Today on the blog, Laura Waddell writes the latest article in our Spine series, a new regular book club feature for TYCI.
Recently I’ve been reading more non-fiction, partially out of a long-held vague intention to educate
myself more about visual art, and partially because there’s some compelling narrative non-fiction
capturing my attention right now.
Canongate in particular is a publisher excelling in the latter at the moment, and Olivia Laing’s The
Lonely City (which came out in a hardback at the start of March) is one such example. I enjoyed it
so much, in fact, I suspect it’ll be one of my reads of the year. “If you’re lonely, this one’s for you,” it opens, welcoming kindred spirit readers who can identify with type ‘loner’ – but it’s not pessimistic
or wallowing. Set within the context of Laing’s personal experience of living in New York City after a painful breakup, writing and listening to music late into the night and drifting rootlessly between flatto friend’s house-to flat, it also ticks the box of light art criticism. The Lonely City profiles a series of artists whose work relates to both loneliness and the city, revealing among them the young Andy Warhol whose speech and anxiety struggles made it difficult for him fit in anywhere before he took control of his own image, becoming the centre of an artistic movement whose pop art soup can screenprints are now famous the world over (but whose detachment lingered); or photographer David Wojnarowicz who grew out of an impossibly unfair childhood to find his artistic self in the city, taking inspiration from fellow outsider and 19th Century French poet Rimbaud, and finding community in wandering the cruising spots of abandoned piers and aircraft hangers. These sections in particular, of the liberating atmosphere and human contact Wojnarowicz found in these marginal, desolate spots, illuminated by excerpts from his diaries, are hauntingly beautiful, a highlight among many in a book that spoils the reader with its sensitive insight throughout.
“So simple, the appearance of night in a room full of strangers, the maze of hallways wandered as in films, the fracturing of bides fem darkness into light, the sounds of plane engines easing into the darkness.”
The shelter found by Wojnarowicz and these other artists (Laing also profiles Edward Hopper, Valerie Solanas, Klaus Nomi and others) in the everyday object; the fellow marginalised; the desolate space is fascinating, and to me, highly relatable. The strain of Laing’s contemporary, personal loneliness running throughout ties the book together well, and never feels gratuitous. I’d have liked to have seen more female artists profiled; and some sections weigh less than others; but I learned so much from this book and have thought of it often since. Through examining the motivations of these artists (and herself) Laing does that rare thing of sharing, with such empathy, a perspective which manages to cut through the surface layer to capture something of those pivotal moments in life where we feel something very deeply and that make us each who we are. The end result is oddly comforting, human, and even motivating. It’s as much of a treat as Warhol’sCoke bottle, “all the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good,” and highly recommended.
John Berger is somewhat of an art theory 101 writer, but I’d never read him until this year. Ways of
Seeing was published originally following a popular 1972 BBC Four documentary aiming to demythologise art criticism for those who’ve never studied visual art. Highly enjoyable, it gave me a new perspective on what I see in digital adverts and classical museums, and if you’re particularly interested in the male gaze or feminist interpretations of art, you might, like me, get a lot out of it. Although forty-so years old, and ranging in topic from oil paintings of old to 70s tv ads, it’s still incredibly relevant. “Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.” In reading it, I thought of arguments for and against selfies; of body shaming; of disingenuous ad campaigns for moisturiser claiming to celebrate the body, of how we document ourselves on social media, and more contemporary issues. It’s successfully thought-provoking, and makes me want to spend more time in art galleries, armed with it.
I recently stumbled upon Little Brother magazine through the twitter account of Stack Magazines. Stack is a subscription service which delivers independent magazines from around the world. I’d have liked their list of top ten literary magazines to include Gutter magazine (which I work on, and in the last issue, had a sex toy / Scottish politics themed poem by Harry Giles that you can listen to online for free) but it did include Little Brother from Toronto. The theme of the latest issue, No.6, was Snacks, and since I have a massive interest in writing about junk food / fast food I knew I had to treat myself to the international shipping fees. It was worth it. There’s an essay by Jacob Wren likening using Facebook to the grinding of computer games, which is the practice of compulsively completing repetitive, low-reward tasks, and a standout long read by Kate Knibbs weaving together the invention of Cheetos Flaming Hot and an experience planting trees in the Canadian wilderness one summer. It also contains beautifully printed photography, which in some cases, those by Elissa Pearl Matthews, reminds me of the sort of lo-fi beauty-of-everyday-life style snaps that fill my own iPhone, of the city comforts of Coke can vending machines and neon open signs. It’s a good companion read to The Lonely City. I’m tempted to subscribe to so many excellent magazines instead of buying groceries for the foreseeable future. If only I could eat paper; but I like to keep my books once I’m done with them.
Read more in the Spine series HERE.