Books

Olivia Laing’s Essays Make a Case for Why Art Matters in Turbulent Times

As exterior life shuts temporarily down, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency is a useful reminder that connection can be intellectual as well as physical.

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, by Olivia Laing, published by W. W. Norton & Company

I did not anticipate writing this review from self-imposed solitude. Months ago, when I first opened Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, I assumed I’d write about it as Laing wrote the essays collected within: as tangential, art-oriented responses to the slow-motion emergencies of the Trump presidency, Brexit, and the climate crisis. Laing’s fundamental thesis is that in deadening times — times without public empathy, or times of great public fear — art can be a source of aliveness. Art, she writes in her foreword, “provide[s] material with which to think: new registers, new spaces. … It shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us to the interior lives of others.” As exterior life shuts temporarily down, Funny Weather is an immensely useful reminder that new space can be intellectual as well as physical. Connection does not rely on proximity. Through art in all its forms, we can, as author and activist Grace Paley would put it, “see the interesting world,” even when the world seems far from reach.

Laing herself is a watcher that would make Paley proud. Her outward-looking essays are by far Funny Weather’s strongest. Among the book’s finest sections are “Reading,” which is devoted to book criticism; “Funny Weather: Frieze Columns,” which combine art criticism with cultural commentary; and “Artists’ Lives,” a vivid series of biographical sketches powered by the mix of research, criticism, and personal narrative that won Laing’s last work of nonfiction, The Lonely City (2016), legions of fans. Here as in The Lonely City, Laing animates her prose with concise, brainy descriptions of visual art: Jean-Michel Basquiat’s mature work is “worldly, reticent, communicative, crude and expert all at once;” Agnes Martin’s late-career color palette is “buoyant, elegant.”

Laing is remarkably good at conjuring paintings rather than summarizing them. This skill frees her to focus on what interests her most: the places at which artists’ social lives, political beliefs, and creative practices intersect. These are the “new spaces” art opens, the makeshift shelters where “beauty temporarily makes its home.” Interestingly, Laing is better at finding such shelters in the past than in the present. Her “Artists’ Lives,” whose subjects are all dead, are stronger than the profiles in “Four Women,” whose subjects are alive — and, in two cases, well known to Laing. This knowing, it seems, constrains her. So does straightforward autobiography. Laing is a tremendously gifted genre-mixer, and her writing flourishes most when its topic requires her both to observe and to imagine, if not invent.

For this reason, Laing’s Frieze columns, which are wide-ranging, idiosyncratic, and monologue-short, are the book’s best. Their mandate is broad — it seems they only have to touch on art — which is precisely right for Laing. Of Funny Weather’s essays, the Frieze columns are the bluntest, the oddest, and the best. In one, “Green Fuse,” Laing juxtaposes the British sculptor Rachel Kneebone’s “frighteningly complex” porcelain sculptures with a museum exhibit of Egyptian funerary objects. The connection is not aesthetic; rather, both remind Laing that art “isn’t academic… It’s about emergency exits and impromptu arrivals, things coming and going through the ghastly space where a person once was.”

In Funny Weather, Laing addresses the emergency, the impromptu, and the ghastly without discomfort. She writes readily of death, addiction, and “downright creep[iness].” She empathizes without sentimentalizing; she searches for inclusion. At the end of a Frieze column called “You Are Welcome,” Laing asks the reader to join her on an imagined museum bench, in the intangible — but not abstract — world of art. Funny Weather is an invitation to Laing’s imaginary museum, where minds if not bodies meet, and where true hospitality resides.

Funny Weather: Art in in an Emergency (W. W. Norton & Company, 2020) by Olivia Laing is available on Bookshop starting May 12.

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