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Ask a Critic’s Top Ten List for 2021

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Question:

“The end-of-the-year holiday season is upon us, any thoughts as 2021 comes to a close?”

Answer:

If 2020 was tough going, 2021 was even more challenging for many of us. At first, I thought to write something reflective and somber. But I had a change of heart, and decided to try and be more festive. For my last column of the year, I’ll take a stab at something I don’t think I’ve done before: the ubiquitous annual ritual of the top ten list, which usually makes for fun reading.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

For decades now, the essay has been my favourite mode of writing. In contrast to, say, the exhibition review, which is constrained in comparison: one is expected to survey the show in question, and not digress. As my regular readers may have noticed, “digress” is what I tend to do. What is an essay if not a tapestry of diverse things: reflections and remembrances, argument and anecdote, narrative and nuance, as well as detours and digressions. Even serious essays don’t always take themselves too seriously, embracing a dash of sentimentality here, a dollop of irony there, or vice versa.

So what is one to make of the list-article or “listicle”? Top tens, or whatever number, are common, and so are pieces with the formula, “How to do X in Y easy steps”. Consulting Google, I looked at this text, and this one

A couple more things before jumping in: this only looks like a top ten list. I won’t be ranking anything like my top movies. Not because I haven’t been to the cinema during the pandemic and am a stickler for watching “films” only on the big screen. Like many other cultural commentators, I too believe there were a number of good features in 2021; it’s just that I don’t have a recommendation I’m burning to share. And isn’t that the essential requirement for a “top” list? That each mention be made with enthusiasm and conviction?

As for ranking, did you expect me to rank what I think are the best artists, artworks or events for the year?

How conventional.

No thanks.

What I do want to share here are ten favourite things in different categories, which, somehow, hopefully, layer to tell a story of the last year.

 1) Favourite Top Ten listicle.

Let’s start this listicle by going “meta”, with references to other listicles. I wish I could say my favourite was this piece by Louise Dean, “Top ten novels about novelists”, because I really liked the idea.  Dean’s text and selections are fine, I suppose, and, sure enough, I am recommending her piece. But it didn’t provoke me to immediately buy a new book nor did I find surprises in her descriptions of the works I’ve already read or am familiar with.

Instead, I’m going with “This is Not an End-of-Year List (2004/2014 Edition)”. It’s a blogpost connected to the video essay series that served, years back, as my education to what the form can do: Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos’s Every Frame a Painting. While it’s not something written in 2021—perhaps that’s cheating—I discovered it while doing research for this column, and since the blogpost is about reflecting on the present by looking back at the past, it’s apropos.

As Zhou notes:

“If you know me, you know I dont really care about end-of-year lists. So instead of looking at 2014, Ive decided to look at 2004. No, I will not be posting a list, Im just glancing at stuff. There is no list here. I always find it interesting to see how well a film holds up years later, which I think is the only real judge of quality in filmmaking.”

2) Favourite Online Activity.

For those of us lucky enough to have the means and circumstances to work from home, much of life during the pandemic has been spent online. We complain about it—I complain about it. But I never forget, knock on wood, that being able to stay safe at home is a good thing. And if the only way to keep in touch with the world has to be online, well, too bad.

However, my love-hate relationship with Zoom is a lot less love than hate. I’ve had my share of meetings, and conducted a handful of writing workshops, which haven’t been terrible experiences, yet remain deeply unsatisfying. As for webinars and public talks, I’ve suffered through more than a few, and generally try to avoid them, but will attend to support friends who are speaking.

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

Like many others, my favourite online activity is spending time with friends, whether from other countries that I can no longer travel to, or, when there’s a lockdown, those here in Kuala Lumpur. My preference is to keep it to one or two persons per call. Five is pushing it. Regardless, we now live in a Zoom world, like it or not.

3) Favourite Place.

Before the pandemic, I travelled frequently, mostly within Southeast Asia. In the last two years, I haven’t even left the Klang Valley. Sure, during this time, there have been frequent trips to the supermarket, and when there isn’t a lockdown, meals with friends at restaurants.

But by far my most favourite place has been Passion Fit gym, which I mentioned in my last column.  This summer in Malaysia was one big lockdown, so no gym then, although the thought of being able to return was instrumental in keeping me sane. While I won’t go into details, for over four years I’ve helped my mom take care of my declining father, which has been especially challenging during the pandemic.

Passion Fit Gym, where Lee Weng Choy visits
View of PassionFit Gym, Kuala Lumpur. Image credit: PassionFit

Going to the gym, then, has been more about mental health than just fitness. I want to thank, again, the great people at Passion Fit for making their space feel like an extension of home.

4) Favourite Olympic Moment.

While on the subject of physical activity, you do remember that we had an Olympics this summer? When I mentioned this fact to a friend at the gym, it almost startled him. It’s been that kind of year, where major global events can quickly fade from memory. As much as I’ve enjoyed the Games over the years, I do believe they have long been an emblem of the corruption of sports by capitalism.

Should Tokyo have been cancelled? I wasn’t feeling too positive that the Games should go on, but when I actually did follow them, I found myself moved by the human stories. These, and the symbolism of the whole world coming together didn’t ring hollow.

