night sign 1

night sign 1

Århus, 1997

The poetics of the ”Irma Hen” (a popular Danish neon hording sign in Copenhagen) and the bird alphabet.
by Mathias Kokholm, BA in Scandinavian Languages and Literature and Art History. Literature promoter and publisher. 2008

Whether Astrid Gjesing is a writer who orients herself visually between her words, or a visual person for whom the materialness and nature of language is conveyed as a weighty interweaving in the image, is something that one could reflect upon for a long time. She presents herself as a poet and visual artist. I would suggest word-painter, as she is beyond categories and yet still in one of her very own, where language is rendered spacious and inhabitable with many facets and expressions. It makes no sense to regard her work as an expression of two divergent kinds of practice; the hand is much too steady and the intuitive action has grown from a varied resonance box with experiences and studies from somewhere between word and image.

The first encounter between yours truly and Astrid Gjesing came about through language and poetry some years ago, when I joined the societies “Literature on Stage” and “Literature in Århus”. However, it soon became clear that when speaking of poetry or writing in connection with Gjesing’s works, the concept must be expanded and the reader’s optics changes. The buds of transgressions and additions shoot far beyond work and category.

That Astrid Gjesing’s practice falls between several different media and expressions is clearly demonstrated by a glance at her list of works that indeed begins with a book but which soon moves beyond the written page to performance, pictorial art, installation and sound works. Furthermore, it must be noted that the larger picture appears rhizomatically. The individual works place themselves in a network structure in a dialogue with earlier and future works. Several of the works are concretized over a number of years in different situations, have new elements added and grow as points with additions and branching.


With a fulcrum in the expanding work night sign I will here attempt to pinpoint the artist’s practice according to the above considerations. Night sign starts out as a poetry installation in Århus in the period 5th January (Twelfth Night) to 2nd February (Candlemas) 1997. Three poetic statements shaped in neon and placed in the urban space of Århus. The installation is organized as a space cycle, a poetry cycle and a life cycle through the four elements and goes like this: “from water you came” (green neon – water – Pier 2, Port of Århus), “the Earth carries your impression” (red neon – earth – the City Hall Park) and “the bird alphabet” (blue neon – air – the Cathedral), while the fire in the first instance is represented through the material neon – light – fire. During the exhibition period the poems change places three times and thus serially examine the spirit of the place.

Later that same year the three poems are presented together at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building by Knippelsbro (Copenhagen). In 1999 the installation is placed in quite a different context, the beautiful nature around the Art Centre Silkeborg Bad. And finally the poems appear by the White Lighthouse at Skagen, where a fourth poem is added, which goes: “the hesitation of light” (white neon) in the year 2000. As will appear from the following, this text will mainly focus on the inscription of the work into the context of the city or its multitude of texts, even though there are of course other good reasons to dwell on the work’s essentially different relation to the nature of Skagen and Silkeborg.


With this last addition “the hesitation of light” Astrid Gjesing marks the most important function of the installation in the encounter with the viewer. The placing of the poems in public space, where they share the same context as the Irma hen, must of course make passers-by falter and hesitate over the statement. As a spear the poems address the viewer very directly with their postulates, which with the character of persuasion and unambiguousness illustrate the truth in the viewer’s present. You lift your foot carefully to see whether the earth really does carry your impression.

The statements as such are classical poetry in their construction and in their creation of metaphors. If they were printed in a book, they would conjure up the classical idea of a symbolic meaning – a buried object – for the reader to uncover if she or he only reads deeply enough. But in the unpromoted meeting in public space night sign appears frontally where the expression and statement of the work become relational – subject to the surroundings and to the viewer’s dialogue with the poems – hereby dissolving the ratio of representation between work and reality into “workality”.


Astrid Gjesing’s night sign inscribes itself into an ever wilder, more chaotic and culturally larger typeface. It is these locust swarms of writing, as Benjamin saw them – the graphic of the neon commercial and the poster – that are continued in a poetic which reflects and extends the commercial advertisement and the graphic design. It is a universal poetry, which unites “the world picture” of the visual expression and through our mother tongue – the language we inhabit.

Night sign is a transcendence of artistic categories, beyond book page and institution, on its way into the poetics of “Irma Hen”. But Astrid Gjesing grips the threshold in a “hesitation of light” with an aura and mysticism where the bird alphabet maps traces of meaning.

** In this essay traces can be found from Walter Benjamin, Stéphane Mallarmé, Eugen Gomringer and Ludwig Wittgenstein.