Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency – Olivia Laing

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.  

Anti-clockwise (from top Left to Right) – Artworks by Georgia O’ Keeffe, Agnes Martin, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Joseph Cornell

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.

Jean Rhys’ quintessential quartet of books…

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.

Notes to Self – Emilie Pine

While looking at my reading habits over the last few years, I realize I haven’t read too many essay collections (something I need to correct), but I have been quite impressed with the ones I have –Seduction and Betrayal by Elizabeth Hardwick is the one book that comes to mind. Now, I will also add Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self to that meager list.

Notes to Self is a collection of radical, honest and unflinching essays on personal events that marked Emilie Pine’s life – caring for an alcoholic parent, the crippling grief of infertility, taboos around female bodies and sexual violence.

There are a total of six essays in the collection, but for this review, I will focus on the first two essays, which are simply brilliant and worth the price of the book alone.

Let me begin with what to me is the standout piece – ‘From the Baby Years’, a poignant essay on Pine’s emotional upheaval when it dawns on her that she will never experience motherhood. Pine was not always sure she wanted to be a mother though. In her twenties and early thirties, she observed her friends leap into parenthood and witnessed the extraordinary range of emotions they underwent. But she and her partner R weren’t very sure it’s a step they wanted to take. They debated a lot on the pros and cons, and also talked about their lives as people who loved quiet and calm and the space to read and write. For them, this was a rich and fulfilling life and having a child would mean giving up all of that.

But then, one day she accompanies her friend and her child to the park and observes the love between the two. Yearning for that very same bond, Pine decides she wants to be a mother. She manages to convince R, who is still unsure, but they decide to take the plunge.

There is no luck though after a lot of ‘trying’. And thereby begins Pine’s ordeal of closely monitoring her cycles, endless tests and hospital visits to determine the root of the problem. At one point, Pine does become pregnant only to miscarry and she writes about the emotional pain this caused and the ambiguity surrounding it – the foetus was growing, but there was no heartbeat, and under stringent Irish laws, the foetus is prioritized over the mother, so she couldn’t abort it either unless there was more clarity on its status.

All of this begins to take a toll on the couple’s relationship. It comes to a point when they have to decide whether to go in for IVF treatment. And after an important conversation – possibly the most important of their lives – Pine and R decide not to.

I loved this essay for its frank and honest portrayal of the range of emotions that the author felt – the love of a child that evoked the desire to be a mother, difficulty in comprehending what’s going on inside her body, the jealousy she felt when her sister became pregnant, and the grief of realizing that her dream of motherhood will remain unfulfilled.

But what I loved most is how the author came to terms with this fact, displaying hope and courage. Why grieve over something you can’t have, and focus instead on what you do have? Pine realized that she has a great relationship with her partner and why not treasure that rather than going after something that is not likely to happen?

And it hit me. We are growing old together. This is what it will be like as we watch each other age, as our partnership ages. And this unexpected moment made me happier than I could have imagined. I see a life ahead for us, a shared life. A great life.

It is Pine’s way of saying that she chooses to be happy and put these ‘baby trying’ years behind her.

The first essay in the book “Notes on Intemperance” explores the difficult relationship between Pine and her alcoholic father. The essay hits you in the gut right from the first few sentences. Pine and her sister are in an understaffed and poorly managed hospital in Greece, where their father has been admitted for liver failure. Travelling all the way from Dublin, when the sisters find him, “he has been lying in a small pool of his own shit for several hours.”

Pine’s feelings for her father are very complicated. She resents him for his endless drinking during her younger years, and at the same time she knows that when he eventually calls her for help, she will not be able to refuse. Pine’s father manages to pull through, but the author uses this incident as a medium through which to explore the trials of caring for an alcoholic parent – one who does not even grasp the consequences of his actions. And yet she can’t give up caring for him.

