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‘The immense entanglement of everything’: reading Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency under lockdown

By Alex Diggins.

Olivia Laing, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (Pan Macmillan, 2020)

What’s the use of art? How far, in times of crisis, can it comfort, challenge or explain?

As I write, on the desk beside me is a book called Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times. It is a collection with a clear message: art, especially literature, and most particularly poetry, carries a charge that cannot easily be buried by circumstance. As its subtitle implies, the book suggests writing exists as a separate reality, adjacent to, yet ceaselessly informing, our everyday world like a river running under a thin skin of ice. That literature is an inexhaustible resource for the reader in troubled times: cold, clear and vitalising.

In the current moment, it’s hard to buy into idea. Words don’t work as well as they used to. Under lockdown, reading and writing are difficult; despite the hours which stretch on ahead, my concentration is shot. Meaning feels dredged: hauled to the surface, hand over hand, from reluctant depths. The aura of permanence, of stopped-clock immutability, that books once held is dimmed. Confined in body, the wanderings of the imagination seem similarly frustrated; my mind is mapped in dead-ends and foggy col-du-sacs.

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Olivia Laing could hardly ask for a more rigorous environment for her essay collection Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency to land in. In it, she pursues a similar argument to Staying Alive. Art, she contends, ‘provide[s] material with which to think: new registers, new spaces.’ Art opens vistas; it makes space. Following John Berger, she makes the case of the ‘hospitality’ of the creative act, its ‘capacity to enlarge and open, a corrective to the overwhelming political imperative … to wall off, separate and reject.’ Writing, painting, photographing, making—these are gestures towards horizons, she argues. They are emancipatory.

Against this impulse, she sets what she identifies as the most virulent characteristic of modern discourse: paranoia. Laing is a recovering Twitter obsessive, and she views her time on the platform with the cool, appraising eye of an addict gone cold turkey.

I believed that if I read every last conspiracy theory and threaded tweet, the reward would be illumination. I would finally be able to understand not only what was happening but what it meant and what consequences it would have.

In reality, all it left of course was a sour aftertaste: the jittery hum of revelation just out of reach. ‘I’d taken up residence in a hothouse for paranoia, a factory manufacturing speculation and mistrust.’

Laing frames her collection as a subtle stand against such paranoia. In this, she acknowledges her debts to the theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick whose pioneering essay ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You’ posited two models of reader: the paranoid reader and the reparative reader. The paranoid reader is all too easy to spot in these times—they fret about infection curves and modelling data; they hoard bags of pasta, stockpiling just in case; they obsessively watch the Oval Office and its inhabitant’s petulant speculation about the “Chinese Virus”. The reparative reader is more elusive. There is no manual, after all, to shake the fear rooted in the human genetic code, the hunter-gatherer’s anxiety about tomorrow. Paranoia is a survival mechanism.

Yet Laing argues convincingly that reparative reading is equally accessible—it’s just harder than paranoia. The kind of close attention she champions takes effort; it exacts a cost. But its rewards are equally sustaining. We survive through art, too.

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What, then, might such an attention look like? Well, it might look a lot like Laing focusing on her favourite artists and writers, and perhaps its clearest demonstration in Funny Weather is the Artists’ Lives section of the book. By tracing the trajectory of authors and painters like David Hockey, Derek Jarman and David Wojnarowicz, Laing shines a powerful spotlight on the conditions under which they produced their work. In doing so, she erodes the perception of an artwork as a fixed item, a stilled commodity—“Oh look, another of Hockney’s swimming pools”—and instead rediscovers its provisionality. Art is not made in a vacuum. It is teased out, often under circumstances of great difficulty, sometimes in the face of appalling societal odds. Work takes work, in other words. And Laing is as excellent a critic of the work that goes into work as she is of the art itself.

She writes masterfully incisive pen portraits, evoking in a few sharp strokes not only the public persona of the artist—but also the spirit, the troubled waters, beneath. We meet the young Georgia O’Keefe, for instance, as envisioned by her lover and mentor Alfred Stieglitz. O’Keefe is ‘categorically unbuttoned, tumbling sleepily out of a white chemise or dressing gown, her breasts and belly bared, witchy locks tumbling over her shoulders.’ At a sentence level, this is startingly good. O’Keefe is seen first through the eyes of her older, male photographer: she is ‘categorically unbuttoned’, a lissom ideal of nymph-like beauty. She is looked at: a marble statue on a plinth, blind and cold.

But see again that odd word ‘categorically’—so easily misread for ‘characteristically’— and the performativity of her pose begins to surface. Agency shifts back to the subject of the photo, back to O’Keefe herself. She is making herself up in a society that was inimical to her —a culture that would only begin to give way, to make space, as she learnt to mimic, bending its desires to her own. Small wonder, Laing writes, that O’Keefe eventually tired of this game, retreating to the bleached-bone landscape of New Mexico. There, her paintings morphed into washes of acid-bright colour, a world of silence and space, sterilised by the shadowless light of a baking sun.

