Monday 3 August 2020

Review by Lucretia Rose McCarthy of "Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency" by Olivia Laing

I came to Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency after enjoying Olivia Laing’s 2018 novel Crudo. Crudo broke away from Laing’s non-fiction to brilliantly detail the despair of the politically turbulent summer of 2017 through the persona of experimental writer Kathy Acker. Funny Weather is its antidote. Returning to criticism through neatly ordered essays on subjects ranging from the environment to loneliness and immigration via art and culture, it is the culmination of Laing’s works gathered across a formidable career as a critic. The two books are inextricably linked, with Crudo presenting the chaos and fear at work in the world, and Funny Weather offering order and hope despite the frequently difficult topics addressed. 

It is a book that is at once sensitive, humorous and optimistic. Through the collection, Laing takes in radical acts of self-care through film director Derek Jarman, the ‘fertile paranoia’ driving David Wojnarowicz’s art and the joy and renewal of David Bowie’s music. She introduces queer writer Maggie Nelson, revisits theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and offers a conversation with singer Joseph Keckler, alongside many more. In this way, the text is highly peopled, forming communities of artists, writers and musicians in abundance without ever feeling pretentious or overwhelming. Funny Weather left me with a delightful, lengthy further reading list curated by what felt like a generous guide who appeared to be in conversation with the artists at hand and with the reader too. Laing’s own anecdotes maintained the autobiographical element familiar in many of her texts, which supported the interesting and often surprising biographical details of the artists littered throughout each of the essays. Each piece feels effortless, clearly backed up by Laing’s almost forensic research, making abstract art and distant figures familiar in the same way that the artists she invokes mediate our complicated world.

Funny Weather shows exactly what art can do in an emergency, how it can offer insight as well as respite, working as protest and envisioning new futures. As we begin to return to the world post-lockdown, this book provides not only comfort in chaos but strategies and spaces for hope. Though easily devoured in one sitting, it is one to return to, dipping into favourite essays and revisiting artists like old friends. It is the book we all need right now. 

About the reviewer
Lucretia Rose McCarthy is PhD researcher based at the University of Leicester in the department of Languages and Literature. Her work centres on women’s contemporary experimental life writing and is supported by funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership. 

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