Thanks to the publishers, and NetGalley, for providing me with a free eARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
It’s not often that I read nonfiction books, let alone review them — in fact, this might be my first non-fiction review, so please bare with me if it’s not quite what you’re used to reading from me. This is a review of Olivia Laing’s upcoming essay collection Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency. It is published by Pan Macmillan, and is due to be released on April 16th. I’ve long been meaning to learn a bit more about art, so when I saw this on NetGalley, I decided it was time to start learning.
I hadn’t heard of Olivia Laing before, but I’m interested in learning more about the art world, so I decided to give this book a try. The cover caught my eye initially: I was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the pastel pink with the grey photograph. The subtitle, as well, Art in an Emergency, caught my attention. I was pleased to discover that Laing talks about different types of art across this book — painting, photography, sculpting, writing, music. Of course, there will always be more forms of art than can be discussed in a single collection of essays, but the diversity excited me. Visual art is the area I know least about, of the forms of art covered in this book, and it’s the one I was most interested in reading about. I felt some trepidation, starting the book, wondering if it would assume a base knowledge I lacked, but I found the writing style very easy to follow, and Laing really focuses on detail throughout these essays. It didn’t matter that I was unfamiliar with an artist’s work before diving into an essay. Her words really brought it to life, and I often had an image in my mind of the style of art being discussed before I went to look up examples of the work.
Across the collection, I was struck by the way Laing looks at the material conditions of production, focusing on not just artists’ personal lives, although there is plenty of this, but also considering the wider context. Most, if not all, of the essays have been published elsewhere, so some of the context discussed is now a few years old, but it still resonates with today’s society, and asks the reader to consider how these contexts may have had a knock-on effect on the art world.
One of the essays in this collection that I particularly enjoyed is titled “The Future of Loneliness”. It felt particularly pertinent during a time of social distancing, when we often only have the internet or phone calls at our disposal to stay connected to our loved ones. Laing’s discussion of the role of the internet in loneliness in this essay was poignant. Her personal anecdote in this essay is one I feel many, including myself share. I found this essay to be one of the standout essays, both in terms of subject matter and in terms of displaying Laing’s perceptiveness.
The longer essays in this book were where I found myself particularly enjoying it. The ‘Artists’ Lives’ section was fascinating, regardless of whether I was at all familiar with the artist in question. Rather than closely analysing the art itself, Laing looks at the contexts in which it was produced, as indicated by the subtitle, Art in an Emergency. I personally find myself more interested in the conditions under which art is produced, can be produced, must be produced, more than the finished product of the art itself most of the time, and this is what Laing focuses on in this section.
The section ‘Four Women’, which takes a close look at Hilary Mantel, Sarah Lucas, Ali Smith and Chantal Joffe was also a standout segment for me. Again, this section considers the material conditions under which each woman produced their work. The piece on Mantel stuck with me the most.
The shorter essays are the reason I’m giving this book four stars, instead of five. They are by no means bad, but I found their brevity somewhat distracting. Just as I was getting into the topic, starting to really enjoy the essay, it cut off, and was replaced by a new topic. A lot of these were in the Frieze section, so they were initially written as columns, and I feel that had I read them in that context, I would likely have enjoyed them more. Despite struggling to get as involved in these sections as the rest of the book, the information within them was still interesting and insightful, and well worth reading.
Rating: 4 stars.
Published April 16th by Pan MacMillan.
This review also published on my GoodReads, and on NetGalley