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Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency

Review

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency

In recent years, Olivia Laing has become well-regarded for her books --- such as THE TRIP TO ECHO SPRING: On Writers and Drinking and THE LONELY CITY: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone --- that combine criticism with her own life experiences. Her new collection, FUNNY WEATHER: Art in an Emergency, is less cohesive than those book-length explorations, but it nevertheless touches on many of these same themes, as she makes the case for the ways in which artists, primarily visual and literary artists, engage with our contemporary world.

Many of Laing’s writings collected here are drawn from her column of the same name for the magazine frieze, while others appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times and elsewhere. In the context of this collection, they are grouped largely by theme or type. The book opens with a series of profiles of largely 20th-century artists, including well-known figures like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Georgia O’Keeffe, and lesser-known (at least to me) artists such as David Wojnarowicz (whose striking photograph appears on the book’s jacket).

"FUNNY WEATHER is eminently well-suited to dipping into, perhaps guided by the topics and figures outlined in its thorough index, since readers are likely to discover something interesting regardless of where in the collection they land."

Elsewhere, Laing includes profiles of four female artists, including the novelists Hilary Mantel and Ali Smith, and offers a handful of book reviews/criticism and some obituaries, including ones of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. And in the section pulled most closely from her frieze columns, she reflects on various political events of recent years, including the Brexit referendum and the horrific Grenfell Tower fire. Again, she connects these defining political moments with reflections on art and artists, as well as her own personal responses.

Throughout this book, issues of sexuality, gender, addiction and the specter of AIDS arise repeatedly. Certainly names and even anecdotes about specific figures come up more than once, which is perhaps an inevitable characteristic of a collection like this, in which pieces were never really meant to be read side-by-side or even in quick succession. However, FUNNY WEATHER is eminently well-suited to dipping into, perhaps guided by the topics and figures outlined in its thorough index, since readers are likely to discover something interesting regardless of where in the collection they land. I know that as I read, Laing prompted me to look up the work of visual artists about whom she writes and with whose work I was less familiar. Her writing effectively piques curiosity and encourages further engagement with her subjects.

Beyond these specifics, though, Laing’s body of work makes a persuasive case for the relevance, even the urgency, of engaging with art during the strange and unsettling moments in history in which we find ourselves. In her introduction, she argues not that literature or art in general can magically create empathy; instead, she writes, “What art does provide is material with which to think: new registers, new spaces. After that, friend, it’s up to you.”

The theme of freedom --- her artist subjects’ struggles to express themselves freely, our current battles to think freely and critically, and to express resistance informed by reason --- is a thread that runs throughout these essays. And even though some of the artists about whom Laing writes have been gone for decades already, their work, and what it represents, is no less relevant today.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 22, 2020

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency
by Olivia Laing

  • Publication Date: May 12, 2020
  • Genres: Art, Culture, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 132400570X
  • ISBN-13: 9781324005704