This book is not meant to lay out a comprehensive answer to that question. It’s a gathering of Laing’s reviews, artist profiles and essays, originally published in various newspapers, magazines, exhibition catalogues and other venues. But from these it’s fair to say she believes that art can do quite a bit — among other things, she writes, “it shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us up to the interior lives of others” — and she champions the very attempt on the part of artists to make a dent in the collective consciousness.
Laing’s previous books have been smart hybrids of memoir, biography and cultural history. In her first, “To the River,” she walked the length of the Ouse — the river in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself — blending Woolf’s story with a larger meditation on landscape. “The Trip to Echo Spring” considered her family’s history of alcoholism alongside that of several infamously inebriate writers, and “The Lonely City” took on her own solitude by examining isolation in the lives of artists. Even “Crudo,” the novel she reeled off during the summer of 2017, operates along these lines. For that, in response to the distressing events of the day (the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the violence in Charlottesville, President Trump’s tweets about bombing North Korea), Laing found herself channeling the persona of the late post-punk writer Kathy Acker to tell her story.
Most of the pieces in this volume fit more cleanly into one category or another, and in general the separation is well received. A dozen or so serve as wonderful little biographies of creative figures — writers and visual artists mainly, as well as filmmakers, performers and others.
Laing’s arts writing is sharp-minded, and her manner is generous toward both subject and reader. The paintings of Agnes Martin “aren’t made to be read, but rather responded to, enigmatic triggers for a spontaneous upwelling of pure emotion.” The work of novelist Hilary Mantel is “bleakly comic; her dominant subject the oppression of the weak by the strong, the claustrophobia with which circumstance can close around a person.” What can yet be said about the artist Robert Rauschenberg? “Nothing was beneath his regard.”
In one essay, Laing writes that her friend, the painter Chantal Joffe, “allows her sitters to possess themselves, to be lovely, idiosyncratic, intelligent, mortal, their eyes wide, wrapped in a daydream or looking boldly back.” And that might be a good description of Laing’s approach, too. She sees another similarity between them: “We both use portraiture as a way of getting at something deeper.”
Before she turned to literary and arts writing, Laing was an environmental activist. (“We were dirty, we smelled of wood smoke, we slept in treehouses and washed in buckets,” she remembers in one essay here. “We wanted to protect the world, specifically forests, and so we put our bodies in the way of machines.”) It follows that she would care most about art that is “concerned with resistance and repair,” and that she would become profoundly interested in how artists interact with the world: how they choose to, or need to, live their lives; how they deal with the social and political circumstances they were born into; how their work asks questions about what matters and what is supposed to.
That comes across throughout this collection, but especially in portraits of people like artist David Wojnarowicz, the creative polymath who painted, filmed, photographed, wrote and spoke out through the AIDS crisis until his death from complications related to the disease in 1992 at the age of 37. “Wojnarowicz was driven to document the undocumented, to record and bear witness to scenes that most people never encounter,” writes Laing, who later adds: “His struggle has lost none of its relevance.”
The title of this volume comes from the name of the column Laing wrote for four years, starting in 2015, for the contemporary art magazine Frieze. She chose “Funny Weather,” she writes, “because I had a feeling that the political weather, already erratic, was only going to get weirder.” She was right. In her columns, the toxic flow of current events is filtered through thoughts and insights about films, exhibitions and productions she has seen.
These more personal, more poetical pieces may certainly persuade readers that the creative work she highlights, the product of open and tolerant minds, is on the side of right. Of course, getting through to people on the other side is a challenge that neither artwork nor rational argument can always meet. Still, Laing has faith in the role that art can play.
“The question was what would happen now, how to live on alongside loss and rage, how to not be destroyed by what are manifestly destructive forces,” Laing wrote in one 2017 column. She had recently seen “Planes,” a performance by Richard Porter, who stands onstage and revisits a personal tragedy that occurred at the same time as a very public one. “It felt like the room got bigger as he talked, until we were all sitting in an enormous space, a cathedral of potential, in which the future was as yet unsketched.”
John Glassie is the author of “A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change.”
Art in an Emergency
By Olivia Laing
W.W. Norton. 353 pp. $26.95