By Ronnie Angel Pope
Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency
Olivia Laing, Picador, 2020
Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind
Guy Claxton, Fourth Estate, 1998
Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency makes a case for art as a tool for power, agency, and change. The collection is compiled across a career’s worth of writing on kunst and kulture, and is divided into eight sections: ‘Artist Lives’ (which profiles the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Georgia O’Keeffe); ‘Funny Weather’ (a series of columns written for Frieze; ‘Four Women’ (in which Laing interviews Hilary Mantel, Sarah Lucas, Ali Smith, and Chantal Joffe); ‘Styles’ (interrogations into queer and conceptual movements); Essays (gorgeous, personal ones); ‘Reading’ (which covers the very best of her bookshelf); ‘Love Letters’; and ‘Talk’ (a conversation with Joseph Keckler). The result: a selection that showcases many pleasurable things. Like a bunch of fresh-cut dahlias - all dark foliage in the opening shot of Gardener’s World in late summer - or a pilfered mug from Bar Italia that reminds you that you are in the right place at the right time. But as a piece of non-fiction, it is a patchwork of dialogic prose, staunchly committed to uncovering the fullness of what it means to be human. The academic protocols of remaining at a critical distance, archive deep-diving oneupmanship, hierarchical reading structures, and whipped didacticism are, pleasurably, lost. Funny Weather feels good.
When I began to read Funny Weather I had just finished my degree, I had moved back in with my Mum (as many of us have to do at some point, pandemic prevailing or not), and I was back in my teenage bedroom. The last time I had occupied this space, Warhol was my God; I was smoking cigarettes rolled mostly from tea leaves, and an underage glass of red wine was as habitual as going to Tesco’s to do a ‘big shop’ on a Saturday. In my mind’s eye, I was my very own working-class-hero, the poor-little-rich-girl remade and remodelled. Full of mooning devotion. Albert Camus, Brian Eno, Patti Smith, Louise Bourgeois, Debbie Harry, Joan Didion, Yoko Ono, Anita Pallenberg (the list goes on) - these were the people who, to me, had birthed themselves into the world, cool to the touch but with limbs flailing. A school of obsession and teenage fandom. And still, it always comes back to the acknowledgement of how precious these adolescent years of devotion are. The dedication to ‘finding things out’ so strong that sniffing and following your nose becomes an integral part of your identity. I’m talking about the same sentiment as the one that comes across in Sally Rooney’s Normal People - when Connell stands transfixed by Duchamp’s ‘Nude, Sad Young Man On A Train’ for a number of hours which may or may not be documented in hyperbole. You see, Laing embodies this energy of centralised devoutness associated with pilgrimage, obsession, standing square in front of a work, and looking, really looking, head-on.
Liken the process of reading Funny Weather to sitting still in a domestic setting and you deduce an experience such as the following: You let your eyes travel around the room. They fall on one thing, then another. You ask yourself how these things relate to one another and you arrive at the realisation that all of these things belong to you. These things are in your possession. You want to interact with them. You map them out; their likenesses, their relations to one another in time and space. You want to forge a chain of semiotic meaning around them. Should these things form webs of correspondence, some exchanges might resemble friendship and others rivalry. Yet everything you set your eyes upon can be acknowledged as your kin. Some things are vectors for electric currents. Other things are grounding. The rest can be lit on fire. Everything vibrates together in perfect parataxis.
The foreword of Funny Weather addresses Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick - a founding scholar of Queer Studies, and author of Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You. Laing comments that a ‘paranoid approach’ to reading is ‘so common and widely practised that we sometimes forget there are alternatives to it’. This stems from our inherent need to categorise, as books are routinely broken down into Marxist / Nietzschean / Freudian readings (and those pertaining to their intellectual offspring). Before we know it, paranoid reading becomes ‘coextensive with critical theoretical inquiry rather than being viewed as one kind of cognitive/affective theoretical practice among other, alternative kinds’. In an age of virtue-signalling and publicised-public-persona, it is all too easy to wade into the water and become disorientated. Yet it is reassuring when Funny Weather pushes you through this paranoia. You go from thinking ‘Is this about me?’ and gulping back the neurosis, to feeling that it doesn’t really matter, that ‘This is applicable to me. This works’. Just like that, the conversational nature of reading opens up, and the book becomes an artefact which holds as much meaning as you want it to. Whatever you bring, it matches.
In its references to and confrontations with art, Funny Weather initiates a new-new kind of art criticism that fosters a language with which to relay its foundations. Laing holds our initial, impulsive reactions to a work in equal stead to the points of response at which we might arrive having had time to process and hypothesise. By assuming this approach, Laing makes good use of the ‘tortoise mind’ - a quiet, cerebral room in which we can ruminate and allow the mind to wonder - where the subconscious cultivates an openness and slower ways of knowing (Claxon, 1998). Sometimes this idea is addressed by the breathing space around a text, or around an idea, but other times, the staggered reaction between what is guttural and what is produced is addressed within the text:
‘Someone told me recently about looking up through a skylight in Italy, late at night, and seeing a group of wolverines writhing and tumbling over the glass. Maybe they were having sex, she said, or maybe they were fighting, anyway it was disgusting. Yes, I said, but what I really meant was I wish I’d seen it, the Muybridge transitions inside the wooden frame, like Bacon’s wrestling, copulating bodies in their invisible cages.’
