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5 lessons from artists making work during an emergency

From personal crises to global epidemics, author Olivia Laing’s new book offers insights into how artists have handled life’s curveballs

Never has a publication been more timely than Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency – a collection of Laing’s writing about the potential of art to resist, to repair, and, in the words of the poet Frank O’Hara, to make us feel “impregnate with all that light”.

“We’re told that art can’t really change anything. But I think it can,” Laing maintains. “It can shape our ethical landscape; it opens us up to the interior lives of others. It is a training ground for possibility.” By revealing the remarkable lives of artists such as David Wojnarowicz, Derek Jarman, Georgia O’Keeffe, and David Hockney; by responding to great writers including Ali Smith, Chris Kraus and Kathy Acker; and by sharing her love of figures who’ve contributed in such vital ways to the arts, such as David Bowie, John Berger and Wolfgang Tillmans, Funny Weather takes us on a light-footed tour of enriching stories, lives, and ideas. 

To celebrate’s the book’s release, we detail some of the lessons we’ve learned from Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency.


Derek Jarman knew a thing or two about living gracefully while under siege from a virus.  During the Aids crisis, when the world was in the thrall of hysteria and there was still so much yet unknown about the epidemic, Jarman was one of the few public figures who chose to reveal their HIV-positive diagnosis. “I’ve always hated secrets,” he explained, “the canker that destroys.” 

In the face of such bleak prospects – a diagnosis that was, at the time, tantamount to a death sentence – Jarman used an inheritance to buy a small fisherman’s cottage called Prospect Cottage on the desolate beach at Dungeness, with the intention of creating a garden. It seems an unlikely spot to have chosen – a barren, almost lunar landscape of shingle beset by extremes of drought, gales, and salt. “In this stony desert, overlooked by a nuclear power station, Jarman set about conjuring an unlikely oasis,“ says Laing. “Like all his projects, it was done by hand and on a shoestring.”

Whilst cultivating his garden, Jarman began writing Modern Nature. It’s so much more than a naturalist’s diary (though it does include his notes on flora and fauna). Laing points out the book is also his reflections on nature in the broader and more fundamental sense – on sex and death, and his regret for the time he wasted before coming out, when he felt like he was “the only queer in the world.”

Prospect Cottage and its garden (recently saved by Art Fund, who promise to secure the future of Jarman’s former home and turn it into a “public hub”) are a testament to the spirit of a man who, whilst braving the stark realities of what it meant to be diagnosed with HIV in 1986, resolved to quietly and determinedly create a beautiful garden in an inhospitable location. “I don’t believe in model lives,” Laing says. “But even now, a quarter-century on, I ask myself, ‘What would Derek do?‘”


In 2017, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Untitled” (1982) sold at auction for $110.5 million and became the most expensive artwork ever sold by an American artist. But his first significant artworks were more ephemeral. His first notable works were on the buildings and fences of downtown New York City, particularly the art district of Soho and Lower East Side. As a graffiti artist in a duo operating under the moniker SAMO© (short for “same old shit”) with his friend Al Diaz, Basquait daubed enigmatic statements of intent in his distinctive handwriting across the urban landscape – phrases such as “SAMO© FOR THE SO-CALLED AVANT-GARDE” AND “SAMO© AS AN END TO THE POLICE”. Rumours about the perpetrators of the mysterious graffiti circulated. Laing explains, “The statements were so poised in their assault of art-word inanities that many believed they were by a disaffected conceptual artist, someone already famous.” 

When Basquiat did begin painting, it was found objects he moved onto initially, painting on refrigerators, cabinets, doors, and clothes, regardless of whether or not they belonged to him. Later, he became fascinated by cave art, perhaps recognising the need to inscribe stories about the world he inhabited onto the very fabric of the physical environment (or maybe to deface it). In a sense, everywhere was a canvas for his cryptic hieroglyphs, formed from his lexicon of symbols and recurring fragments of text. Expressing himself on whatever surfaces came to hand speaks of what Laing describes as the “graphomanic” quality of his work, and his pathological desire to redraft “America’s history, the ongoing brutalising dynamic of racism and its long legacy”. His 1983 artwork “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)” immortalises the sad story of a young African American artist arrested and beaten into a coma by police officers when he was caught graffitiing on a subway wall station. Despite being found not guilty by an all-white jury, it’s suspected, according to Laing, that the cops may have killed Stewart with an illegal chokehold.

Basquiat relinquished his graffiti habit once he became established as an artist, opting instead to use canvas as his means to speak out about power structures and colonialism. But his rage always extended beyond the confines of any canvas, he was reaching toward omnipresence. Laing points out that, as one of the most expensive artists of all time, Basquiat’s work has posthumously been reproduced everywhere from make-up containers to Reebok trainers, and his art has penetrated the public consciousness. “You could scorn the commercialisation,” Laing writes, “but isn’t that what he wanted, to colour every surface with his runes?”


