Trauma, art, and life in a pandemic | Daily News


Trauma, art, and life in a pandemic

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (Norton) is a new collection of past work by the British writer Olivia Laing. She is the author of three nonfiction books: To The River, The Trip To Echo Spring, The Lonely City, and the novel Crudo. She has been awarded both the Windham-Campbell Prize and the James Tait Memorial Prize. Compiled here are a selection of essays, profiles, and love letters that she has published over the years, including her celebrated column at the magazine Frieze.

Laing’s voice is powered by a belief that art is a holding ground for more than just emotion, beauty, and ideas, and that investing time in it, even simply as an observer, will reward you in generative, active ways. When she began her column in 2015, she used art as a way to process the increasingly tumultuous and rapid-fire news cycle. She delved into diverse lives of artists past and present, using their unflinching eyes to reassess disasters both global and individual. She named the column “Funny Weather”––a reference to how unbelievable and unsettling the daily reports of crises had become. In her introduction to this collection, she explains that though her favorite artists are fearless in the face of tragedy and pain, catharsis is not the point. Rather, she writes, she is concerned with “resistance and repair”, qualities of movement and growth, and the possibilities therein.

I held my breath many times while reading this book. Where I had once found Georgia O’Keeffe cold and unapproachable, I was suddenly moved by the portrait of a vulnerable woman who worked incredibly hard to maintain a streamlined, elegant independence within which she could freely create. In just three pages, the piece “Bad Surprises” confronts death and violence: bringing together an essay by the queer critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Trump’s election, a poetry reading by Eileen Myles, and a play by Richard Porter which investigates his sister’s suicide.

If only for a few moments, the multi-streamed narratives of despair, love, horror, and hope in my head morphed from noisy pressure into an expansive landscape. In her love letter to John Ashbery she writes: “He washed language and put it back on the shelves all wrong. It looked so much better that way.” Laing’s insights led me towards redefinition and discovery, both inside and out.

Q: My favorite artists make me feel free. I was moved to see that the word freedom appears in every portrait in the “Artist’s Lives” section. I’m assuming from these first essays that how you live life, and how you create and write, are intertwined. Where does freedom come into your work?

A: Ha, I hadn’t noticed that. But it’s an intense preoccupation of mine, as well as the subject of the book I’ve been working on for the past few years. It’s something I was hyper-aware of from a young age, growing up in a queer family during the 1980s. That was the era of Section 28, a homophobic British law that banned teaching about gay relationships, and especially gay families, in schools.

It left me with an abiding interest in the possibilities of resistance, of creating utopias inside an antagonistic world. In my twenties I was very involved in environmental activism, and as I got older I became fascinated by art. The work I’m most drawn to invents new forms, new possibilities, new ways of seeing, and that’s what I try to do with my own work. Part of the reason I wrote Crudo was to smash the mold of the kind of book I might be expected to produce. There’s an element of Wile E. Coyote about it—making new work should feel like stepping out into thin air.

Q: How do you approach the form and language systems of publications? How do you think about readership (if you do, at all)?

A: I started out as a newspaper editor, so I don’t mind being edited, but I do pick where I write very carefully. I’m always looking for editors who will allow me to follow my own interests, and who aren’t trying to jam pieces into a pre-formed shape. The Frieze gig was a dream because there was so much freedom in terms of subject matter and formal composition.

That said, I like the confines of commissions, and especially a word count and a deadline. I do find it stimulating to have limitations imposed. Constriction makes me inventive.

As for readers, I think about them all the time. What I’m trying to do, with nonfiction in particular, is to write about complicated ideas in language that everyone can understand. I think art is democratic, truly, but critical writing often isn’t. It serves as a way of gate-keeping, and in the worst instances it exists to obfuscate and exclude. I believe people are smart and curious, and that, contrary to what right-wing politicians like to tell us, it isn’t an elite sport to discuss ideas.

They matter to all of us. I write to include. I want to share what matters to me, and to make it matter to you.

Q: How do you negotiate the terms between writer and reader, especially when discussing violence or trauma? Where do you think those instincts come from?

A: I think it’s really important not to re-traumatize people. What I’m trying to do here is to consider difficult and painful subjects in terms of art: to use it as a way of interrogating them, and to see what possibilities arise for resistance or alternatives. I’m writing for people who are troubled or afraid, and I want to connect with them there, to admit my own fear and horror, but then to get to work trying to see what can be done next, or instead.

It struck me really hard recently how much contemporary art is involved in creating dystopias. There’s a place for that, for sure, but I began to wonder why we’re pouring so much creative energy into imaging the worst thing possible, when so much of it is already happening all around us. My own experience of consuming dystopian art is that it leaves me paralyzed and despairing, when what I want and need to feel in the current political landscape is energized, resilient, and capable of hope. The essays in Funny Weather are introductions to artists who generate that hope and energy in a multitude of ways. I do frankly believe in the possibility of things being better than they are, and I think art can help us achieve it. I heard this phrase recently, and I’m going to repeat it now: I’m very ambitious for art.

- Bomb Magazine


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