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Funny Weather: Words we need now, more than ever

Book review: Olivia Laing pens rich portraits of artists, writers and singers from the latter half of the 20th century

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency
Author: Olivia Laing
ISBN-13: 9781529027648
Publisher: Picador
Guideline Price: £20

Pandemic with a chance of hysteria? Funny weather we’re having, indeed. Olivia Laing is a household name when it comes to the subjects of art and loneliness (the latter an all-too-familiar ailment), thanks to her award-winning non-fiction book, The Lonely City, and who better to advise us on art’s ability to change or to help elucidate this liquid landscape that we are currently in? Funny Weather is a collection of Olivia Laing’s interviews, essays, profiles and reviews spanning almost a decade and ranging from love letters addressed to some of her most beloved artists, conversations with Ali Smith and Hilary Mantel and a description of her life living in a self-constructed shelter on an abandoned pig farm in her early twenties. Yes, you’re in for a treat.

There are few voices that we can reliably read widely these days, but I would read Laing writing about proverbial paint drying (the collection is in fact quite paint-heavy), just as soon as I would read her write about the Grenfell Tower fire, The Fire This Time, or a refugee’s experience in England, The Abandoned Person’s Tale, all of which are included in Funny Weather. The overarching organisation of this collection derives from the seminal literary critic, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who proposed a method of reading called, “reparative reading” as opposed to our usual method of reading, which Kosofsky Sedgwick coined “paranoid reading”. Reparative reading is more interested in the good and the hopeful, rather than reading to confirm the horrors which we already know.

Laing’s knowledge of her subjects is encyclopaedic, her awe is infectious, and her critical eye is reminiscent of the critic and author James Wood. Crudo, the author’s first foray into fiction was written in a mere seven weeks in 2017 and has garnered literary acclaim hot and fast, and all three of her non-fiction books have appeared on many award shortlists. The articles included from the column she wrote for frieze magazine (also titled Funny Weather) are often politically charged, deepened by their fresh artistic comparisons and laced with philosophical musings. The collection also includes the most thoughtful, well-researched and concise description of contemporary art that I have read, and I would urge everyone to read Free if you want it: British Conceptual Art if you think that contemporary art is distinctly Not Your Thing.

Portraiture at heart

Laing is most comfortable when she is using “portraiture as a way of getting at something deeper”. With a grace and benevolence similar to Sinéad Gleeson, she pens portraits of artists, writers and singers from the latter half of the 20th century which are rich in detail, suffused in empathy and astute in their socio-political contextualisation. To be drawn in a Laingish light is to be considered searchingly but always with a whole heart.

The Artists’ Lives section of the collection contains, among others, a bright biography of David Hockney, a profile of the ruthless Agnes Martin and a poignant and perfectly poised essay on film director Derek Jarman (to whom she also dedicated the collection). “We looked at him and knew there was another kind of life: wild, riotous, jolly. He opened a door and showed us paradise.” Laing conjures artists and art side-by-side with aplomb; we are inside Sargy Mann’s head as he attempts to paint in total blindness and we are also outside, privy to his work, “the stupendous palette, the deft unseeing strokes of a master colourist”, brought to life by the author’s extensive and exacting knowledge of art.

Her sensitivity to colour, coupled by her ever sharpening vocabulary leaves the reader scrambling to search for the artwork in question, eager to see Georgia O’Keefe’s beloved Black Place covered in “yolk-coloured cracks or spills of oily black” or to look up Roelof Louw’s 1967 sculpture, Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges) which consists of 5,800 oranges stacked in a pyramid, slowly taken by onlookers in an act of ‘consumption’.

Her book reviews are, unsurprisingly, radiant. The former deputy literary editor of the Observer has a particular flair for opening lines with gems such as, “Dick is such a dick” and “Are Connell and Marianne normal people?” (guess which book she’s referring to) and her ability to pen the perfect parting line is enviable. Funny Weather gives the reader a tangible sense of the sprawling garden of work which Laing has planted. She is to the art world what David Attenborough is to nature: a worthy guide with both a macro and micro vision, fluent in her chosen tongue and always full of empathy and awe.