Saturday 10 December 2016

Books: An elegant and brilliant study of urban loneliness and the healing powers of art

Non­fiction: The Lonely City, Olivia Laing, Canongate, hdbk, 336 pages, €21.99

Hilary A White

Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30

Author Olivia Laing.
Author Olivia Laing.
The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Loneliness may seem like the lot of modern-day urbanised lifestyles, where people exist through bandwidths and answer work emails long after they've clocked off. The truth is that it is a reality of human existence, and all sorts of things may provide relief - a relationship, a pet, a subscription to a club or society.

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For author and columnist Olivia Laing, a move to New York City amplified her feelings of solitude in ways only a huge and bustling metropolis can. She turned to the arts, a harvest which New York has (or "had", depending on your view of the cultural sanitisation of that once fecund hub) always counted among its most treasured gifts to the world. It became clear that the state of being lonely had fuelled some of the city's most prized exponents of visual and performance art.

This collection of interconnected essays sees Laing range through the elements of loneliness, taking the work and lives of particular artists as a cipher for her own feelings of isolation. With striking emotional intelligence and a heightened awareness of the therapeutic potential of creativity, she goes exploring. What she discovers is told in language that is accessible, bright and endlessly thought-provoking.

The nocturnal urban scenes of Edward Hopper are less voyeuristic, she argues, than replicating "one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure". Andy Warhol's muted speech and obsession with "sameness" signal to Laing his own isolation as a shy immigrant outsider, despite eventually having the city's artistic community hang on his every move. This seam of "outsider art" crops up continually in The Lonely City, whether it is David Wojnarowicz's Rimbaud-mask series of photos, the troubled universe created in secrecy by Henry Darger or the compulsive hoarding of street photographer Vivian Maier.

What marks Laing out as a commentator of exceptional heart and voice is how she frames these outputs within her own struggles. She drifts in and out of her discourse, doing what so much artistic criticism is unable to - giving life, blood and breath to the discussion. When her focus turns to technology (a charged chapter that sees her decamp to a squashed bedsit polluted by artificial light from Times Square), she deconstructs social media and "its pledge of connection, its beautiful, slippery promises of anonymity and control". What was simultaneously "a community, a joyful place, a lifeline" to her could also seem "insane, a trading-off of time against nothing tangible at all". Screen addiction is well debated these days, but Laing makes it an evolutionary branch of Andy Warhol's obsession with recording machinery.

There is little of Alain de Botton's pop-philosophical finger-wagging in this splendid volume. Nor is there the spectacle-pushing self-regard of high-brow arts reviewing. And nowhere, thankfully, does The Lonely City become some kind of self-help guide for life in the 21st century.

Instead, this is a paean to the functioning human heart, to dreamers and lovers and beautiful souls who quest for more from life. It also emerges as a love letter to New York, the city that made Laing experience acute loneliness but also provided her with a vocabulary to deconstruct it so elegantly. Art can't bring people back from the dead, she concludes in the final chapter, nor can it mend arguments between friends or cure Aids. It does, however, "have a way of healing wounds, and better yet of making it apparent that not all wounds need healing and not all scars are ugly". One could argue that brilliantly rendered non-fiction can perform a similar feat.

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