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Unternächte – Elena Helfrecht

I was born in the Fichtel Mountains in Bavaria. I returned home recently after living in London and Berlin for several years. I consider myself more of a visual artist than a photographer, so my life revolves around art. To support my creative work, I work as a retoucher at Nightowls Studio with my dear friend Nadja Ellinger, and I also do freelance work as a social media manager.

What’s your story?

I started with photography in my early teenage years using my father’s old camera. At first, I focused on the natural world around me. Then, for a long period, on the skin and my own body, and now I am mostly back to nature and inanimate objects. When I started photographing I had no formal education and worked very impulsively. I studied an Art History and Book Science degree at university, and eventually decided to devote my life to photography and went on to complete a masters degree.

Within my work I explore consciousness and its phenomena, what and why we are, and how our reality is constructed. I work in a symbolistic way, trying to visualise the immaterial rather than just documenting an objective reality (which, I think, is not really possible).

An image for me is always the point of entry into a world beneath ours – a new dimension – and simultaneously a child of the artist. In the last years, I’ve found myself working mainly around ideas of home, space, culture, and family, with a focus on trauma and the experiences of our predecessors. The topics I work around are deeply rooted within my sensibility towards the world around me, stemming mostly from my own experiences.

Tell us about your project ‘Unternächte’.

“Unternächte” is the local term my grandmother and great-grandmother in Bavaria used for the time around the longest night and the shortest day, between Winter Solstice and Epiphany. The main period of this time includes the last six nights of the old year, and the first six nights of the new year, neither of them belonging fully to one or the other. During this phase of the year, a circle closes, life ends, and re-emerges. Here, life and death, light and darkness, good and evil are said to meet, and a door opens to the otherworld. This time, where the old has not yet entirely faded, but the new has not fully risen, is seen as empty, a vacuum, both dangerous and cathartic, requiring specific rules and procedures to ensure a safe transition from the old chaos into a new order.

Between the years, everyday tasks have to rest, and all generations move closer together around the blaze, often entertaining each other in the evenings with stories, collectively keeping the darkness at bay. Within these nights, magic is said to be the most efficient, and divination has a high rate of success. The women in my family have practiced these customs and used oneiromancy to get a glimpse into the future year and to keep the family safe.

As a yearly ritual, I examine this ancient lore and tradition in my home area while contemplating past events and new beginnings. Rather than just documenting this time, I want to invent new rituals and expand the myths I grew up with, following their quality of adding the fantastic to personal experience, to capture a greater matter. Local customs, family history, and experiences are woven into dreams and fantasy, attempting to grasp a full circle.

In short, ‘Unternächte’ is about the myths and traditions during the winter months at my home in Bavaria. It’s a symbolic narrative of the cycle of life and death as well as the knowledge passed down through generations, as well as my own female bloodline, female intuition, and the concept of home.

I had the urge to make work about this for a long time. I started making photographs during the winter months at home many years ago; my fascination for these myths dates back to my childhood where I experienced the Unternächte and their folklore very intensely.

I remember building caves made of blankets in the living room where I would then curl up in while listening to myths and legends on CDs, and reading about them in bed at night, imagining the wild hunt chasing through the sky while the snow was enveloping the forests around our house. It was a very special time for me, magical, and these particular days and nights between the old and new year have always been important to my family. Related to this time of year, there is also this sense of clairvoyance that the women in my family have which always fascinated me. I believe that through years of struggling with mental illness, I became so focused on strengthening my rational side – to control my emotion and sensibility – that I lost some of this intuition.

You mention that the women in your family have traditionally practiced “oneiromancy” – can you tell us a bit more about this?

It is said that the dreams you have during the nights between the year’s end and the new year will tell what will happen in the year to come. Though, there are very specific rules to correctly interpret them; for example, if you dream of a wedding, it means there will be a death in your family in the new year, and if you dream of death, someone will marry.

Long before I was born, my grandmother dreamt of a wedding. Naturally, the family anticipated that her aunt or one of my grandfather’s parents would die. In the following year, my mother’s sister died together with her boyfriend in a tragic accident before her 18th birthday.

Another time, my mother dreamt of a wounded animal lying in front of the main door, half-lion, half-tiger, bleeding, and she got closer to help. As soon as she woke up in the early morning, she called my grandmother and told her not to look after the horses, that she would do it herself instead. As stubborn as she was, my grandmother went to care for the horses anyways – an hour later she fainted in the stables, injuring her head so badly that she had to go to the hospital. 

You talk about inventing new rituals, can you share some of these?

For me, this time of the year is an invitation to introspection. It’s a good time to let go of grief; I usually write down the things I want to let go of on a piece of paper and burn it. I also write down the dreams I have in these nights to remember them in the new year. So far, it has been helpful in enabling me to ready myself for new developments. These may not really be “new” rituals but I find them helpful for myself.

This year I decorated a tree in the neighbourhood temporarily with wings taken from slaughtered geese, an experience which was parallel to my memories of decorating trees with eggs during Easter and, of course, the traditional Christmas tree as a time of coming together. For many geese here, life ends during the winter season as they are traditionally served during celebratory Christmas meals. They live, mostly, for one single year and in winter their lives end to nurture new lives. A circle closes.

Another ritual is going out on nightly walks with my mother during this time. With her next to me, I feel safe, like nothing can happen to us. She has a great eye and discovers the most beautiful things while we are in the forest and she makes for a great assistant whenever I ask her. Christmas is a time I usually spend with my family. Photographing frequently, and mostly at night during these dark months of the year, is another ritual of mine somehow. It is important for me not to simply document this time – rather I want to capture an atmosphere, a set of emotions, and the sense of life and death that is so prevalent here during winter; the circle closing then restarting.

While working on the project, were there any moments or experiences or realisations that stood out to you?

Always, continuously. Art, the way I see it, is always about learning, not only about others but also about yourself. Very often I take images without being able to explain why and discover their meaning much later. 

A recent example: one night I photographed a path in the forest with my mother breathing into the space of the image, only to find out later when editing the photographs that a bearded face had manifested in the fog of her breath. Friends have told me they see a wolf or a child’s face instead.

Recommend us something.

I’m often reading snippets from ‘Sitten und Sagen aus der Oberpfalz’ by Franz Xaver Schönwerth, a large collection of folklore, myths, and legends from my area. Also ‘Losnächte’ by Johannes Linke is a constant companion, which belonged to my great-grandmother, and several other collections of stories related to this area and time.

Unrelated to the project I am reading ‘Piccola Sicilia’ by Daniel Speck at the moment, and soon I want to continue with the Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski. The Witcher’s universe is inspired by Polish folklore and I love to see the overlaps with my cultural surroundings – the wild hunt, for example, is reinterpreted and plays a major role in the story. The accompanying video games are amazing too.

Finally, tell us about one photograph or piece of art that has largely influenced you.

‘The Kiss’ by Joel-Peter Witkin is one of the photographs that touched me deeply, probably my favourite for many years. I wrote about his work in my BA thesis – it’s a striking piece of art and it helped me going through a very difficult time of my life. I was even lucky enough to meet Witkin in person in Berlin a while back.

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