Credit Sophie Davidson

Creative Conversations: Olivia Laing

By Eve Connor

Our writer Eve attends Olivia Laing’s first in-person event since the pandemic, exploring the retrospective relevance of her work on loneliness as well as her unusual approach to writing.

I read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City last summer, during the tentative period after the second lockdown had eased. Laing’s part memoir, part art historical essay, though published in 2016, felt as if it was made for that very moment. It examines the way loneliness factored into the work of New York-based artists such as Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, and Henry Darger, while tying together Laing’s own experience of isolation whilst living in New York. There was something immeasurably soothing about a text that contemplated loneliness at a time when we were anticipating a return to the social realm, so it was with excitement that I attended her first in-person event discussing her work since the pandemic. 

The focus of the evening was Laing’s latest release, entitled Everybody: A Book About Freedom. Like much of her work, it has a prescient quality: a book about the struggle for bodily autonomy in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US. Laing spoke of her inspiration behind the concept, recounting when, as a child of a lesbian mother, Laing realised that there was a disparity between the space marginalised bodies were permitted to take up compared to others. As with her previous non-fiction, Laing filters her discussion through the life and work of a historical figure. Everybody incorporates the work of early twentieth-century psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who coined the term ‘the sexual revolution’ and theorised that the body had a specialist language that could be read through the movement of the body. Laing explained her process of research and writing, in which she views her work as an investigation of an idea (whether it be loneliness, alcoholism, or the body), which she then seeks to explore through her chosen ‘cast’ of artists and thinkers. She maintained that she only ever writes about artists she loves, and with whom she resonates. This allows for her unique blend of criticism and memoir, in which she acts as a guide, using her own emotional connection to her subject to act as a bridge between them and the reader. It’s an ingenious method which makes her writing accessible without becoming patronising. When asked about her refusal to draw clear conclusions, she acknowledged that it was a common criticism she received, but asserted that she did not want to force her opinion onto the reader. Laing’s writing is best viewed as an act of illumination, in which she opens the worlds of art, literature, and theory for the reader to explore – taking them on a journey, but not necessarily marking out a set destination.   

Laing was an effervescent and warm speaker, while her answers to poet and lecturer Colin Herd’s questions gave insight into her creative process. The audience packed out the lecture theatre with a mix of students and the general public, and there was the opportunity to ask questions or purchase her books at the end. By all accounts, a wonderful evening was had by all, whether they were fans of Laing’s or previously unfamiliar with her work, and it marked the start of what hopes to be many great events in the ‘Creative Conservations’ series.

You can find out more about ‘Creative Conversations’ here


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