The publication of Olivia Laing's Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency in April of this year feels almost ludicrously well timed. But how could she know, writing the foreword to her decade's worth collection of essays, columns, profiles and interviews in February 2019, what we'd be facing now? Yet here we are, and the question she asks in it – can art make a difference? - shouts even louder.
Not solely focussing on visual art, Laing's writing here encompasses books, culture, the political, current and historical events, and personal experience. She writes both critically, and with a touch of the memoirist/explorer. She has that beautiful knack of signposting to known and unknown works and people – writing about them in such a way that you cannot help become interested. Some of it is entirely uplifting (her piece on Hockney or her love letter to Freddie Mercury), others such a frank look at the reality of life for many, as to be suitably devastating (The Abandoned Person's Tale; The Fire This Time). The book is a positive one though and the connecting thread is Laing's conviction that art can be a force of resistance and repair.
At the end of Laing's foreword she reproduces a caption from an image in Jonas Mekas' To New York with Love: YOU LOOK AT THE SUN. THEN YOU RETURN HOME AND YOU CAN'T WORK, YOU'RE IMPREGNATE WITH ALL THAT LIGHT. She goes on to write: 'We're so often told that art can't really change anything. But I think it can. It shapes our ethical landscapes; it opens us to the interior lives of others. It is a training ground for possibility. It makes plain inequalities, and it offers other ways of living. Don't you want it, to be impregnate with all that light? And what will happen if you are?'
JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: THE RADIANT CHILD
In 1986, Tamra Davis embarked on a project to film her friend, the twenty five year old artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, then at the height of his career. Two years later he was dead and the footage was put away and remained unseen for the next twenty years.
First compiled as a twenty minute short screened at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and later expanded into a feature length documentary portrait of the artist, now recognised as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, the film is charming, riveting, poignant, a gut punch, right from the outset. Davis has skilfully sliced together – maybe in tribute to Basquiat's early postcard collages - her original footage, with archival photographs and film from the time, talking-head interviews of those who knew him and crucially, many images of Basquiat's work.
Watching the film last week, knowing next to nothing about Basquiat previously, I was in awe of not only him but the way Davis guides the narrative – allowing sympathy and sadness at the loss of this incredible young life while also instructing on his influences, intelligence, aesthetic and drive. What speaks loudest is the racism that Basquiat was faced with on a daily basis and the myriad ways he sought to fight against it. As Olivia Laing writes in her profile on him in Funny Weather above, 'The pen couldn't kill, but it could reveal the dysfunction of foundational myths. Over and over, he drafted America's history, the ongoing brutalising dynamic of racism and its long legacies.'
Robert Farris Thompson says in the film, 'His paintings were deliberate enigmas. And they, in effect, said “Get with it! See the complexity of our culture. I'll give you a few hints.” Now more than ever, we need those hints.
As galleries and art spaces begin to tentatively reopen here's three exhibitions we're hoping to see in the coming months:
Manjit Thapp's My Head is a Jungle at the Now Gallery. Often revolving around female characters and taking inspiration from music and fashion, Thapp's illustrations have been enthralling us on Instagram and within the likes of Vogue, Riposte and Dazed for a long time. We're looking forward to seeing them in person. Opening date to be confirmed.
The first major survey of one of the most important painters working today, one of our biggest art disappointments during the pandemic was not getting to visit the Lynette Yiadom-Boake exhibition Fly In League With The Night at the Tate Britain as soon as it was originally scheduled to open. Once seen, it's hard to get Yiadom-Boake's unaffected, enigmatic portraits of fictional people out of your mind – we can't wait.
Sadly, A Countervailing Theory, the Barbican exhibition showing new works by Toyin Ojih Odutola, has been postponed. During lockdown however, the New York-based artist finished work on another set of drawings and these – titled collectively Tell Me A Story, I Don't Care If It's True – can be viewed online now hosted by the Jack Shainman Gallery. Ojih Odutola has written on her Instagram: 'I sincerely hope these works bring you all solace, a moment of respite, and space to ruminate – quietly, steadily. I hope it helps you all gather, to heal, to find beauty in our fleeting moments despite the pain and trauma, and in the end, some semblance of peace in the midst of this cruel madness.'