BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 01 OCT 06
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Issue 102

Karl Holmqvist

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 01 OCT 06

The poet Karl Holmqvist’s mid-career retrospective ‘GÅVÄNTASTANNA’ (GOWAITSTOP) is a soft-core pastiche of altruistic manifestos that leaps from Christianity to Romanticism before taking tinier steps from the Beats to the Age of Aquarius to Alternativism. Leaving it there would consign me to the light work of buttressing this review with a nostalgic trip through the hearts and minds of Jesus, William Blake, Jim Morrison, John Cage, John Lennon, William Burroughs and Karl Marx, to whom Holmqvist plays the acolyte. What drudgery. I would also be shirking the responsibility of bringing his work, a quest for harmony and perfectibility, into sharp relief against contemporary life. Doing so exposes Holmqvist as a jingoist of the anti-imperialist left, sceptical about power, a pacifist and, marginalized by present-day politics, a liberal internationalist. Of course, his moral concerns are the priority, but the question is whether they will entail strategic and germane consequences for his brand of cultural politics – now or in the near future.

‘GÅVÄNTASTANNA’ is a lucky dip comprising posters, a programme of 13 videos dating to 1995, a Verner Panton-inspired, paper-constructed room featuring Holmqvist’s readings from his new book I on a Lion in Zion (2005) and the Study Center (1991–2006), a montage of projected slides, photographs and a reading table with books stretching from the Holy Bible to the Satanic Metallic Underground. It gives the impression of Holmqvist as the Sir Hans Sloane of subcultures; like Sir Hans’ collection, which became the foundation of the British Museum, Holmqvist’s is an oasis of idealism. But his is rather a collection of the fauna, flora and phenomena of the 20th-century fringe. As retrospectives should do, this exhibition discloses the source of the artist’s poetry, his art and, one infers, a way of life.

As an artist, Holmqvist is something of a non-interventionist. His video SKÅPET (Cabinet, 1997) is simplicity itself: ‘a straight documentation of four artist friends’, as he describes it, ‘carrying a piece of furniture, a cabinet, from one Stockholm address to another’, which leaves one wondering: would Holmqvist figure in the history books if he had been on the front line with George Maciunas and Yoko Ono circa 1970? Or does SKÅPET, characteristic of so much of his work, express his devotion to total selflessness, wherein he erases all ambition and strictly rehearses what he admires in others? His new book, I on a Lion in Zion, supports the latter conclusion.

There is hardly room for Holmqvist in his own book; his name finally appears on the masthead page, with the credit line ‘put together by Karl Holmqvist’. I on a Lion in Zion is a dense, largely incomprehensible labyrinth of anecdotes from legendary frontiers of culture. It is best read occasionally and by chance, opening it at random. Its structure is classically non-linear – a product of William Burroughs’ ‘cut-up’ technique, modelled after the ten Sephiroths of the Kabbalah Tree of Life but inspired by Panton’s notion of ‘total installation’. From here things become bewildering. At some point in the book we discover that Gavin Arthur – grandson of the former US President Chester Arthur, who wrote his book The Circle of Sex (1966) while a resident of Haight-Ashberry – slept with Edward Carpenter, the late 19th-century mystic and gay activist, and thus became the last in line of ‘an eroto-mystical’ sex chain that included Walt Whitman, the ‘Zen lunatic’ Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Further substantiating Arthur, is the fact that he is credited with the ‘big astrological success’ of predicting John F. Kennedy’s assassination long before he was elected president. The subsequent passage comes from John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing (1950). And so it goes.

Holmqvist casts himself as an extremist by the company he keeps, but like other extremists – Jesus, Lennon, whoever – or even by the contemporary standard of the Jihadist movement – his work isn’t likely to spill over in the form of ideological influence to catalyse a gathering of fellow travellers. His attitude is impossibly pure; admirably, Holmqvist regards those who were willing to address the daunting questions of human life with chaste awe. Unfortunately, they were their questions, not his. Is he merely a cliché? Holmqvist is a binary thinker, and to follow that analogy, seeing his art and poetry as a translation of the complexities of contemporary life is like using the binary thinking of the Cold War as a guide to dealing with Jihadism; a more deep-seated but subtler knowledge than Holmqvist’s of present realities, in all their diversity, is required. To which I hear Holmqvist answering in the voice of Zen master Tilopa (988–1069): ‘No thought, no reflection, no analysis, no cultivation, no intention; let it settle itself.’

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.