Funny Weather collects essays, reviews, profiles, occasional writings, and a column for the art magazine Frieze, that Olivia Laing wrote over the 2010s. The bulk of the work dates from the decade’s turbulent latter half and is thus synchronous with Laing’s vault on to the bestseller lists via her third nonfiction book, The Lonely City, and her sole novel, Crudo.
Dealing mainly with contemporary art and anglophone writing, the collection’s binding sensibility is indicated in its subtitle. The “emergency” in question is the one that distressed Crudo’s author-narrator, who “saw the liberal democracy in which she had grown up revealed as fragile beyond measure, a brief experiment in the bloody history of man”. In a foreword, Laing acknowledges that she values art principally for its political capacities of “resistance and repair”. Art can and should change the world, she insists; it reveals the interior lives of others, “makes plain inequalities” and suggests new ways of living.
The credo raises an alarm that we might be in for a series of stuffy lectures on art as solemn humanitarian task. And indeed, Laing’s socially conscientious value system sees her champion such figures as the LGBT activist David Wojnarowicz, author of Close to the Knives, whose cause was as noble and death by an Aids-related illness as tragic as his prose was hideous. (It would probably be futile, at this stage of the game, to reprise the old view that the one inequality made plain by art is that which separates talent’s haves from its have-nots.) Laing’s political earnestness, though, is leavened by empathy and an omnivorous curiosity – as was true of John Berger, whose tone and spirit Funny Weather often recalls, and who is eulogised in its pages.
Laing’s preferred method of appreciating an artist is the biographical essay. Hers is not quite criticism in the manner of, say, the late Mark Fisher, with an idea in every sentence, but rather, a collation and relaying of perspectives and information – occasionally penetrating and generally celebratory. As a critic, Laing tends to drop her readers off at the door. She is a maker of introductions, an enthusiast who speaks up for semi-obscure figures such as Arthur Russell (“the greatest musician you’ve never heard of”), or urges us to maintain in due regard the likes of Derek Jarman or Hilary Mantel. On glancing at the names gathered under the “Reading” section on the contents page, I cynically wondered if the scrupulously fashionable London dinner party chat-list (Deborah Levy, Maggie Nelson, Sally Rooney, Chris Kraus, etc) was strategically calibrated to shore up the author’s own cultural capital by association. When I read the impassioned book reviews in question, however, I realised that Laing herself bore significant responsibility for these authors’ prominence this side of the Atlantic (her review of Nelson’s The Argonauts begins: “Let’s start with an introduction”).
Sceptical of the lonely genius idea of artistic production, she favours a sociable, collaborative model
Written between late 2015 and spring 2019, the Frieze columns are urgent and melancholy, with Laing roaming the galleries while livestreaming her distress at the same political and social crises that would crash through in Crudo. The real-time genesis of ideas can also be seen in a profile of Laing’s longtime friend Ali Smith. Of Smith’s novel Autumn, whose headline-fresh subject matter was all but contemporaneous with its publication, Laing reflects: “Maybe an accelerated news cycle requires accelerated art.” The piece is dated October 2016; a year later, Laing would speed-write and speed-publish Crudo, with its Twitterish cascade of undigested topicalities.
Sceptical of the lonely genius idea of artistic production, she favours a sociable, collaborative model, and among the liveliest pieces here are group portraits: of the “New York school” painters and poets; the early British conceptual artists; and British queer artists (the last two best support Laing’s faith in art as a site of “resistance”). Her studies of damaged or reclusive artists such as Agnes Martin and Joseph Cornell are affecting, as is The Abandoned Person’s Tale, which concerns a refugee stuck in the UK’s grim indefinite detention system. An essay titled Drink, drink, drink follows up on Laing’s sobering book about alcoholic male writers, The Trip to Echo Spring, by considering their female counterparts – Marguerite Duras, Jean Rhys, Patricia Highsmith, Jane Bowles.
Laing’s prose is haunted with the zeitgeist’s uncertainty and disquietude. The more personally revealing pieces – on online loneliness, ageing and a period the author spent living feral – raise the affective stakes. Here she is on turning 40:
“It’s the age at which you begin to notice how strange time is, how it repeats and returns, how the group you travel with is inexorably diminished. 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.”
In a profile of her painter friend Chantal Joffe, Laing writes that “we both use portraiture as a way of getting at something deeper”, though it is not always clear what this “something” is. As is often the case with books of this kind, Funny Weather works best as a compendium of recommendations and reminders, if one with a distinctive chill running through it.
Rob Doyle’s most recent book is Threshold (Bloomsbury Circus)
• Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency by Olivia Laing is published by Picador (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15