In her new book, <i>The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone</i>, Olivia Laing explores the way various artists across several decades have interpreted New York's ability to alienate and exclude its inhabitants.
New York City's accrued plenty of titles in its lifetime—the Big Apple, the City that Never Sleeps, the Melting Pot, the Capital of the World—but one that's less common is the Lonely City. As it's the nation's statistical leader in population and population density, and de facto leader in commerce and culture (sorry, LA), NYC may sometimes feel like it'd be the last place on Earth where words containing the syllable "lone" would come into play. But anyone who's ever felt more alone in a room full of strangers than at home in solitude should be able to extrapolate the level of alienation that can occur on such a grand scale.
Five years ago, British author Olivia Laing was planning to move to Manhattan with her American partner. When they broke up, she decided to go anyway. What followed was a period of alienation and unfamiliarity that had a profound effect on her life and work. Some avoid loneliness like the plague, others lean into its gaping maw; Laing made it her muse.
Her new book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (out March 1 on Picador), uses her own experience as a jumping-off point for an exploration into the work of artists who've found power in the isolation wrought by New York City. Largely focusing on two from opposing ends of the 20th Century—realist painter Edward Hopper and multimedia artist David Wojnarowicz, respectively—Laing finds common threads and politicized differences between their work while crafting a compelling, and sometimes disturbing, portrait of the city.
Part memoir, part deep critical investigation of "works of art that seemed to articulate or be troubled by loneliness," The Lonely City combines Laing's astute observations of the world she inhabits with extended forays into social, psychological, and cultural critiques of visual art. This integrated style is held together by the mostly-chronological through-line Laing creates between her chosen artists, which builds into a broader discussion about the heightened intimacy of modern art, as well as what it's like to be an artist who lives in NYC. In an email conversation, she spoke with VICE about her new book.
VICE: How long did you live in New York?
Olivia Laing: The bulk of the book takes place between 2011 and 2015. I was subletting and coming and going on tourist visas. I still spend a lot of time in the city.
How does your perception of the city change when you're merely visiting, rather than living there?
You skate the surface as a visitor, don't you. It's when you're living somewhere that you really have to grapple with it. You're required to engage more deeply, which can be threatening if you're lonely, or offer possibilities of connection.
What aspects of NYC made it feel lonelier than where you lived in the UK?
I think the thing about Manhattan for me is that it's a small island, so there's an incredible density to it. London is sprawling and atomized, but in NYC everyone is living on top of each other. Everywhere you go, you're overlooked, which is why you get that classic Edward Hopper sense of both being hyper-exposed and weirdly cut off by the architecture of the city—something that echoes and intensifies loneliness in a weird and interesting way.
After writing about authors and alcoholism in your last book, what made you hone in on visual artists for the topic of loneliness?
I didn't want to write about writers again—The Trip to Echo Spring investigated the difficult ground between making fiction and telling lies, the former being the work of the writer and the latter being the compulsion of the alcoholic. It was fascinating to work there, but I wanted a change afterwards. And so much of the experience of urban loneliness, at least initially, was visual, so Hopper felt like the obvious place to start.
And then I began to be fascinated by people's relationships to objects—as things to be hoarded, but also as art. David Wojnarowicz says that he thought of his work as a kind of ventriloquist's dummy that could speak when he had to be silent, and I was fascinated by the way objects of all kinds occupy the space between us and mediate for us in states of loneliness and isolation.
A city is composed of multiple forces, always, and the trick is to find your place, your community, 'your tribe,' as Wojnarowicz would say, within it.
Do you think the city was ever a more welcoming place, or is it New York's constant state of flux that brings on these feelings of isolation?
I talk about a lot of different times in the book, running really from the 1930s to the present day, but I don't have any great nostalgia for a lost New York. Each era has ways in which it promotes contact, but also has ways that inhibit it. So when I'm talking about Wojnarowicz, I spend a lot of time mulling over his writing about the derelict Hudson piers, which in the 1970s and 80s were cruising grounds, temporary autonomous zones, places where people made art in a very wild way. To me, those are exciting spaces for kinds of contact that are less easy to find in our very hygienic, corporate century. But I don't think for a minute that the city in that era was benign or welcoming. A city is composed of multiple forces, always, and the trick is to find your place, your community—"your tribe" as Wojnarowicz would say—within it.
In comparing Hopper and Wojnarowicz's work, there are obviously different types of loneliness at play. Hopper's subjects are isolated and affected by architecture, but Wojnarowicz and his subjects are clearly in a more drastic position due to AIDS stigmatization and homophobia. How would you describe their work in relation to loneliness?
Hopper's subject is modernity and his paintings radiate anxiety about the changing city. They're nostalgic and fearful about the growing urbanization of the city, the dehumanizing structures. But it's by no means political art. Wojnarowicz, on the other hand, is a political artist: He explicitly sees his work as a way of making changes in the world, both in magical and very practical ways.
You use the phrase "the loneliness of urban restructuring" at one point in the book. When you see constant demolition and construction in a city like New York, what effect do you think that has on loneliness?
I don't think cities changing per se is a problem; the problem is gentrification—the capital-driven process by which some people are made less welcome in cities than others. My argument in this book in terms of urban spaces is really that diversity is the best antidote to isolation: that our urban spaces need to include as many different kinds of people as possible, and to resist the drive towards homogeneity.
So it doesn't matter so much that demolition is happening, but rather what is being replaced and what is doing the replacing. St. Marks Bookstore, [for example]. A place that promotes contact and exchange is clearly a more powerful antidote to urban isolation than a Chase bank or a fro-yo joint.
But even cultural havens like that can make some feel welcome while excluding others.
I came out of the direct action movement in the 1990s, and was involved in setting up squatted arts centers and community spaces. I think the trick to making places welcome to diverse groups is for them to be set up and run by diverse groups. But I wasn't necessarily thinking just about art. Somewhere like the Ali Forney Center, which is a space for queer homeless teens, seems like an absolute model of the kind of place that can dispel isolation in a city.
What I wanted to add to the conversation was the idea that loneliness is also political, that it happens to certain people because of stigma and exclusion.
What else do you hope readers take away from The Lonely City?
What I wanted to add to the conversation was the idea that loneliness is also political, that it happens to certain people because of stigma and exclusion—things like racism, homophobia, transphobia, or reactions to illness and disability. Also, I wanted to think about shame, which is such an agonizing component of loneliness, and to do as much as I could to dispel it, to remind us all that loneliness is not a rogue state, that it's an inevitable part of the human condition, and may have blessings of its own.
What do you think the key is to using loneliness productively, rather than letting it destroy you? Can self-destruction by loneliness still yield great art?
Understanding how loneliness acts on the brain to warp thinking, making you more paranoid and negative: that was very helpful to me. It meant I could consciously work to challenge it. Once that and the shame are stripped away, what's left is a sense of openness and longing that personally I found inspiring and interesting as well as uncomfortable and alarming. And yes, great art can come out of negative state, for sure. Art doesn't have to report from noble places, does it?
'The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone' is out March 1st through Picador. Pre-order it here.
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