Here, as elsewhere in the collection, the influence of Berger is keenly felt. As a critic, Berger was forensically interested in the power behind painting: ever alert to the to-and-fro flicker of agency between watcher and watched. But while his argument proceeded in stately, aphoristic prose, Laing’s writing is more sinuous and sly. She prefers to cast out her sentences in glittering loops, loops which run on and on, only to tighten unexpectedly, holding the reader fast, ensnared.

It is a shame, then, that some of the pieces fall back on a museum-catalogue didacticism to make their points. In that same article on O’Keefe, we are asked early on: ‘How do you make the most of what’s inside you, your talents and desires, when they slam you up against a wall of prejudice, of limiting beliefs about what a woman and an artist must be?’ It’s a legitimate point, but it’s bluntly put. Partly this is a matter of form: aside from a novel, Crudo, Laing has built her reputation on lyrical books of non-fiction. In The Trip to Echo Springs she investigated the fatal attraction of writers and drink, while To the River saw her walk the course of the River Ouse in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the spring of 1941. These books were marked by their precise evocations of time and place—and deep immersion in the lives of their characters, and Laing’s own beguiling narrative voice. In some parts of Funny Weather, I missed that slow steep of setting. Her thinking is, I think, at its keenest when it given room to stretch its legs.

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Indeed, some of the best pieces in Funny Weather are the longer, stand-alone essays. Here form cleaves closest to that enlarging, hospitable impulse that Laing herself celebrates in art. Ideas are permitted to roam, double back and wander: the reader is invited in, not handed a list of pronouncements at the door. I particularly enjoyed the autobiographical ‘Feral’ for this reason. It tells story of the spring Laing spent in her early twenties living wild in the Sussex countryside. Many when young have felt the urge to tell the world to go hang, convinced the tracks of adulthood laid out in front of them—a job, a home, a partner—represent a slow, stealing death. Few though, can have acted on it with as much panache as Laing. ‘I lived that spring in way that has few parallels in the modernised world, and as such it’s difficult to integrate it into the more conventional life that followed.’ She conjures a woodland idyll, ‘a time of strange, almost dreamlike encounters with the wild.’ But she is also unflinching about the toll those months took:

I felt more exposed than I ever have since, almost unravelled by it, paranoid that I was being watched … The pleasure of being there was about escaping and effacing myself, and though it had ecstatic elements, in retrospect I wonder if there was also an element of punishment.

Loneliness, another kind of effacement, haunts this collection. It is a subject she has considered before in The Lonely City, a mediation on isolation and artistic possibility whose presiding ghosts were the artists Edward Hopper, Henry Darger and Andy Warhol. In Funny Weather though, she casts her gaze wider: it is a more inclusive approach to exclusion.

Alongside landmark figures like David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, she profiles the experimental composer Arthur Russell whose pseudonymous dance music electrified New York nightlife, yet died of AIDS aged forty—‘flat broke, a few obscure singles and one album to his name.’ And she sketches the life of Joseph Cornell whose output, avant-garde films and strange miniaturist boxes, was startlingly original and odd. The boxes in particular, intricate assemblages of found objects gathered during Cornell’s lonesome scouring of the city’s streets, suggest a pitifully crimped existence, but also a visionary artistic gaze. ‘Plenty of people admired Cornell’s boxes’, Laing observes. ‘But no-one wanted to live in them.’

The most painful example of exclusion in the collection is ‘The Abandoned Person’s Tale’. It tells the life of a refugee caught in the banal cruelties and hostile environment of Britain’s immigration policy; an existence eked out in a maze of bureaucratic doublethink and the nowhere spaces of detention centres and reporting offices. Rather than telling this story in her typically rangy, essayistic style, Laing instead relates it in an intimate, confessional second person—a defiant act of imaginative sympathy. ‘Imagine a country founded on kindness, a country which treats desperate strangers with respect,’ she asks. ‘What could you have become in that good, imagined place? What would you have done with your beautiful life?’

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The Greek word Xenos means stranger, foreigner. It is the root of xenophobia. But it also has a twinned meaning: that of host, guest, friend. And this tension, this shuttling between welcome and rejection, companionship and seclusion, sparks through Funny Weather. Laing has written a brave book, a fierce defence of openness, tolerance and the necessary high-wire act between fear of exposure and desire for communality that is buried in the pith of any creative life. She argues the artist must make space in the world for their vision, sometimes with sharp elbows, but once that vision is granted room, they have a duty—moral, artistic—to shuffle up for others as well. Ali Smith puts it well in conversation with Laing: “How could we live in the world and not put our hand across a divide? It isn’t either/or. It’s and/and/and/.”

What’s the use of art in an emergency? That glorious ‘and/and/and’ would be a fine place to start.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alex Diggins is a writer and editor based in London. His writing has appeared in, among others, The Economist, The TLS, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Spectator. He is also published in Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth (Unbound). Reach him on Twitter: @AHABDiggins.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, April 8th, 2020.