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Magpie Diaries - The Lonely City

Book I love, by Rachel Mayfield

As I document the dimensions of my relationship to city life, the euphoric practice of night walks and an opportunity to record chance's bounty in the music and short film for Truth to Material, I share my thoughts on key works that inspire this adventure. Today, I look at Olivia Laing's, The Lonely City.

Laing believes that art can show us what loneliness looks like. She explores this idea in the first person, in parallel to her difficult experience of moving to live alone in New York city. The observations of her personal isolation are interlinked to an intimate view of the various artists’ work that she encounters while being based there. The artists’ psychological lives are considered as fully as their output. As she selects them, they are woven through and united with her account of otherness.

Olivia Laing’s nonfiction narrative begins on her arrival in the city following the breakup of a significant relationship. She invites the reader to imagine looking out from the ‘walls of glass’ of the cheap apartments she rents from friends on the eastern edges of Manhattan.

The Lonely City is her walk, it is her investigative, academically researched meander from Williamsburg bridge where she initially bases herself, to locations that hold potency for her and the art world. She covers the galleries, museums, and studios located along the heavily populated streets as well as the leafy winter parks. She recalls that ‘in the absence of love’ she found herself ‘clinging hopelessly to the city itself.’

Laing chronicles the known events and outcomes of the artists’ lives as she researches them, and adds new possibilities of meaning in their artistic intention. This effectively showed me how a writer’s individual opinion and imagination can be crafted into nonfiction writing. Her findings convey a proximate and subterranean view of life. As she peers into and out of the windows of the city’s solid structures, she also looks deeply into its art history and psychology. She binds this connection and relevance to the very soul of humanity.

Laing candidly examines her own mental health and family history. Her situation as a young adult raised within the LGBT community opens her further to the outsider experience. She values strangeness and obsessions. Violence and extremes convey meaning, a way to express the importance of illuminating a wide range of human emotions without shame, both as an artist and one who can identify with the art.

Olivia Laing celebrates and cherishes the flamboyance and audacity, or conversely the understated autonomy, of the spirited few. Her generosity of spirit is driven by her own sense of separation as she helps the reader to understand theirs. The ‘others’ in society who through their pain and constancy, activated life changing policy and choices for many. She details their agonised, victimised backstories so that we know them firstly as human and fallible. It is important for her to acknowledge that ‘all kinds of writers, artists, filmmakers and songwriters have explored the subject of loneliness in one way or another’ but that it was visual art that helped her in this period, as she was ‘beginning to fall in love with images, to find solace in them.’

Laing drifts into her laptop and out onto the pavements as she strives to establish loneliness as a worthy entity. One that can sustain a human being during their abject worst if it is more fully understood. A force that can support a suffering soul into becoming their creative best self. The art gives her a ‘sense of the potential beauty present in a frank declaration of one’s needs.’ Her aim is for the reader to retain or regain a sense of connectedness. To rekindle awareness of the potentially less visible in society, while she herself begins to feel invisible.

Of artist Edward Hopper she enquires, ‘who do you have to be to see the world like that.’ From Hopper’s found admission that he declares himself in his paintings, Laing goes further to define his work as ‘an erotics of insufficient intimacy, which is of course a synonym for loneliness itself.’

Her main muse throughout the book is conceptual artist Andy Warhol. She begins and ends the book with what she calls this ‘strange fruit.’ She fundamentally recounts his early childhood, detailing his disabling illness, and the resulting codependency with his mother.

His subsequent fame and radiance were spurred on, she believes, by his inarticulate insecurity that she is convinced and wants the reader to be convinced, inspired him to formulate ‘a deliberate language of dissent, a spell of resistance, speaking out in a rebellious tongue against ‘systems of power and of malice.’

Those around Warhol who struggled for their voices to be heard and even used violence towards him are re-evaluated by Laing, including writer Valerie Solanos who was a friend of Warhol and eventually shot him and was jailed for the crime. Laing considers whether her Scum manifesto, destined never to be a success during her life or after her own death, was ‘not mad in thinking that she could see oppression everywhere she looked’ but instead that ‘society was a system dedicated to excluding and sidelining women.’ The thread of misogyny is further revealed as she recounts that Edward Hopper’s wife, Jo Hopper, also an artist, donated her work to the Whitney Museum which subsequently destroyed it.

Laing celebrates the artist David Wojnarowicz who through his self-exhibition and photography changed the landscape of the emotions and unmasked issues related to division and prejudice during the AIDS outbreak. She provides detail of his brutalised childhood, boyhood period of prostitution, and later, his devotion to breaking down the barriers between the suffering AIDS patient and the public and how he was ‘turning increasingly from destruction to creation.’

Laing uses her retrospection as a warning, as she links it to her theory on contemporary culture. She compares the collective unseeing and fear during the AIDS epidemic to the current age of technology. Laing powerfully questions whether it is the ‘fear of contact that is the real malaise of our age, underpinning the changes in both our physical and virtual lives.’ Olivia Laing begins the book with a devotion which is a fitting synopsis of the book: if you’re lonely, this one is for you.’

Laing, Olivia, The Lonely City (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2017)

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