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The Art of Urban Loneliness

In The Lonely City, Olivia Laing investigates her own experiences of isolation through the lens of visual art.

Image Ghislain Berger/Flickr
Ghislain Berger/Flickr

Loneliness is a feeling familiar to anyone who finds themselves adrift in an unfamiliar city, surrounded by unrecognized people.

But in her new book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Picador, $26), the British writer Olivia Laing wonders if loneliness is also a physical space. She quotes the Beach Boys singer Dennis Wilson: “Loneliness is a very special place.”

The Lonely City is an investigation of the sites and sensations that attend the isolated person. In it, Laing interweaves the events of her own life with meditations on the lives and works of artists, among them Andy Warhol, Henry Darger, David Wojnarowicz, and David Hopper. The character of loneliness itself emerges as a strikingly visual entity, but one that takes on many forms.

Courtesy of Picador

For Laing, newly arrived in New York in her mid-thirties and very alone in the wake of a break-up, loneliness began as an intensely personal state. “The bad times came in the evenings,” she writes, “when I went back to my room, sat on the couch, and watched the world outside me going on through glass, a lightbulb at a time.” She depends on distance, crying when she finds herself unable to close her blinds, panicking that someone might witness her isolation.

But her interest in solitude also radiates outward; Laing pulls together a thick tapestry of the ways in which loneliness has colored American art over the last century (her investigation of stitchwork as a cry for connectivity in the art of the AIDS crisis is particularly affecting). Even from the hypersocial Andy Warhol is Laing able to tease out evidence of this “uneasy combination of separation and exposure.” Laing spoke to CityLab about what influenced her book, and what she discovered about this state so familiar to so many.

What is your definition of loneliness? How do you experience it?
Loneliness is a hunger for more intimacy than you have. For me—for most people, I think—it was an acutely painful state that felt very embarrassing and uncomfortable to inhabit. You can be lonely anywhere, but there's a particular flavor to living in a city: one becomes so intensely aware of how richly populated other people's lives are. The sense of being exposed or hyper-visible is intensified.

There is a cultural tendency to pathologize loneliness; you quote Robert Weiss saying it’s “a chronic disease without redeeming features.” What, for lack of a better word, are the symptoms of loneliness you’ve encountered?
It's a state we inhabit in shame and regard with terror, perhaps because it cuts so deeply to what we want and need as humans. Withdrawal is a common response—retreating into apartments, hiding away from the world. Hoarding has an interesting relationship with loneliness: using things as a way of filling the gaps. Excessive time on the internet is certainly a symptom I experienced, and I think is pretty common.

What is the connection between visual art and loneliness?
I use visual art to illuminate loneliness in various ways. Some people I wrote about, like the outsider artist Henry Darger, were deeply socially isolated, but others, like Warhol, were extremely social. Nonetheless, both made work that grappled with loneliness and isolation in very interesting ways. Some art arises out of loneliness, driven by a desire to communicate, and some art—I'm thinking of Hopper here—describes what it looks like or how it feels. Like art, loneliness often feels like being trapped behind glass; that’s the signature experience of urban life—being alone in an apartment watching the world go by through your window, or watching other people's lives through glass. You're looked over by multiple pairs of eyes—looked over, or maybe overlooked—and that tension and pressure really plays into loneliness.

How did you decide which artists to feature in the book?
Love. I picked people who I loved and was drawn to, and who I felt could help me to explore loneliness from multiple angles. I wanted to have some unexpected, less well-known characters, and I particularly wanted to explore the political dimension of loneliness—the way it occurs in response to stigma and exclusion—which is why the artist and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz was so central.

Night Shadows, a 1921 etching by Edward Hopper. (The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection/The New York Public Library)

How do you visualize urban loneliness?
Like a Hopper painting. Nocturnal, seedy, neon-lit. I lived in Times Square for a while, in a room flooded with neon from the giant ads, and I felt like I was inhabiting the acme of 21st-century urban loneliness.

Oftentimes, loneliness is assigned to people who enter a new place alone, but remaining in a place that’s constantly changing can bring about loneliness of a different variety. How so?
Diverse cities are such a balm for the lonely. Homogenous places can be extremely isolating, particularly if you feel like you don't belong. The way that gentrification pushes cities towards homogeneity—driving out the poor, disabled and homeless, making cities ever whiter and shinier and cleaner, turning them into refuges for the rich—is a very worrying trend. Cosmopolitanism is a great gift, and something we must strive to preserve.

You write that "fear of contact is the real malaise of our age." How does that fear manifest in cities?
I was especially interested in the clean-up act of gentrification. The loss of public spaces where people from different classes and backgrounds can mix and things like so-called poor doors are driven by a terror of contact with different people. In the end, that fear of contact impoverishes us all, and makes us all more lonely. It can and must be resisted.

There’s lately been a cultural shift to end the stigma of doing things alone. The New York Times reported on how restaurants are catering to the solo diner, and solo travel has increased. What’s your take on this?
One of the reasons I came to New York is that I felt the city has a kind of generosity to the solo inhabitant. All those innovations really help remove stigma, and make spaces easier to navigate. That said, there's a big difference between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is the fact of being alone; loneliness is the longing for more closeness, intimacy, and contact. So you can feel lonely in a relationship or around other people. What I think is important is finding ways to dismantle the pervasive shame around it.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, $26 at Amazon.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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