The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone by Olivia Laing
Published by Picador on March 1st, 2016
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The hustle and bustle of city life can often be just as isolating as time spent alone, a situation Olivia Laing experienced after moving from England to New York City. Her new book, The Lonely City, is a deep dive into feelings of loneliness through the lens of several artists who personified it, among them Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, and Henry Darger.
While the first half of The Lonely City is interesting, the book becomes truly beautiful as it nears its conclusion. Branching from ruminations on the isolation caused by her discomfort with the rigidity of gender, Laing explores the avant-garde art and queer culture of the Lower East Side in the 1970’s and 80’s. Through the lives and work of artists like David Wojnarowicz, Klaus Nomi, and Peter Hujar, Laing pointedly touches on loneliness caused by stigma and the use of art to salve its wounds.
“People make things—make art or things that are akin to art—as a way of expressing their need for contact, or their fear of it; people make objects as a way of coming to terms with shame, with grief. People make objects to strip themselves down, to survey their scars, and people make objects to resist oppression, to create a space in which they can move freely. Art doesn’t have to have a reparative function, any more than it has a duty to be beautiful or moral. All the same, there is art that gestures toward repair…”
While The Lonely City includes a handful of images, most of the work Laing discusses in the book is left up to imagination. My Google/Wiki use skyrocketed while I was reading, but there was one artist I didn’t have to explore: Henry Darger. I watched the documentary about Darger’s life and work, In the Realms of the Unreal, about ten years ago and saw his art completely come to life. Portions of Darger’s 15,145 page fantasy story, titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, are read alongside moving images of his work and accounts from those who knew him. The documentary is haunting and beautiful and a perfect companion piece to The Lonely City.