Throughout David Bowie’s turbulent life, art remained a source of “stable nourishment.” As Laing points out, stability isn’t something we immediately think of when we think of the Thin White Duke or any of Bowie’s otherworldly incarnations. We’re more likely to imagine him holed up and manic in a flat with Iggy Pop in Berlin, the heroin capital of the world at the time. Or totally wired in the back of a limo, gliding through the Nevada desert and existing on a diet of cocaine and soul music.

We think of Bowie as mysterious and hard to pin down – guarded about his personal life, whilst perpetually shifting and recreating himself in public; ruthless in his ability to cull working relationships with friends and collaborators as he shed one genre or persona in pursuit of a new sonic experiment. But the constant and abiding element underpinning the drama of his ceaseless reinvention and his psychic wellbeing was always art. Laing traces a thread from Bowie’s early life (including his art GCE “obligatory rock star stint at art school”), his retreat from early chart success into the performing arts (studying mime with Lindsay Kemp), and his adoration of Andy Warhol; following Bowie’s relationship with art through to the mid-80s when he found himself stuck in a musical-rut, and painting became a way to creatively recalibrate. Via his contributions to Modern Painters magazine and his appearance as Warhol in the 1997 biopic Basquiat, Laing eventually brings us to rest at his video for “Where Are We Now?” – a haunting single from his penultimate studio album, The Next Day. Fittingly, it depicts Bowie in an artist’s studio – a “site of rigorous and messy transformation, and Bowie’s psychic home through the years.” 


David Wojnarowicz had every right to be angry. He had the sort of nightmarish childhood that Fran Lebowitz described as “a classic background for a serial killer”, including being routinely beaten and abused by a sadistic father who fed Wojnarowicz and his siblings their pet rabbit for dinner. As a teen, he was a runaway fleeing his violent family home – hustling, sleeping rough, and selling his skinny young body on the streets – before eventually making it in the 1980s New York art scene, alongside the likes of Nan Goldin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring. When the Aids crisis hit, he watched his friends (including photographer Peter Hujar) wither and die around him while religious leaders lobbied against educating school kids about safe sex, a senator floated the idea of sending sufferers to quarantine on islands (tantamount to Aids death camps), while a Texas politician suggested the way to end the crisis was to “shoot all the queers”. Throughout this, the government failed to commit satisfactory resources to finding a cure. “I want to throw up because we’re supposed to quietly make house in this killing machine called America and pay taxes to support our own slow murder,” he wrote in his 1991 memoir Close to the Knives, “and I’m amazed that we’re not running amok in the streets and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this.” 

The New York Times Magazine reported Wojnarowicz as saying if he hadn’t learned how to use writing and art as a “communication outlet”, he would have been “on the top of a water tower with my rifle.” Justified rage reverberated through his activism and his art, but so did the “gestures of loving.“ The photographic study he made of Peter Hujar’s body (immediately after his friend Hujar died of Aids) is suffused with rage and tenderness. 

Wojnarowicz was only 37 when he himself died of Aids-related complications in 1992. Considering how brief his life was, and how much of it was spent in the direst of danger, he left behind an extraordinary body of work ranging from painting, photography, installation, sculpture, film, writing, and performance. He was driven to make art that “testified to his perspective as an outsider, a gay man in a violent homophobic world,” says Laing, whose 2016 book The Lonely City introduced Wojnarowicz to a new audience.


Once upon a time, Chris Kraus, a struggling, avant-garde filmmaker, has dinner with her husband and a man named Dick at a sushi bar in Pasadena. She feels attracted to Dick – one of her husband Sylvere’s academic colleagues – and becomes convinced he was flirting with her during the meal. After too much wine, they end up crashing at Dick’s place in Antelope Valley in the California desert. The next day, they wake up and Dick has already left, thereby abandoning their slender flirtation before it gathers any momentum whatsoever. But the thrill of the thwarted interaction stays with Kraus. All the elements of the evening – the frisson with Dick, her sexless marriage, her need for a renewed sense of intrigue, and her dissatisfaction with her career – converge like a lunar eclipse, instigating what Laing describes as a “ferocious, life-engulfing crush”. 

The psycho-sexual love affair that followed was enacted almost entirely in Kraus’ head. I Love Dick is a novel comprised of the volumes of love letters, faxes, prose, memoirs, and art criticism generated by this conceptual romance. It’s a book that not only challenges what it’s possible for a novel to contain, flitting as it does between so many different forms, but also challenges the conditions of being a female artist. “Why does everybody think women are debasing themselves,” Kraus asks “when we expose the conditions of our own debasement?” 

Although I Love Dick made little impact when it was first published in 1997, the book has eventually achieved cult status and a devoted following. In 2017 it was also adapted for television by Jill Soloway (writer and creator of Amazon’s Transparent) in a production starring Kevin Bacon and Katheryn Hahn. Ultimately, Dick is a disappointment. Tracing the contours of his absence is the most compelling thing about him. But the desire generated by her lack of Dick was, for Kraus, the catalyst for a kind of personal and professional emancipation. 

Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency by Olivia Laing is published by Pan Macmillan and available from 16th April