Retreat Yourself

Kristian Vistrup Madsen on longing and Lana in quarantine

Alex Katz, Light Landscape 2, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York/Rome.

THE QUARANTINI IS THE DRINK OF THE MOMENT. It’s just like a martini, except you have it alone. The Californian pop star Lauv, by the sound of it, has been downing quarantinis for a while. His is a songbook of solitary anguish, with titles such as “f*ck, i’m lonely,” “Lonely Eyes,” and “Sad Forever.” Take the chorus for “Modern Loneliness,” the lead single for the twenty-five-year-old’s new album, released a couple weeks ago: “We’re never alone / But always depressed / Love my friends to death / But I never call and I never text.” Lauv might just have missed the mark on this one: Now, many of us are always alone, our text notifications ticking with an unprecedented sense of gravity and alarm.

The time of COVID-19 is not one of Lauvian depression, but something more unplaceable. Remember Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholia: In the former, the lost object can be specifically located; in melancholia, the loss has been obscured, and recovery postponed indefinitely. We turn our gaze inward; we cannot look for a new object to attach ourselves to, because we do not know which outline we are trying to fill. Even the loss itself is never complete, but shiftily becoming on a daily basis.

Just a few weeks ago, I had five martinis with a friend on a Tuesday. “I’m wasted . . . ,” Lana Del Rey wailed from the Bluetooth speaker. “I’m facing the greatest . . . the greatest loss of them all . . . The culture is lit and I had a ball . . . I guess I’m signing off after all.” Titled “The Greatest,” the track seems to be named after the loss that Lana and the rest of us are facing. But what is it?

Sam McKinniss, American Idol (Lana), 2018, oil and acrylic on canvas, 96 x 72". Courtesy of the artist, JTT, and Almine Rech.

“One of the most difficult things about realizing I was gay,” said my friend, “was the sudden disappearance of a vague silhouette in the distance I didn’t even know I was moving toward: inherited notions of family, children, of passing something on.” There was never a time when I was not gay, except perhaps pre-language, but still I understood the sort of lack he was talking about—the long run. “I have to show you something,” I said, reaching for an Alex Katz catalogue and then beginning to flick through those subtly restrained paintings of people, trees, and beaches. “The beauty of these pictures—a beauty that is melancholic rather than mournful—is that they show a world from which the future has been extracted,” I said in a voice not quite my own, with the uncanny clarity sometimes afforded you by white spirits. I paused on a portrait of Ada, the artist’s wife, wearing a red scarf under a blue umbrella. “You’re a huge geek,” my friend said and, seeing my glassy vodka eyes, kissed me.

The Finnish artist Jaakko Pallasvuo’s graphic novel Retreat (2018) follows three young people gone into exile in a cabin in the woods, escaping from total social breakdown. The volume expands Pallasvuo’s savvy-sad cartoon strips of the post-net creative industry popularized via his Instagram account, avocado_ibuprofen. (I’m in exile myself at the moment, having likewise fled a city turned claustrophobic and anxiety-ridden.) The narrator and his boyfriend, Andreas, had made a plan to help each other die, an agreement that was derailed when Andreas’s occasional lover Li shows up, pregnant with his baby. “So life has to fucking go on then.”

Jaakko Pallasvuo, Retreat, 2018, full-color offset, 104 pages, 8 1/4 x 11 3/4". Courtesy of the artist and 2dcloud.

At night, they reminisce about the things they miss from before the apocalypse:

The narrator: “Being preoccupied with myself, and for every emotion to not be coated in fear.”

Li: “How high-tech LA was in the end, ultra HD, floating islands, so many Instagram followers, ignoring the world.”

Andreas: “Thinking I was a good person, not knowing I was sinning, not knowing I had to pay.”

Lana again: “Besides Long Beach and you, babe, I miss doing nothing the most of all.”

Andreas breaks the pact: He doesn’t want to die anymore. But when Li gives birth to a dinosaur who claims it will inherit the earth, and the narrator is visited by a similarly Jurassic-looking angel of death, it seems that everything is over after all. “Love did not save the world,” he concludes.

In the cathedral of Monreale in Sicily, twelfth-century gold mosaics illustrate stories from the Bible from start to finish, floor to ceiling. But the most remarkable panels depict Creation in a synchrony of Byzantine figures and Hilma af Klint–like geometries. How do you illustrate the early days of existence, with its division of darkness from light, and the waters above from the waters below, without turning to abstraction?

In melancholia, the shape of what is ending, and its temporality, is sprawling and incomprehensible. The ambivalence makes it hard to bear. The world of Retreat is rendered in lush pink-and-purple watercolors, which dissolve into wild and messy abstractions. In apocalypse, the divisions established in genesis bleed back out. My own corona-retreat is similarly soft, color-field like, each day a blurred succession of quarantinis, YouTube yoga, and televised press conferences. As restrictions mount, so does abstraction. For now, I’m still rooting for love to save the world.