Small, imperilled utopias: ‘Funny Weather’

By Louis Klee
Olivia Laing’s book takes hope as an organising principle, asking what art can do in a crisis

Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (Picador) is a timely book, though not in the sense we usually understand the word. It is, as its subtitle has it, a work about art in an emergency, which at first glance summons the urgency we are now constantly enjoined with when people speak of the crises of the present and those still to come. Forthright at the outset, Laing asks: “Can art do anything, especially during periods of crisis?” To this question, Laing offers many answers in a book built from a generous selection of occasional pieces – essays on artists, writers and musicians; dispatches from frieze magazine on the refugee crisis and the Grenfell Tower fire; reflections on the ethics of hospitality and queer creativity, activism and survival, which together assemble, as she told Emily LaBarge, a kind of personal canon, a “tribe or community, even a family”. But her first answer lies in a change of register. Art is timely not just because a crisis demands it, but because it makes us think differently about time.

One reason we turn to art in an emergency is because it stubbornly refuses to think in such immediate and instrumental terms. “Maybe an accelerated news cycle requires an accelerated art”, Laing deliberates, with Ali Smith’s Autumn in mind, an important influence on her own novel Crudo. But where Crudo registers the hour’s moods, the raw and relentless present of Twitter, Funny Weather asks us to consider the “stopped time of a painting, say, or the drawn-out minutes and compressed years of a novel, in which it is possible to see patterns and consequences that are otherwise invisible”.

In the studio with the painter Chantal Joffe, Laing sits to be painted, wondering what would happen if she wrote about Joffe at the speed the painter paints, “an act of simultaneous witnessing”. The question on her mind: “How do you catch reality, the actual minute?” She begins with the date (February 27, 2018) and the time (“just after one”), but already here her difficulties begin. The trouble consists not just in writing what you see but in seeing at all. It lies in the mysterious fact that we see one thing and not another, in the mystery of who it is doing all this seeing. And so the experience of being scrutinised by Joffe is not captured in a single piece of extempore writing, but recurs in other essays (their dates awry, the first “March 2018” the second “September 2017”): “Chantal worked fast … I loved the way she articulated the smart of being there at all, an animal with its eyes open, not quite gelling with the room. There I was, the figurative thing, one continuous accident: a bag of old skin, tired, frightened, electrically alive”. Part of the joy of Funny Weather is glimpsing Laing reflected in the act of evoking others.

A crisis may be something that has already happened or something that slowly and unequally works its grievous consequences. Art can help us realise this and yet such “grimly revelatory”, compulsively critical styles of insight occupy Laing less in Funny Weather. Instead, she seeks out “reparative” ways of reading, finding succour in an essay written during the height of the Aids crisis by the queer theorist and luminary Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Laing declares herself “emphatically informed” by Sedgwick’s vision and so finds company with other writers who share this influence, like Maggie Nelson, whose The Argonauts is described in Funny Weather as possessing “a facility of making room, for offering up possibilities beyond the either/or, the this and that”. Hope, “often a fracturing, even a traumatic thing to experience”, is central to Sedgewick’s essay, which she describes as “among the energies by which the reparatively positioned reader tries to organise the fragments and part-objects she encounters or creates”. Funny Weather takes hope as an organising principle, gathering politically and ethically significant moments in the lives and fortunes of artists that intimate the possibility of a different future.

The richness and force of Laing’s book consist in the fact that these are not portentous rationalisations of journalistic work, but are convictions that everywhere animate in the way she writes about artists, and are implicit in the attention she bestows on figures like David Wojnarowicz. Laing’s criticism is pleasantly uninvested in making the standard evaluative claims about art, perhaps because she only writes of art and artists that stir and intrigue her, who already have some intuitive pull. Her criticism everywhere accepts the invitation to think with an artwork, registering the thrills and terrors of its solicitations, but ever on her mind is the question of what drives an artist and how their artwork issues from a particular life experience and set of circumstances. This combination of homage to the pleasures of art and meticulous research into an artist’s life often distilled down into a single, revelatory anecdote (“a surprising number of Martin’s paintings have been vandalised”, she notes) gives Laing’s criticism a rare intimacy and economy.