But we are not lost, not just yet. Our relationship may be an unyielding kind of story, a chain of unalterable moments, from arguments in bars to vigils at hospital bedsides. But it is also, just as powerfully, an ever-changing conversation between two people, father and daughter, a conversation that we are both grateful is not over.

In Notes to Self, then, Emilie Pine touches upon crucial themes – alcoholism, infertility, taboos around female bodies and female pain – topics which cause emotional disruptions, but which are never part of ordinary conversations lest it gets uncomfortable for the audience. And yet these are necessary conversations and cannot be swept under the carpet. These are essays laced with fearless and astonishing honesty; they reveal devastating truths and dole out dollops of wisdom.

A Month of Reading – November 2020

November turned out to be another slow reading month for me. I barely read anything in the first week as the US Presidential election drama made me anxious. Subsequently, things improved. But despite focusing entirely on novellas this month for the Novellas in November challenge, I did not read as much as I would have liked.

But the good thing is that the books I did read were very good. My favourites of the bunch were CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING and NOTES TO SELF.

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT by Elena Ferrante (Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

When Olga’s husband Mario suddenly decides to opt out of their marriage, her life turns upside down, and so begins her downward spiral into depression and neglect.

What stands out in The Days of Abandonment is Olga’s voice – she is brutally frank in conveying her thoughts and feelings, minces no words, and is almost always angry, sometimes uncomfortably so. At its core, the novel touches upon the themes of how absurd conventional definitions of womanhood can be, while also highlighting the trials of motherhood. 

CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING by Julia Strachey

Set over the course of a single day, this is a funny, beautifully penned novella centred on the wedding of our protagonist Dolly Thatcham, with an ill-assortment of guests congregating for the event including her possible former beau Joseph. It’s a gem of a novella focusing on the themes of missed opportunities and consequences of things left unsaid.

NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine

This is a collection of radical, honest and unflinching essays on personal events that marked Pine’s life – caring for an alcoholic parent, the crippling grief of infertility, taboos around female bodies and sexual violence. There are a total of six pieces in the book, but to me the second essay called ‘From the Baby Years’ was the standout piece in the collection and worth the price of the book alone.

DESPERATE CHARACTERS by Paula Fox

Sophie and Otto Brentwood are an affluent couple having a seemingly well-established life in Brooklyn, New York. But when Sophie is viciously bitten by a cat she tries to feed, it sets into motion a set of small but ominous events that begin to hound the couple – a crank call in the middle of the night, a stone thrown through the window of a friend’s house and so on. Sophie is subsequently plagued with fear and anxiety and is reluctant to visit the doctor even though the worry of contracting rabies is not far behind. Otto is concerned with carrying on his lawyer practice by himself, after his partner Charlie quits to start out on his own. In writing that is sophisticated and perceptive, Paula Fox presents to the reader a tale of a gradually disintegrating marriage.

THEATRE OF WAR by Andrea Jeftanovic (Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle)

Through the motifs of theatre and drama, Jeftanovic weaves a tale of a fractured family devastated by war and trauma, not only in their country of origin but also in their adopted homeland. Told in three parts through the eyes of Tamara, it’s a fragmented narrative that tells us of her parents’ broken marriage, how the ghosts of war continue to haunt her father who has lived it, and the debilitating impact it has had on their family dynamic, and her own struggle to pick up the pieces and move on.  

THE APPOINTMENT by Katharina Volckmer

A young woman embarks on a razor sharp monologue addressing a certain Dr Seligman and touches on topics such as the origins of her family, her troubled relationship with her mother, her conflicted gender identity, her affair with a married man called K who is a painter and paints on her body, sexual fantasies involving Hitler and the legacy of shame. I have had a great run with Fitzcarraldo titles this year, and at barely less than 100 pages, this was an interesting, fascinating read.

As December begins, I plan to read the first two books in Susan Cooper’s DARK IS RISING series along with the PENGUIN BOOK OF CHRISTMAS STORIES. Given that I am going through a bit of a reading slump, let’s see if I can stick to this plan.