adoration, but he accepted the necessity of their death at the same time. He butchered some of them regularly, so my grandmother would use them to prepare meals for the whole family. Nothing went to waste; the cats would then eat the leftovers”.

  • An installation view of Plexus | Plexus | Elena Helfrecht | STIRworld
    An installation view of Plexus Image: Elena Helfrecht
  • In the Walls, in the Blood (2019). Archival inkjet print on baryta | Plexus | STIRworld
    In the Walls, in the Blood (2019). Archival inkjet print on baryta Image: Elena Helfrecht

Plexus is printed on baryta paper sheets, a medium favoured by photographers especially when working in black and white. The mineral creates brighter whites, which in turn highlights the contrasting blacks. Helfrecht adds, “The paper structure is beautiful and a bit rough, which merges with the structures I photograph and helps to translate them into a three-dimensional, experiential space”.

Plexus is a profoundly personal project which Helfrecht has managed to make approachable and relatable through patterns, symbols and flawless composition. The carefully constructed frames exist outside of time and, despite references to her cultural roots, exist beyond geographical location as well. Although the images are depictions of figurative forms, their treatment is one of conceptual abstraction. While the viewer might occasionally find themselves lost in this quality, the artist’s repeated use of motifs, patterns and studied composition quickly bring them back within view of the narrative laid out by the series.

Making a Home (2019). Archival inkjet print on baryta| Plexus | Elena Helfrecht | STIRworld
Making a Home (2019). Archival inkjet print on baryta Image: Elena Helfrecht

While Plexus was birthed from experiencing the passing of her grandmother, the artist’s investigation into her cultural roots doesn’t end here. She discusses her upcoming series Unternächte saying, "I think we cannot really escape the influence of the culture we grow up in. My grandmother’s passing surely triggered something, as I emotionally realised for the first time how much knowledge is lost with her death. The first years after her death I was emotionally still very attached and used to this environment, it took me some years far away from home to come back and see the space with new eyes, which was necessary for the project. I didn’t have enough distance before.

Unternächte, the other project you mentioned, is something I have on my mind for a long while, and it connects directly to my earliest childhood memories. I was obsessed with myths and legends from my area and always imagined magic happening in the woods. I took photos long before in this context, but without the goal of a dedicated project. Similar to Plexus, I think some distance was needed in order to find new meaning in a familiar environment”.

Invocation (2019). Archival inkjet print on baryta
 | Plexus | Elena Helfrecht | STIRworld
Invocation (2019). Archival inkjet print on baryta Image: Elena Helfrecht

The photo series won second place at the Sony World Photography Awards and first place at Camera Work Awards, and was also a finalist for the HSBC Prix de la Photographie. Plexus will be showcased at FORMAT21, a leading international festival of photography and related media in Derby (United Kingdom) in the spring of 2021. It was recently curated by Silvia Camporesi at Galleria Civica Cavour in a solo exhibition.

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