There was joy watching Lasha Talakhadze set weightlifting records, which he would surpass this December at the World Championships in Tashkent.

But it was events like Simone Biles overcoming her struggles that I found most compelling.

Simone Biles at the 2016 Olympic Games, image from Shutterstock.

Or when the two high jumpers, Gianmarco Tamberi, from Italy, and Mutaz Essa Barshim, from Qatar, decided, on the spot, to share the gold medal, instead of doing a “jump off”. 

Although, my favourite moment belongs to another weightlifter, not a star like Talakhadze, but no less an Olympian, because even if Yazmin Zammit Stevens didn’t crack the top-ten in her weight class, she gave it her all. I’m thinking of the relief on her face when she cleared her second snatch lift, after failing on her first.

Still from Yazmin Stevens’ Instagram post, linked above

This meant that the first female weightlifter to represent the small island of Malta would at least make it onto the scoreboard of her inaugural Games. 

5) Favourite Book.

Before the pandemic, I made a new year’s resolution to read more books. It’s been one of the few positive things these last two years—that I have, indeed, found the head space to read. Choosing a favourite for 2021 is hard, but I’ll go with American poet laureate Donald Hall, his Essays After Eighty (2014).

Image from Mariner Books

Sadly, he died at 89, and didnt get to write a sequel.

As Hall wrote:

“New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers.”

6) Favourite TV Show.

What I haven’t been doing throughout the pandemic is consume massive quantities of TV. I thought I would. But I find I get easily distracted, and can quickly lose interest in a show. It’s not that I have to like the characters, but I do have to care for them. My favourite show of the year, Mare of Easttown, is about complicated, troubled people making difficult choices, some which are downright wrongheaded, though, at the same time, you can relate. There is entertainment, suspense and drama.

Starring a superb Kate Winslet, the performances by the whole cast in this series, are great. Image from Shutterstock

7) Favourite Song.

Or rather, a jazz classic that I haven’t listened to in a long time, but listened to on repeat specifically for this piece.

Image from Atlantic Records

It’s John Coltrane’s rendition of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from The Sound of Music, “My Favourite Things”. Check it out here — a musical “meta” interlude for the listicle.

[Editor’s note : Really, listen to it right now – it makes for excellent background music to the rest of this article] 

8) Favourite Art Event.

Reader, I hope you’ll forgive my partiality.

My favourite art event of the year is something in which I played a supporting role. I want to give a shout out to my colleague Aminah Ibrahim, for curating what many said was an excellent show for A+ Works of Art Gallery.

No Vacancy was part of the hotel art fair organised by CIMB Artober. While most galleries crammed their rooms with stuff, Aminah created spaces that looked like apartment rooms with artworks. A number of pieces in the show spoke to the theme of hospitality, there was video art on the TV screens, and even a performance by Ray Langenbach as the “guest”. Check out some images here and here

9) Favourite Discovery.

I’m typically late to discover new artists and authors. This year was my first time reading the brilliant Amia Srinivasan. Her collection of essays, The Right to Sex (2021), is an overview and analysis of many current debates in feminism.

Image from Bloomsbury Publishing

She says,

“Feminism envisaged as a ‘home’ insists on commonality before the fact, pushing aside all those who would trouble its domestic idyll. A truly inclusionary politics is an uncomfortable, unsafe politics. In these essays I attempt to dwell, where necessary, in discomfort and ambivalence. These essays do not offer a home. But I hope they do offer, for some, a place of recognition.”

10) Favourite Fun Fact.

It’s been a long two years. I’ve read some expert predicting it may take another two before we can put this particular pandemic behind us. Maybe even that’s too optimistic a time-line.

So I thought to conclude this listicle on the topic of time—though not just any length, but a long duration.

You may recall the age of the Earth is about 4.5 billion years, while the universe is around 13.8 billion (I would have thought the whole shebang—an American phrase from the 1920s, in case you’re wondering—would be more than three times older than our tiny planet). I’ve always been fascinated by natural histories of deep time. I read about dinosaurs as a kid, and still read about them today.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

The Cambrian explosion, circa 540 million years ago, was when the great diversification of life on earth took place.

But I didn’t know there was a period before that called the “Boring Billion”.

My thanks to Syar S. Alia for sharing this fun fact with me just the other night. She learned about it through Youtube.  My own summary derives from Wikipedia

In 1995, geologists Roger Buick, Davis Des Marais, and Andrew Knoll reviewed the apparent lack of major biological, geological, and climatic events during the Mesoproterozoic era, 1.6 to 1 billion years ago. They described it as “the dullest time in Earth’s history.” 

Paleontologist Martin Brasier coined the term “Boring Billion” to refer to the time between 2 and 1 billion years ago, noting the geochemical stasis and glacial stagnation. The current consensus is that the time span for the Boring Billion is between 1.8 to 0.8 billion years ago.

Maybe if we can fathom a billion—a billion years!—it may help us to imagine surviving another one, two or more of the pandemic.

Happy holidays and best wishes for 2022.

 

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