Time and time again, from the realm of the erotic to the subject of women and alcoholism, or the scope of the AIDS crisis; Laing brings unparalleled confidence and compassion. She has done the legwork and embodies the frankness necessary to write in detail about topics from Brexit to Charlottesville, always relating the public to the private. This connection between the personal and outside worlds acquires introspective meaning. We are no longer talking about the point of convergence between sound and vision, or the moment of inertia that propels photography into film. Instead, we are talking about uniting the rift between the outward and the inward-facing selves - the public and the private practices. The age-old argument about separating the ‘art’ from the ‘artist’ disintegrates under Laing’s conditions, which maintain that the former is always entwined with the latter. The point is gently settled in the string of ‘Artist’s Lives’ essays: Wojnarowicz made the work that he did because he was always living on the edge of his personal relationships. Equally, O’Keeffe made work about the desert because moving into the landscape gave her a sense of space and solitude that had resonated since childhood. Funny Weather is an exploration of artistic identity that begins from the inside out, not in a sickeningly spiritual sense, but through the process of understanding one thing in terms of another. In an interview with Emily Lewitt, Laing notes that ‘the whole thing (Funny Weather) is built over a very solid scaffold of facts’. Yes, it’s clear that this doesn’t slip for one moment. But still, it is easy to forget that Laing is writing about somebody else too. The ease with which Laing can work in postmodern tandem with parallel voices resembles Jungian projection or Bergmannian persona, meaning that the self and the other coexist and serve to inform one another. The figure in question, whoever they might be, is ‘in’ to possible lines of enquiry and otherwise inaccessible avenues of possibility.
Within every embodiment, there is warmth. When Warhol said ‘in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes’, Momus hit back thirty years later and said ‘in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people’, which implies a niche and intimacy. Funny Weather is every kind of intimate. In a ‘Love Letter’ to David Bowie, Laing chooses to flag up ‘Where Are We Now?’ (a track from the 2013 album, ‘The Next Day’ - of love, loss, ageing, and Bowie in Berlin). From six decades of chameleonic output, Laing settles a macro lens on the line ‘As long as there’s me / As long as there’s you’. And that’s all. Laing’s commentary hinges on love. ‘Love’ - the substance that is usually treated as blousy chintz and scorned from ‘literary culture’ in a last-ditch attempt to save face, as though it is a threat to the middle-class’ aspirational vision of the high-brow. But there is no real danger in it; just tenderness and humanity. During the process of writing about idols and figureheads, is it not time to admit that love is what brought us here in the first place? Why confine our confessions of love to the format of an epitaph? In dedicating a section to Love Letters, Laing prioritises benevolence. Everyone needs to feel that they are blushing once in a while.
The love letter to Wolfgang Tillmans is named ‘Say You’re In’ after a Brexit campaign-era poster produced by him (one of which hangs on my dear friend and photographer Megan Winstone’s kitchen wall in Cardiff). The letter is divvied into eight instances of interaction with the German photographer’s work. Number six reads:
‘Once a friend and I had a fight and we met in the Wolfgang Tillmans retrospective at the Tate and I was so overcome by the photo of soapy water pouring down a drain clotted with vegetation that I thought I’d faint. It was so beautiful it made me feel like I’d been hit round the head.’
Vulnerability infiltrates, and Laing’s encounters with art evoke the feeling that nothing else in the world matters more, in that instant. The work becomes every-thing. And yet - many of the figures that make it into Funny Weather are concerned with no-thing-ness. When I was a kid, my mum had a book about horses which had a diagram in it: the horse was walking on a circle with a stick of chalk in its mouth. The chalk was marking a line on the ground, and the horse’s tail was long enough to brush away the dust. As the horse walked, the line was drawn and wiped from existence simultaneously. The aim is to craft a something very specific - a circle - but the hard work is imbued in the process, not the visibility of the end which is in mind. The essay Nothing but blue skies plays exactly to that - creating the no-thing. Concerning the abstract expressionist Agnes Martin, the essay alludes to the fact that Martin’s process could be perceived as amounting to (only) ‘two hairs stuck on the canvas’. Yet, like Tillmans’ soap suds and Bowie’s Kemp-esque and earnest mime, the work is also the ‘enigmatic trigger’ for a ‘spontaneous upwelling of pure emotion’. Full of false starts and formlessness, Laing describes Martin’s work as having ‘no view, no closure, just radiant openness’. That’s the heart of the beauty: the emotional response to the material.
The openness introduces itself as a provocative expanse, too light to bear. Just as the lightness mirrored in the opening title of Funny Weather, ‘You look at the sun’, which is pulled from John Mekas’ To New York With Love which continues: ‘YOU LOOK AT THE SUN. THEN YOU RETURN HOME AND YOU CAN’T WORK, YOU’RE IMPREGNATE WITH ALL THAT LIGHT’. You stand there, in front of something, look at the expanse of it so hard, that it’s paralysing. To feel blinded, or like you’ve been hit around the head, is an important and valid point of conclusion. The immediate response to a work is enough and is deserving of its own breathing space.
To come full circle and end at the beginning - there is so much hope in the fact Funny Weather opens this way. The very fact of you is the penny that counts. When Laing says that ‘art is still so died up with class’, asking ‘are you permitted to participate’, it is a call to arms. Funny weather makes you equipt, or at least brings you a good few steps closer. Funny Weather is the Russian Constructivist poster which shouts ‘Class War and Aesthetics’, bringing art and politics together to show that each is a vessel for the other. But more than that, this collection is reassurance that the action counts (just as much as the fact that you know that you’re headed somewhere). Take the mental image of Richard Long that Laing describes: walking back and forth in a straight line through a field until the grass has flattened, fulfilling the action but knowing that after a good bit of rain, the grass will spring back, and the treaded line will dissipate. Like the lifting of the cloud to reveal the sun, like the tail and the chalk, the footprint and the rain; the most powerful act of deconstruction usually happens whilst you’re sleeping, and the ultimate act of mark-making is shaken by funny weather.
Art by Abigail Hodges