Hilke Kurzke, “Gegen den Nachtmahr”

Closed box with scroll containing metadata

Opened box with sample installation

Back of box with handwritten spell

Computer printed parchment scroll

Closing the box


Hilke Kurzke (Nottingham, UK)

Gegen den Nachtmahr
acrylics, graphite, collage
Edition of 12 (varying)
arguably 1, 2, or 3 pages
Open: 15cm x 15cm x 5cm (varying)
Closed: 4″* x 1.6″ x 1.2″ *(Height varies, as a stick is of varying length protudes from the 2″ box)

I am a mostly self trained book artist and artisan bookbinder. I am (was) a mathematician and theologian by training, and a lover of stories. Topics for my art come from where those three interests overlap: I am curious and ever again amazed by how books work and manage to conserve and teach knowledge and experiences, and I try to show and examine this magic with my work. My early pieces concentrated exclusively on structural elements of books, but soon I discovered the writing down of language as an important aspect. Consequently works in secret and fake script entered my body of work, and books where all or part of the text is concealed or erased.

I like to experiment with printing methods, most prominently relief printing in different form and from different materials. Striving for simplicity and a more intimate encounter between artist and reader I moved from commonly used materials for printing blocks (linoleum, rubber, wood), to cardboard, and on to handwriting and -drawing and simple stencils for most recent work.

Gegen den Nachtmahr is the most recent, but not my first book about the broad topic of incantations and spells. While I do not believe in magic, I find it a fascinating and appealing aspect of religion. Magic combines the believe in the supernatural with the desire to make it rational and controllable, giving a well written spell this aura of reigned in force that I find inspiring.

“Nachtmahr” is an old fashioned German word for both a nightmare and for the creature that was thought to cause nightmares by sitting on its victim’s chest during sleep. With this spell the caster would give Nightmare a series of impossible tasks (picking the leaves from all trees, counting all blades of grass, … ) which it has to complete before it can come to “torture [the caster] that night”. I first encountered a high German version of the spell in a wide-spread collection of German poems, and followed it to its roots. The version I used for this book is the oldest source I could find.

Gegen den Nachtmahr is a varying, limited edition of 12 altered matchboxes, filled with a selection of found objects, some common to all (wood, grass, dried leaf, cherry stone) and some exclusively chosen for the each copy. On the bottom of the drawer is a pencil drawing, showing elements mentioned in the spell which is written by hand to the backside.

The installation is meant to be put up on a nightstand, facing away from the user (and toward the potential nightmare) as a last barrier. The spell on the back of the box can then be read and recited while lying in bed.

English Translation:
The original is a German spell in a regional dialect, it rhymes and keeps a spoken rhythm. That makes it hard to translate to a different language. I decided to keep the meaning and give up the rhythm and rhyme of the original:
Nightmare you evil creature
don’t come here tonight.
All waters you shall wade,
All leaves from all trees you shall de-leaf,
All blades of grass you shall count,
don’t come torturing me in the night.