I’m hoping you have never heard of Olivia Laing because then you’ve got a treat in store. I hadn’t before I picked up this book, its title enticing me as I sought something to give me hope or to excite me during Covid-19 lockdown.
If you are already a fan (it turns out Laing is a well established writer and critic) you will likely have already read the essays collected in Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (most were previously published as articles in the Guardian, frieze and New Statesman, as well as elsewhere). If, however, Laing’s name is at best only vaguely familiar, and if, like a beachcomber, you enjoy looking for curious objects to pick up, turn over and contemplate, this book during this period might well bring you delight.
A rich collection of mini biographies, interviews or reflections on artists in the broadest sense including musicians and writers, this book works as a tasting menu with many flavours and textures. Some offerings bring the comfort of familiarity, others extend your palette, sometimes out of your comfort zone, but always leaving you glad for the experience.
Reading Funny Weather was for me an example of ‘reparative reading’, an idea Laing returns to at several points in her collection, explaining it as being “fundamentally more invested in finding nourishment than identifying poison. This doesn’t mean being naive or undeceived, unaware of crisis or undamaged by oppression. What it does mean is being driven to find or invent something new and sustaining out of inimical environments.”
The inimical environments Laing is referring to are often the backgrounds of the various artists she writes about, the poverty or prejudice they experienced. It also refers to the political climate in which many of her essays were written – first the economic downturn, then the change in the political landscape, not just in the UK but also the US, as well as the fracturing of communities through Brexit campaigning and the referendum. It is almost disconcerting, the prescient relevance of her reflections, now we find ourselves experiencing another crisis, though this time not primarily financial or political, but instead a worldwide health emergency.
I read a digital review copy of the text for this book, so I’m not sure if the printed version will feature any illustrations. I really do hope each essay will be accompanied by an example (or more) of the art discussed; you’ll find yourself intrigued, even excited by Laing’s descriptions of the art she describes, and will want to see for yourself what provokes and draws out her thoughtful enthusiasm.
At a time when we’re experiencing an insular life, largely confined, hoping to feel connected to something larger and more satisfying than the swiping of news feeds, this collection of essays is a treat, opening doors to wonderful journeys exploring new places, people and ideas. In one essay, Laing quotes Ali Smith, “Art is one of the prime ways we have of opening ourselves and going beyond ourselves.” Laing’s art – her words and generous reflections – enable us to do just that.
[Reviewed by Zoe for FOLIO Sutton Coldfield]
Several books by Olivia Laing are available through Birmingham Libraries, though not (at the time of posting this review), Funny Weather. If you wish to purchase a copy of Funny Weather through Amazon, please consider choosing FOLIO Sutton Coldfield as the charity to benefit from a small donation with your book purchase, by signing up for Amazon Smile (see here for details: http://foliosuttoncoldfield.org.uk/support-folio-with-amazon-smile/). Another way you can support FOLIO is to sign up to Easy Fundraising (https://www.easyfundraising.org.uk/causes/folio/) and then purchase the book through Waterstones, The Book Deposistory, HIVE or Abebooks.