At times art criticism can take on a rueful, even vindictive tone, perhaps because, unlike the literary critic’s relation to a book, the art critic has an intimate and singular encounter with a work while all the time being reminded by the gallery’s vitrine, its sanitised white cube, that this is an object they could never conceivably own or touch but can only partake in at a curated distance. “Per financial force”, Janet Malcolm observes, the art critic is “a mere spectator in the tulipomaniacal drama of the contemporary art market” and so “tends to regard the small group of people rich enough to be players as if they were an alien species”, readily duped into lauding sham art. There is none of this tone in Laing’s book. Decisively, but without any ado, she sidesteps the art world – though she will note, in passing, how a gallery brings on “a feeling of somnolence and remove” – commending instead, say, conceptualism’s resistance to the “capitalist wiles” of a market dedicated to trading possessable and exchangeable art objects. Her writing feels at home in art because she cares for it as something “as immediate as sex and friendship, a way of orienting yourself in the world”, while for artists she stakes a solidarity that rests “in the common inheritance of our bodies – which remain subject, however unequally, to sickness, loss, old age and death”.

This is not to say that Laing’s approach relies on omitting the inequalities of the art market; more that she has another way of contextualising art. Writing about artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Georgia O’Keefe, she sets out not only to deftly translate a visual encounter into a few well-chosen words, but to draw attention to how the artists themselves buckle against and play along with, resist and feed, the restrictive expectations and mythologies projected on them by the art world and an often hostile public. Gender, race, class and sexuality are all conspicuous elements of this encumbrance, this social script, which can be, by turns, smothering, inimical, and exoticising. So an artist like Basquiat – “he was lonely, the only black man in the room” – contests the rumours that circulate about him, but, Laing remarks, “the wild, untutored kid was also a deliberate myth Basquiat constructed about himself, part canny bid for stardom, part protective veil, and as much a way of satirising prejudice as the African chieftain outfits he’d later wear to the parties of wealthy white collectors”.

Though it may prove safer to express illicit desires obliquely, on the canvas, these constraints can also prove too great. Many of the artists’ lives Laing chronicles end with isolation and ignominy, addiction and suicide, or else are punctuated by moments when the police are called to the gallery to remove an offending canvas, such as Francis Bacon’s Two Figures in the Grass. The extreme for Laing is embodied by writer and countercultural icon Kathy Acker, who tried to fashion her own image, to write her own script, often by ventriloquising the words of others. In Chris Kraus’ After Kathy Acker, Laing underlines the following statement: “Acker worked and reworked her memories until, like the sex she described, they became conduits to something a-personal, until they became myth. This was the strength, and also the weakness, of her writing”. If, owing to our desire or identity, the whole of our life is an emergency, art may be a way of surviving – a kind of sustenance more vital than the usual, needful things – but there are painful limits to self-fashioning, to these “small, imperilled utopias”. The posthumously published photograph of Wojnarowicz’s face buried in the Mojave Desert on the cover of Laing’s book signals both these things at once. It is an image of constriction and committal – the artist has dug out a hole from the earth with his hands so that he can surrender himself up, bury himself in it – and yet it is also, Laing reminds us, “an image of defiance in the face of extinction. If silence equals death, he taught us, then art equals language equals life”.

The collection’s most powerful and consoling essay is, in my view, “Sparks through stubble”, written originally as an introduction to Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature. Here Laing’s vision of art is most fully realised; the reception of the artwork is so intimately bound to her own life and formation as a writer that to get at it she must begin by recounting her own childhood in a village near Portsmouth “where all the cul-de-sacs were named after the fields they’d destroyed”. She grew up in the “era of Section 28” – that is, of an amendment to the UK’s Local Government Act 1988 that forbade local authorities from promoting homosexuality and schools from teaching its acceptability as a “pretended family relationship”. Laing was raised in one such “pretended family”, with a gay mother, and it was at this time that she found Jarman. Her sister became obsessed with his films, while she was drawn to his books. “It was here”, she writes, “I developed a sense of what it meant to be an artist, to be political, even how to plant a garden (playfully, stubbornly, ignoring boundaries, collaborating freely).”

In 1986, Jarman learnt he was HIV positive and became one of the few people in Britain to make the fact publicly known. Modern Nature is his diary of two years in the late 1980s spent at Prospect Cottage, a black-timbered fisherman’s cabin on the shingle spit of Dungeness beside the looming reactor of a nuclear power station. It is a landscape unlike those usually associated with England (supposed “demi-paradise … fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection” in the rancorous death speech of Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt). In other words, it is an inauspicious setting for a garden, coupled with unfavourable circumstances to take up gardening’s labours. “Aids contributed to a sense of impending apocalypse,” Laing writes, and Jarman:

fretted over global warming, the greenhouse effect, the hole in the ozone layer. Would there be a future? Was the past irreparably destroyed? What to do? Don’t waste time. Plant rosemary, red-hot poker, santolina; alchemise terror into art.

