Capsule Reviews: Art exhibitions, David Fincher, Lana Del Rey

Art these days is enervating, uninspiring. Nothing really seems worth the time or the effort to visit. P has gotten into farming and social work. Another one of my artist friends has plans to move out of KL to the coast, his slow method of ejecting himself from the art scene. Nobody has invited me to anything interesting for over a year now. There’s hardly anything on with thought in it, while the few that do seem somehow out of joint with the current time, like relics from a different era, and I can’t seem to feel anything. Among galleries whose programming I would normally look forward to, A+ has been doing group shows for the better part of last year and ILHAM has been running the same show for nearly a year now. It’s not a good time for showing art; as if now that the borders are indefinitely shut and there’s no one but fellow Malaysians to show art to, the galleries have just shrugged and given up. Contemporary art’s lustre has faded — its hints of international exchange and foreign glamour — its titillating minor scandals surrounding big shows, especially at Balai — the wine glasses, the roundtables, the smoking sections, the catalogues with inane essays — the curator of indeterminate ethnicity flying in, the mysterious rich kid art history grad at a European university returning home … No one is really trying to impress anymore, not like they used to.


PAUSE 202X, iterations 1 and 2 @ Tun Perak Co-op
12–28 March; 9 April – 2 May 2021

I can’t with any honesty say that I was a fan of either iteration of this PAUSE 202X KL series, organised and curated by Sharmin Parameswaran. I really wish I could have more generous things to say about it, because many of the artists featured are my friends, and I think that generally all of them want to do good work. It’s just that you wouldn’t be able to tell from this showcase.

Located at Tun Perak Co-op, a relatively new and hip art space located near Masjid Jamek in the centre of town, PAUSE 202X comes on the heels of “May We…”, another recent group exhibition curated by Rebecca Yeoh. The primacy of installations in both exhibitions reflects the current trend in the type of art that’s shown in non-commercial gallery spaces in Kuala Lumpur (as if the people who run these spaces only understand three-dimensional art objects). It’s as if these spaces — many of which are refurbished heritage buildings — have some secret aura that compels curators and artists to only create installation artworks, even if the medium doesn’t come naturally to them. It’s as if they feel challenged by the space, challenged to be another type of artist, one that they never even thought about being. I think the space is haunted by the spectre of Instagrammability, just like all heritage places are these days. The Insta-apparition slides into these young artists’ consciousness, feeds off their insecurities, and makes them create works that they, in truth, probably don’t feel all that comfortable creating. Maybe, in their heart of hearts, they would just like to exhibit a single, perfect picture, but the hollowed-out former-kopitiam interior of Tun Perak Co-op urges them to do more… MORE!… To justify taking up space in a heritage building older than them, to answer to why its architecture should be supporting their artworks. The Insta-apparition that haunts the building swoops up to their ears and whispers to them, “Don’t you know what a big opportunity this is?”

So they end up doing odd things, like throwing k-pop lyrics into their artworks, or tacking up pages from their diary onto the walls, or presenting their videos on low-definition — but “vintage” — television sets. It doesn’t have to be like this.

What’s Left for Gathering, Tan Zi Hao @ Mutual Aid Projects
13 March – 10 April 2021

The most recent exhibition in independent curator Eric Goh’s programming for his temporary project space in Wisma Central, Tan Zi Hao’s What’s Left for Gathering was somewhat testament to the fact that, if you’re going to attempt an installation without wanting to commit to it anyway, then the best spot to do that is in a plain white room, far away from any heritage elements or Insta-apparitions. Instead of trying to fill up a room and its creaky heritage floorboards, it’s better to just have a table with some of your references on the side, so people can understand you a bit better as an artist. This element of exhibition design is a tried and true method — ILHAM has done it, OUR ArtProjects has done it, The Back Room has done it, A+ has done it (although you weren’t actually allowed to touch the reference material then), Ahmad Fuad Osman’s biggest work in his recent Balai survey, his “Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project”, was literally just a presentation of his research materials.

This allows there to be room — but not too much room, otherwise it might be awkward — for Tan’s real works: his fine, elaborate drawings of imagined species of carrier shells and household casebearers. One can really get lost in his drawings, fall into their mysterious spirals and soft pencil marks and end up one of the gathered artefacts on these creatures’ shells. His imagined casebearers in particular fixated me: casebearers for words, for micro-beads. So colourful and intricate, these things that I peel off my walls and throw in the bin. There was one casebearer in a small, square, mint green frame — a real casebearer, that Tan found in his house, with a mint green halo about it, I forgot what his explanation was for why it was like that.

