Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather is a wonderful book with a range of compositions on artists’ lives, writers’ lives, women and alcohol, loneliness, British queer art, the conceptual art scene and pieces Laing wrote for the Frieze column to name a few. It’s a book that highlights how art can change the way we see the world and how important it is in the turbulent times in which we live.
In the ‘Artists’ Lives’ section (easily my favourite), Laing covers a broad and varied spectrum of artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Hockney, Sargy Mann, David Wojnarowicz and so on; artists “who lived in societies that starved them of sustenance or otherwise attempted to curtail and punish their erotic and intellectual lives” but who made work “that bubbles with generosity, amusement, innovation and creative rage.” While each essay is profoundly fascinating and illuminating, my favourites are the ones on Agnes Martin, Joseph Cornell and Georgia O’Keeffe.
For instance, Laing draws parallels between Martin’s minimalist paintings (a grid: a set of horizontal and vertical lines drawn with a ruler and pencil on canvases six feet high and six feet wide) and her difficult, spartan upbringing punctuated by her mother’s cruel silence and emotional abuse. Martin’s paintings, however, are not meant to convey any of this darkness. Laing states that what “Martin wanted to catch in her rigorous nets was not material existence, the earth and its myriad forms, but rather the abstract glories of being: joy, beauty, innocence; happiness itself.”
On Joseph Cornell’s artwork, Laing discusses how inspired by Houdini’s performances, Cornell made obsessive, ingenious versions of the same story – “a multitude of found objects representing expansiveness and flight, penned inside glass-fronted cases.” Not restricted to his art alone, this conflict seeped into his personal life as well. More specifically, Laing elucidates how “this tension between freedom and constriction ran right through Cornell’s own life.” He was a pioneer of assemblage art, where “he roved freely through the fields of the mind while inhabiting a personal life of extremely narrow limits.” Indeed, he lived with his mother and disabled younger brother in their mother’s house in Queens, but he never married or travelled or made any attempts to radically alter his circumstances.
Meanwhile, artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat andDavid Wojnarowicz created art as a medium of resistance, to express and protest against the gross injustices against humanity – rampant racism and AIDS-phobia. Here is Laing on Basquiat…
Over and over, he redrafted America’s history, the ongoing brutalizing dynamic of racism and its long legacies. He painted slave auctions and lynchings, cartoon-style, livid, and he also made scathing accounts of what we might now call everyday racism.
Wojnarowicz tragically died of Aids-related complications in 1992 and Laing brings to the fore how he was subject to an enforced silencing, first by family and then the society he inhabited. People with AIDS were unjustly ostracized at the time, there were no attempts made to understand the implications of the disease, to educate the masses, to display kindness rather than wield the rod of exclusion. But Wojnarowicz still found novel ways to express himself, to counter untruths.
Not long before he died, he made a photograph in the desert of his own face, eyes closed, teeth bared, almost buried beneath the dirt, an image of defiance in the face of extinction. If silence equals death, he taught us, then art equal language equals life.
This particular image, fitfully, graces the cover of Funny Weather.
The ‘Frieze Columns’ contain pieces Laing mostly wrote in the years 2016, 2017 and 2018 – those paranoid years when the bombardment of current news was extreme, in many ways fuelled by Trump and his terrible Presidency. With Twitter dominating the roost when it came to continuous news and dissemination of (mis)information, the effect that it produced was one of paranoia, fear and anxiety, the perception that the world was moving too fast. At such times Laing took solace in gardening, a pastime “that situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media.” Laing also covers a variety of topics finding original ways to make interesting connections to art with political leanings – lip sewing as a form of protest, attitudes towards immigrants, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books, Virginia Woolf’s final novel ‘Between the Acts’, the Grenfell Tower fire and so on.
Subsequently, Laing presents us with essays on Hilary Mantel, Sarah Lucas, Ali Smith followed by a terrific perspective on Queer British Art and the Conceptual Art movement.
In the ‘Essays’ section, Laing begins with a piece on a period in her youth when she became deeply involved in protests as an environmental activist and even attempted to live in the wild to lose herself, an endeavor that ultimately failed because she missed human connection. Then she proceeds to the topic on women writers and alcohol – how the reasons that motivated male authors to drink were in some ways similar to what fuelled women writers, but also very different. Alcoholic women authors also faced the brunt of social stigma; women drinking was a phenomena that society found hard to digest. While unhappiness mostly fanned the urge to drink for both genders, women especially had to grapple with the additional challenge of being perceived as inferior beings by a patriarchal society.
Writers such as Marguerite Duras, Patricia Highsmith, and Jean Rhys came from terrible backgrounds marked by abuse, crippling insecurity and anxiety, and explain why they took to the bottle. But despite massive drinking sessions, these writers managed to produce brilliant books that are works of art in themselves – Highsmith’s Ripley books about an immoral murderer and the consummate ease with which he switches identities are fabulous as are Jean Rhys’ four slim lucid novels about “alienated rootless women adrift among the demi-monde of London and Paris.” The latter is particularly exemplified in Sasha, the doomed protagonist of Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight.
We then come to the part titled ‘Reading’, the two essays that most resonated were the ones on Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living and Sally Rooney’s Normal People, mostly because I had read and loved these books. Laing writes astutely about what makes Deborah Levy’s ‘Living Autobiography’ series, particularly The Cost of Living so striking…
She’s the most delicious narrator. The post-divorce landscape is well trodden by memoirists, and what makes Levy remarkable, beyond the endless pleasure of her sentences, is her resourcefulness and wit. She’s ingenious, practical and dryly amused, somehow outside herself enough to find the grim, telling humour in almost any situation. Her experience is interesting to her largely for what it reveals about society, rather than the other way round.
On Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Laing manages to convey the essence of what makes Rooney’s writing so essential, how she excels at portraying millennial relationships, the uncertainty evident in communicating their feelings.
What’s remarkable is the pitch of Rooney’s writing, the way it shimmers and quivers with intelligence. Each sentence is measured and unobtrusive, and yet the cumulative effect is a near-unbearable attentiveness to the emotional dimension of human lives, the quick uneasy weather.
Just like the artists’ lives that Laing paints and the myriad facets of art that she depicts, Funny Weather itself is artfully penned – intelligent, engrossing, erudite in an engaging manner.
Ultimately, Olivia Laing makes a compelling case for the different ways in which art can make a difference to our lives, its crucial role during moments of crisis, and its relevance during these politically turbulent times. It is also argued that art can invoke empathy. Is this true? This is where Laing makes a very important point encapsulated in this paragraph from her introductory piece:
Empathy is not something that happens to us when we read Dickens. It’s work. What art does is provide material with which to think: new registers, new spaces. After that, friend, it’s up to you.