#6. Art in an Emergency

Enjoy the ride.

Dear Reader,

My favorite tweet of the week is this:

Now that we have that opinion out of the bag, onto the main point. One of the books I’ve read in July (so far) is Olivia Laing’s essay collection — Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency


Emergency is an interesting word, apt for right now when every tragedy is overridden by another. News is always bad, a cyclical paranoia. It is highly difficult to think and feel. Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency is a bunch of essays on artists, art, and what it might have to offer in catastrophic and tiring times. Most essays in the collection are previously published, they’re written through the years 2016-2018. All of them gently probe into one loose idea — of what use can art be in a moment of crisis?

The approach is meditative. Olivia Laing lingers on strokes, moments, words. She invites you into intimate moments. In an essay on Freddie Mercury, she profoundly says that he was the first celebrity death she cried about. Almost as a reflex, I instantly remembered mine. It was Anthony Bourdain. I opened my phone and typed his name on Google. 

A host of things appeared. Top results were amazon links to his books Medium Raw and Kitchen Confidential. In People Also Ask: How did Anthony Bourdain die? He died by suicide, the answer says. 

He had a show called No Reservations that I would watch all the time on my laptop. Snacking on potato crisps, full volume, crushing the pillow with my head, wheezing through the day. In it he visits various countries and cities, taking us through the local culture and cuisine. My roommate once had to bang on the door for almost ten minutes because I was too engrossed watching it.

I read his book (Medium Raw) much later, six months after his death to be precise. It was an uncomfortable experience — he recounts his addiction, his alcoholism, driving his car full speed through the nights, completely high, or drunk. I posted a passage of the book back then on my Instagram story, without naming him. Just an image of the page. “Life is cruel,” the passage read, “lonely, and filled with pain and random acts of violence. Everybody hates you and seeks to destroy you. Better to go out altogether, to leap literally into the void, escape by any means necessary.”

A friend replied to the story. “Isn’t this a bit suicidal?” She asked. I sighed. It most definitely was. And it sucked to the core that he went through with it. There was no comfort reading the end of his memoir where he describes coming out of his addiction. He lapsed back, I knew too well. His struggle with depression was constant. 

I digressed to Anthony Bourdain because it somehow re-instated the central question of Funny Weather. What can art do?

Olivia Laing in her essays doesn’t engage in negative criticism at all, she only profiles artists. She engages in the process, in making, in observing, in understanding. Empathy cannot happen to us after merely reading Dickens, she insists. Art is more of an antidote.  

For me, Anthony Bourdain offered just that — many moments of hope and thrill. His loss became personal because his art had become personal. It formed a connection. In her stand-up special Nanette, Hannah Gadsby ends with stressing on the word connection. It holds our cure she says. 

Most of Funny Weather is an attempt at examining this connection. I particularly loved an essay titled Drink Drink Drink that revolved around women writers and alcohol. It outlines the women who drank to escape society. Women who went into a  spiraling impulsive condition, not knowing how to understand the self, and yet wrote so clearly about this dilemma. She doesn’t glorify addiction and neither does she make pain or suffering seem essential to art. She only goes about tapping into these themes and exploring how they played out in the lives of many artists. 

The essays range from David Bowie to Sally Rooney. There is also one on loneliness, a state Laing is quite is obsessed with. She has written a whole other book on it, The Lonely City. All through she tries to chew into living with a crisis and creating art. Of trying to unravel new registers and new spaces to think in. 

Photo by: Jack Manning, NYT.

Coming back briefly to him, Anthony Bourdain was many things — celebrity chef, journalist, food critic, traveler. In some ways, he is in my head the biggest paradigm of what art can do. It was initially surprising that I loved his work so much. Anyone who knows me will testify that food is not my favorite thing, I treat meals like tasks. But he had me hooked from the start.

Last month marked his second death anniversary. After Medium Raw I couldn’t consume any of his work. It was difficult for obvious reasons. Occasionally I still go on to Goodreads and scroll through his quotes. Quotes are easier, I tell myself. Bigger passages, books, and videos are overwhelming, especially when the person is them has left. 

Funny Weather eased me a little, it sent me on another Goodreads stroll. A lot of Olivia Laing’s observations happen in moments —  while interviewing an artist, while describing a painting. She isn’t trying to make a point, she’s responding to uncertainty. The most viable option she uncovers is to practice, to evolve. There are no neatly tied up threads to sit around and wait for. As Bourdain himself said, “Your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” 

Thank you for reading.

Six Impossible Things is a fortnightly newsletter about art, books, and reading. You may sign up if you want it delivered in your inbox.