There was some connection to migration, about carrying things on one’s back, about travelling & picking things up along the way. But on the whole, it was what I would, not without affection, call a “nerd exhibition” — Tan seems much more invested in these casebearers and carrier shells as creature specimens, rather than with their symbolic possibilities, just as how Ahmad Fuad Osman, in his Enrique de Malacca project, seemed much more interested in the actual work of research than in the research’s conclusion. The overall feeling, especially with the artist and curator there to act as guides, was more like a visit to an underfunded but interesting little laboratory. I often wonder about these research-based “nerd exhibitions” (I’ll repeat: not without affection) and the extent to which they potentially obscure art’s transcendent quality in too much explication. Still, the drawings were really very exquisite and I left having learned a lot about sublime forms of life.

Mank (2020), directed by David Fischer. Netflix

Like most things that are these days nominated for Oscars or produced by Netflix, Mank was yet more easy and digestible content. Of course, it was entertaining to watch. Gary Oldman was fabulous as an alcoholic, unrepentant screw-up writer, and Amanda Seyfried in general looked fabulous, but the movie cannot live up to its subject. People used to write and direct movies like Citizen Kane, and now they just write and direct biopics about the people who wrote and directed movies like Citizen Kane. Feature films these days inch ever closer to resembling documentaries, more often than not drawing from true stories of dead people, and the cinematic art seeps out of the mainstream, only to be attempted by more independent productions.

Chemtrails Over the Country Club (2021). Lana Del Rey

What can I say that will be objective? It’s yet another lush banger from LDR, the container in whom I pour out all the emotions and longings that I’m too clogged up to express myself. This ones a little less sweeping and poetic than Norman Fucking Rockwell!, the album that preceded it, but it still puts me in that same twirling, dreamy mood that only LDR can achieve. It’s a little white girl unhinged, with song titles and lyrics drawn from Pinterest quotes. “Not all those who wander are lost”. “Wild at heart”. She reveals the sultry undertones of suburbia, puts the breathy “desperate” into “desperate housewives”, goes against the girlboss agenda by showing that domestic desperation also has its fun side in a form of unhinged feminine freedom. In theory, I love it.

Lana Del Rey as cowboy, cowboy as in love

I’ve read the recent resurgence of the cowboy as symbol as a pastoral desire to return to “better” times. Like Gatsby chasing after the lost world of the green light, the second coming of the cowboy is a generation’s yearning backwards at an ancient myth, rather than history. Everyone knows, rationally, that nostalgia is a dangerous drug, and that the past isn’t as romantic as the movies make it out to be.

Well, Lana Del Rey never made the past out to be romantic, per se. She’s been accused of romanticising violence, which means romanticising America, but when her music has appealed to me, it hasn’t been because I start believing that men are better than me or start victim blaming women. No, Del Rey doesn’t romanticise violence if romanticising it means I start to yearn for it — I never yearn for violence through her music. I never understood, either, the concept of Del Rey as sex symbol, even though she is undeniably gorgeous, with her old world Hollywood charm. Del Rey’s voice is too solid, too masterful, for me to regard her as pathetic or otherwise lacking agency. Especially when she is read against her superstardom, LDR is for me cowboy.

But “cowboy” in the sense that Mitski meant it on Be the Cowboy, not whatever superficial idea Lil Nas X and yeehaw emoji culture peddle. I mean “cowboy” in the same sense as Rick Dalton’s character in the film within a film in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, another throwback to an old world that came out a few months before Del Rey’s latest knockout album, Norman Fucking Rockwell! The Tarantino film is a celebration of a Hollywood of dreams, a golden age of Hollywood in the 60s, a Hollywood that was, or wasn’t, I can’t tell, having not been born at the time and having no real interest in it. But it’s besides the point whether it truly existed or not, just like how nostalgia isn’t really a desire for a past time, but rather just a backdrop for fantasy.

If the cowboy is the male version of the mythological lost past, as exemplified in Rick Dalton’s character, then the character of the perfect angelic starlet seems like the female version, as exemplified by Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, or Lana Del Rey’s Lana Del Rey. (Even the three-part name seems like a throwback to a golden age where it wasn’t pretentious yet [think JFK, FDR, LBJ…].) The cowboy is noble, self-sacrificing, handsome, and unafraid. The perfect maiden is the same, with the caveat that she is all these things for love of the cowboy, while the cowboy is allowed to be all these things for some “higher”, manlier pursuit, such as Honour, Justice, The Truth, etc.

