Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City remains one of the most affecting non-fiction books I have read. Olivia is a formidable essayist and art critic and she combined both these skills to craft a tender insight into loneliness through the excavation of the lives and experiences of famous lonely artists who have lived and worked in New York City. And those very same talents are on display again in Funny Weather, a magnificent collection of essays that, together, ask fundamental questions about life and art.
“We’re so often told that art can’t really change anything. But I think it can. It shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us to the interior lives of others. It is a training ground for possibility. It makes plain inequalities, and it offers other ways of living. Don’t you want it? To be impregnate with all that light? And what will happen if you are?”
The variety of essays included in this book is mightily impressive; we’ve insights into artists’ lives –Georgia O’Keeffe, David Hockney, Joseph Cornell amongst many others – interviews with such influential names as Hilary Mantel and Ali Smith, the curiosities gleaned from reading books by the like of Chris Kraus and Kathy Acker, the enduring influence of such magnificent lives as those of Freddie, Bowie and Derek Jarman… It goes on and on.
Olivia’s ability to capture the emotional power as well as the craft of artworks is formidable; take this gem on a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting: “painted in the heroin wasteland of 1988, Basquiat’s last year, in which a black man rides on a four-legged white skeleton, against an awesomely reduced background, a burlap-coloured scrim, of absolutely nothing at all.”
Or this blunt take on Cornell’s famed boxes: “Being the object of a fantasy is claustrophobic, airless, frightening, since what is desired is the outer shell and not the inner person. Plenty of people admired Cornell’s boxes, but no one wanted to live inside them.”
And I learnt much on the artists too, from Yayoi Kusama’s passionate affair with Cornell to Georgia O’Keeffe’s breakdown. To the extent and depth of Derek Jarman’s love for horticulture. And through David Wojnarowicz’s homeless years as he hustled on the streets and piers of NYC.
But there’s so much more than the famous here. Olivia takes us into the emergence of lip-sewing by refugees – art as agonising protest against horrific conditions. We’ve the American elections and refugees drowning at sea. There’s more stringent laws against abortion and Grenfell. And all the time, Olivia weighs up, “what’s the relationship between art and disaster?”
I calculate there are about 50 essays in this book. Many were originally articles or magazine columns in their own right. Yet, here, when bound together, they flow so beautifully. Almost effortlessly. The essays reveal the lives of complete expression, the pleasure, pain but ultimate satisfaction and fulfilment that comes with living a creative life, of being able to manifest emotions into art.
I’ll be honest, at times I felt as if I was reading my own personal bible. Creeds and closely held beliefs laid bare across Olivia’s pages. I found this a revelation and a wonder. I have always admired Olivia’s writing yet to have so much collected densely together is a blessing.
“On you go, go you must, bound feet moving on damp ground. The weather isn’t looking good, time’s running out, a shrapnel of light falls whitely on the birch.”
And we continue on through dark times… If you are looking for solace and/ or comfort, you will fund much in these pages.