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Olivia Laing (b. 1977) - the British writer, novelist and cultural critic for the Guardian, The Observer, Friezeand New Statesman, who has written catalogue essays for many contemporary artists, including Derek Jarman and Wolfgang Tillmans - is an admirer of Andy Warhol’s charm and Diaries. Laing considers art a force for “political”changeand admires the work that queer people have created over the ages. Author of three works of non-fiction, To the River,The Trip to Echo Spring, and The Lonely City, as well as an autofiction novel, Crudo (2017), Laing released her new, warm and thinking book. 

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Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (Picador, 2020) - imagining weather reports sent from the road and the political weather getting weirder - collects nonfiction essays, reviews, profiles, occasional writings, and a column for the art magazine Frieze, that enthusiast art critic Olivia Laing wrote over the 2010s around the same question: what use has art in a moment of crisis? In the turbulent political weather of the twenty-first century? What did art do, for instance, in the AIDS crisis? It agitated, it organized, it consoled, it memorialized. And now, with the Pandemic? It expanded, it amplified the suspended time and alienation. Art is a form of contactless consolation during a worldwide plague. Although art cannot change structural problems, it is a source of clarity and resilience. Funny Weather “is not a depressing book; it is fundamentally more invested in finding nourishment than identifying poison”.

Laing acknowledges that she values art principally for its political capacities of “resistance and repair”. In her third, bursting book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Canongate, 2016), Laing writes about the artists who turned their detachment from the world into art, among them Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, and David Wojnarowicz. Art can show how to live when we are not connected to other human beings and - Laing insists - should change the world; as an imperative necessity, art reveals the interior lives of others, “makes plain inequalities” and suggests new ways of living. 

In Funny Weather - through a compendium of recommendations and reminders - we jump from semi-obscure figures such as Arthur Russell (“the greatest musician you’ve never heard of”) to gardening to migration to Laing’s longtime friend Ali Smith, starting from a generalintroduction, examining the things that interest Laing, leaving out several ones she strongly dislikes. She profiles Jean-Michel Basquiat and Georgia O’Keefe, interviews Hilary Mantel and Ali Smith, writes love letters to David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, and explores ingenuity, doggedness, loneliness and technology, alcoholic male writers and their female counterpart, sex and the body. Damaged or reclusive artists such as Agnes Martin and Joseph Cornell, her painter friend Chantal Joffe - who use portraiture as a way of getting at something deeper - are part of the team. Not to mention The “New York school” painters and poets; the early British conceptual artists; and British queer artists who best support Laing’s credo in the power of art. In her pages, Laing welcomes and hosts everyone warmly; this is why she returns, throughout Funny Weather, to the idea of hospitality. To her, this means something specific, in the sense of welcoming immigrants, and also something less concrete - a posture of openness to new ideas.

As she writes in the book's introduction, art does provide material with which to think: new registers; new spaces. After that, it's up to us, we have to make our own way in. Across things we read, we see, art gives time to digest or understand, it takes us away from the constant sense of a breaking crisis, keeping us from being swept from catastrophe to catastrophe.

 

Olivia Laing, Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer.

 

Cover image: Olivia Laing, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (Book cover).

Written by Petra Chiodi

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