The emergency is translated into a living metaphor, into the act of cultivating the raw, queer, riotous, rank and beautiful vitality of life. “You’ve discovered modern nature”, the painter Maggi Hambling tells Jarman – a nature stamped by our times but liberated by its own temporality, illuminated by Jarman’s refusal to partition the nature of desire from the toiling collaboration with plants. It is this vision that makes Jarman the “best as well as most political nature writer”, in Laing’s words, because “he refuses to exclude the body from his sphere of interest, documenting the rising tides of sickness and desire with as much care and attention as he does the discovery of sea buckthorn or a wild fig”. At another point, Laing calls this the “indifference of vitalism”, observing how “life is always shifting into death” in the baroque seething masses of porcelain of Rachel Kneebone’s sculptures, which seem to both engulf and yield limbs like some grotesque and beautiful organism. Laing, herself an avid gardener, asks in another essay whether gardening may be likened to art. She answers her own question hypothetically: if gardening is an art form, then this owes to how it “situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media”. A flower is often a metaphor for something ephemeral, fleeting, but in the cyclical way it fleets, a permanence made of little vanishings and gaps, it endures. To illustrate this, she cites a moment in 1939 in Virginia Woolf’s diaries, when Hitler came on the radio: “Her husband Leonard was in the garden he’d painstakingly constructed at Monk’s House, their damp green cottage in Rodmell, East Sussex. ‘I shan’t come in,’ he shouted. ‘I’m planting iris, and they will be flowering long after he is dead.’”

Funny Weather was written in snatches before the emergency that came to define its moment of publication. It was released in March this year, when many of the world’s cities began imposing lockdowns to slow the spread of coronavirus. Most of the book’s launch events and publicity migrated online. It was also online, through social media, that I learnt that many of my friends were suddenly reading Laing, especially her celebrated work of nonfiction The Lonely City. There is one essay in Funny Weather that continues this line of speculation, considering how the internet – “a machine for constructing and sharing identities”, in Laing’s intriguing definition – has shifted her thinking about loneliness. Just as a great city can be a great loneliness, as an adage going back to Erasmus has it, we are now familiar with the anxiety that the internet’s promise of connectivity may in fact herald further, hitherto unimagined forms of disconnection.

Laing’s approach is more open and thought-provoking: the internet, on her account, is a tool that encourages self-invention, and so fits in some ways with the acts of self-mythologising she explores in the lives of artists and writers. The problem is that the freedoms of self-invention do not automatically equate to connection unless we are still willing to be vulnerable and “take the risks that togetherness entails”. This is evidently the case in the much-observed phenomenon in which self-invention is warped into the projection of an image of perfection that insulates us from the messy realities of life. But, more than that, despite the internet’s promise of new forms of self-fashioning, we may also lose other, older aids to re-creating ourselves – anonymity, for instance, or even forgetfulness, when we discover that, despite the internet’s ephemeral scrim, seemingly nothing is ever lost, not a photo, not even a like or a favourite. Among the ramifications and illuminations of the coronavirus emergency there is this then: for many of the more fortunate, life is not necessarily more lonely so much as more intensely mediated by the internet such that all the contingencies of habitual social life – even something as simple as meeting someone new – are replaced with the administered randomness of social media, conference calls and scrolling a feed. The internet teaches us to be suspicious of coincidence (the phone is listening, tirelessly tailoring marketing) where at other times chance can be a source of uncanny charm and enchanting riddles. So too the “live” of internet is less convincing, a half-hearted replacement that has none of the true riveting force, the situated thrall of a real event. What clings to a live video is the feeling one could be watching any other video, since in a sense the whole world is live. “The apartment becomes a sort of cockpit”, Walter Benjamin writes in The Arcades Project, and these words take on a different meaning in this moment of simultaneous confinement and solidarity through distance.

In her collection’s most personal, lyrical essay, “Feral”, Laing describes dropping out of university to protest against oak forests being chainsawed and bulldozed to build relief roads and dual carriageways that “might cut journey times by a few minutes”. “I loved arriving after dark”, she says, “and seeing the lumpy silhouettes of the houses, a chorus of yips and whistles echoing from the branches.” Without electricity, life is arduous, but not without joy. Instead, living “outdoors, under the stars, the world had come to seem at once infinitely lovely and infinitely at risk”. Laing’s Funny Weather is a plea to hold these two things in mind at once: the fury with which we protest injustice and the quietude in something like gardening, done for its own sake. What she seems to say, in many ways, is that we desire utopia not only as a refuge, an end to wrongs past and present, but as an end in itself, because of “how honestly nice life could be”, as she writes in Crudo. I think of Funny Weather as a way of posing anew, with a unique sort of feral eloquence won through strokes of descriptive clarity, a question from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets of queer love: “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”

Louis Klee

Louis Klee is an Australian writer and John Monash scholar.

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