Repetition, as a meaning-production device, is overrated. Especially if you just spent half an hour on the subway on your way to see it. Karl Holmqvist’s latest solo show is two shows, or rather Karl Holmqvist’s two solo shows are one show, depending on your take. The two Berlin venues staging “EQ UI LI BR IU M,” Galerie Neu and MD72, are stocked with identical pieces: the same video, identical checkerboard paintings, and similar sculptures (with just slightly different dimensions and small variations in work titles). When it comes to Holmqvist, viewers often wonder whether his unassuming art works amount to a pop gesture or a poetic one. Or both. But Pop poetry is an oxymoron.

A is for A=R=A=K=A=W=A (2012)—a single-channel video showing mostly subtitles on a black background, read aloud by the artist in his trademark impassive style—is a succession of throwaway lines craftily lined up to never reach the punch. The text is composed mostly of stock phrases, generic formulations, advertising tropes, and hip-hop lyrics, whose strident flutter contrasts with Holmqvist’s deadpan rendition. The more boisterous catchphrases seem caged, penned down under the weight of lethargy, their shrieks benumbed. “Fitness first” (the name and slogan of a famous fitness franchise); “Then what?”; “Seeing and Being”; “C B C B C B.” Redundancy has a soothing quality. Sitting in the dark the visitor is lulled into a strange stasis.

When asked about his monotone pitch, reminiscent of speech software, Holmqvist replied that he meant to achieve word parity 11
Karl Holmqvist, interview by Kayla Guthrie, “Words are People,” Art in America, (June 8, 2012), http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/conversations/2012-06-08/karl-holmqvist-alex-zachary-peter-currie-moma/.
; to endow every word, every letter even, with the exact same value. “Words Are People,” and, much the same as one ought to treat everyone equally, one should also approach words with impartiality. “Excellent” and “if”; “glory” and “grill”; “precious” and “pier” should all be equal. But is this the equality of comrades or the equality of consumers? Are words defiant dissidents or acquiescing amenities? “Chairman Mao,” “Chris Kraus,” “Kitty Kraus,” and “Josef Strau” all flash on screen several times over. If words are people, are people words? Jacques Lacan defined repetition as the agency of the word” (l'instance de la lettre), the moment when words take over people, stifle suggestion, zombify meaning. Is Chris Kraus a sound, a person or a phonosemantic unit? Are all of Holmqvist’s words onomatopoeias like Lichtenstein’s Whaam? What is the acoustic status of the “C O M M U N I S T  M A N I F E S T O”?

Either way, the meaning of the depletion of meaning is hard to settle but easy to savor. Holmqvist’s press release quotes George Maciunas’s cries to purge the world of  “dead art”—without malice but also without Maciunas’s macho jostle—and proceeds to say that “EQ UI LI BR IU M” concerns itself with the balance between darkness and light. Whether it regards cosmic states or a turn of the light switch, a jolt and a bolt will bring living dead art back to (after) life.

Untitled (GO GO GO) (2012)—a laminated wood platform, rimmed by multiform light bulbs—is a remake of a piece made in 1991 by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled" (Go-Go Dancing Platform), minus the live go-go dancer in silver lamé bikini, thrusting his pelvis and swinging his hips during opening hours. In the absence of its tawdry element, and with the addition of the varying bulb shapes, Holmqvist’s vacant podium acquires a certain spiff.

This large sculpture is shown together with several chessboard paintings Untitled (Checkerboard Painting Black); Untitled (Checkerboard Painting Silver); and Untitled (Checkerboard Painting Black) (all 2013). Chess is a zero-sum game; thus, in chess, equilibrium can only exist as a stalemate. That rarest of moments in which, though the player is not in check, he has no resort to any legal moves. That’s when one calls it a draw and, in the absence of winners and losers, all players remain equal. Like words. Or people.