In music critic Ann Powers’ review of Norman Fucking Rockwell! for NPR, she summarised the album in such a way as directly struck me in my deepest insides: 

‘The album’s dominant story line describes an affair with a fellow artist in which the power roles never solidify, a situation Del Rey depicts as unsustainable but clarifying. Addressing this bohemian deadbeat, she upends the gender roles she’s so often fetishized, trading in her kitten heels for kicks that allow her to keep walking. She cusses at her “man child,” demanding that he grow up; she describes herself as the more active breadwinner (“you write, I tour, we make it work”). At one point, in a sonic nod to Leonard Cohen, she simply announces, “I’m your man.”

It’s the trope of the self-sacrificing maiden but supplanted into 21st-century reality, out of the movies and far from the cowboys. What Powers’ review points out is, despite it all, despite how “woke” we’re supposed to be now, there’s still something compelling and highly relatable about this unliberated female figure who sets the feminist movement back by decades. The princess who wraps her arms around her man, who wages everything on him, who has never stopped indulging in the clichés of 2011’s Video Games, Del Rey’s first major hit. Heaven is a place on earth with you.

Powers’ review confronts this question: in the age of #MeToo and #DumpHim… what if bright, young, smart women fall in love with problematic men, and it’s no one’s fault? Del Rey is relentlessly a conservative heterosexual. You can say that, or you can say, as Ann Powers did, that Del Rey is relentlessly pursuing ‘what she still guilelessly calls “love”.’ Norman Fucking Rockwell! is a love story. 

I’m afraid to suggest that heterosexuality probably is a protracted power struggle. All intimate relationships are probably, however subtly, a protracted power struggle, but heterosexual ones most of all. Del Rey doesn’t denounce this or try to change this in any way, and there lies, at least for me, NFR!’s most compelling quality. In another recent album I loved, Mitski explored various “personas” of a cowboy (or approaching the cowboy) in Be the Cowboy, released just last year. Among the songs, she takes on personas that are similar to that of the cowboy archetype, being cold and rigid when it comes to sex and intimacy; leaving before the opportunity to get hurt. The album is polished, tightly-wound, well-executed, each song perfectly self-contained within its 2-3 minutes. Within this perfection of sound, she explores yearning and romantic delirium, and there’s one song, Me and My Husband, that explores the yearning of domesticity, a yearning that stretches into the endless horizon.

I wonder if Mitski would think that Del Rey’s NFR! has attained to the cowboy. If the cowboy is the figure who perpetually, perhaps naively, yearns towards the unattainable, the perfect ideals, then yes, the figure of the woman in NFR! is cowboy. However,  where certain personas in Be the Cowboy seem to turn away from love in order to follow the true path of the cowboy, the persona in NFR! fixates on love as the ultimate ideal. LDR’s persona is committed to her “man child”.

The album begins with the lines (indelibly imprinted in my brain), ‘God damn, man child. You fucked me so good that I almost said I love you. … Your poetry’s bad, you blame it on the news.’ Brash, disgusted. But the album ends with songs of hope and quiet persistence. Happiness is a Butterfly is the one that a colder person might say “I told you so” to (as a lot of us straight females have un-self-consciously said to many other girl friends, or at least thought to ourselves while watching them sob [I will never love like that, such a stupid thing could never happen to me]), as it recites pleas of hurt over and over again. It’s a sparse song, relying on the strength of Del Rey’s voice and her piano. 

Don’t be a jerk, don’t call me a taxi 

Sitting in your sweatshirt, crying in the backseat 

I just want to dance with you… 

God, it’s so childish. At least Mitski’s Two Slow Dancers had a bit more sophistication to it, at least it wasn’t so desperate, at least it wasn’t crying, at least it didn’t have such a hackneyed title like “happiness is a butterfly”, which, in another context, you could imagine as typed in some terrible font on a cheap notebook in the stationery section of a bookstore that’s been making losses for the past few years. In any other mouth, in any other hands, NFR! is an album of songs that the modern woman might cringe away from, but isn’t it another cliché that clichés capture humanity’s most basic and universal truths. 

Del Rey’s unique quality is that she wrenches all the terrible clichés and terrible beliefs out from our hearts where they’ve continued to reside this whole time, and, with the album, presents them back to us as the beautiful things they’ve always been. With all this talk about cowboys and who has the more perfect ideal, what I really mean is I’m glad she’s given us Norman Fucking Rockwell!, an outlet through which to believe. I’m glad she’s saying all the things I’m too scared to say, for fear of being thought weak. I’m glad a bright, young, talented woman out there is still singing about love, and falling hard, because I, too, continue to make the non-decision of falling terribly in love.