Olivia Laing


Born in the UK. Based in Cambridge, England, UK

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Olivia Laing is a writer and critic with a particular interest in art, politics, sexuality and cities. She's the author of three books.

To the River (2011) is the story of a midsummer journey down the river Virginia Woolf drowned in. It was shortlisted for the 2012 Ondaatje Prize and the Dolman Travel Book of the Year.

The Trip to Echo Spring (2013) explores the liquid links between writers and alcohol. It was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Prize and the Gordon Burn Prize.

The Lonely City (2016) is an investigation into loneliness by way of artists, including Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper and David Wojnarowicz.

Laing is a columnist for Frieze and writes for the Guardian, Observer, New Statesman and New York Times. She's a Yaddo and MacDowell Fellow and was 2014 Eccles Writer in Residence at the British Library.

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Extract: The Lonely City

Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can't reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its uneasy combination of separation and exposure.

          You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others.

          Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired.      

          I know what that feels like. I've been a citizen of loneliness. I've done my time in empty rooms. A few years back I moved to New York, drifting through a succession of sublet apartments. A new relationship had abruptly turned to dust and though I had friends in the city I was paralysed by loneliness. The feelings I had were so raw and overwhelming I often wished I could find a way of losing myself altogether, until the intensity diminished.

          The revelation of loneliness, the omnipresent, unanswerable feeling that I was in a state of lack, that I didn’t have what people were supposed to, and that this was down to some grave and no doubt externally unmistakable failing in my person: all this had quickened lately, the unwelcome consequence of being so summarily dismissed.

          I don’t suppose it was unrelated, either, to the fact that I was keeling towards the midpoint of my thirties, an age at which female aloneness is no longer socially sanctioned and carries with it a persistent whiff of strangeness, deviance and failure.

          The experience was acutely painful, and yet as the months wore by I became weirdly fascinated by it. Loneliness, Dennis Wilson once sang, is a very special place, and I started to wonder if he might be right, if there wasn’t more to it than meets the eye – if, in fact, loneliness didn’t drive one to consider some of the larger questions of what it is to be alive.

          There were things that burned away at me, not only as a private individual, but also as a citizen of our century, our pixelated age. What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? Is sex a cure for loneliness, and if it is, what happens if our body or sexuality is considered deviant or damaged, if we are ill or unblessed with beauty?

          I was by no means the only person who’d puzzled over these questions. All kinds of writers, artists, filmmakers and songwriters have explored the subject of loneliness, attempting to gain purchase on it, to tackle the issues that it provokes. But I was at the time beginning to fall in love with images, to find a solace in them I didn’t find elsewhere, and so I conducted the majority of my investigations within the visual realm. I sought out artists who seemed to articulate or be troubled by loneliness, particularly as it manifests in cities.


The obvious place to start was with Edward Hopper, that rangy, taciturn man. Born at the tail end of the 19th century, he spent his working life documenting life in the electrically uneasy metropolis. Though he was often resistant to the notion that loneliness was his metier, his central theme, his scenes of men and women in deserted cafés, offices and hotel lobbies remain signature images of urban isolation.

          Hopper's people are often alone, or in fraught, uncommunicative groupings of twos and threes, fastened into poses that seem indicative of distress. But this isn't the only reason his work is so deeply associated with loneliness. He also succeeds in capturing something of how it feels, by way of the strange construction of his city layouts.

          Take Nighthawks, a painting that the novelist Joyce Carol Oates once described as ‘our most poignant, ceaselessly replicated romantic image of American loneliness’. It shows a diner at night: an urban aquarium, a glass cell. Inside, in their livid yellow prison, are four famous figures. A spivvy couple, a counter-boy in a white uniform, and a man sitting with his back to the window, the open crescent of his jacket pocket the darkest point on the canvas.

          No one is talking. No one is looking at anyone else. Is the diner a refuge for the isolated, a place of succour, or does it serve to illustrate the disconnection that proliferates in cities? The painting’s brilliance derives from its instability, its refusal to commit.

          I’d been looking at it on laptop screens for years before I finally saw it in person, at the Whitney one sweltering October afternoon. The colour hit me first. Green walls, green shadows falling in spikes and diamonds on the green sidewalk. There is no shade in existence that more powerfully communicates urban alienation than this noxious pallid green, which only came into being with the advent of electricity, and which is inextricably associated with the nocturnal city, the city of glass towers, empty illuminated offices and neon signs.

          But it was the window that really stopped me in my tracks: a bubble of glass that separated the diner from the street, curving sinuously back against itself. It was impossible to gaze through into the luminous interior without experiencing a swift apprehension of loneliness, of how it might feel to be shut out, standing alone in the cooling air.

          Glass is a persistent symbol of loneliness, and for good reason. Almost as soon as I arrived in the city, I had the sense that I was trapped behind glass. I couldn't reach out or make contact, and at the same time I felt dangerously exposed, vulnerable to judgment, particularly in situations where being alone felt awkward or wrong, where I was surrounded by couples or groups.

          This is what Hopper replicates with his strange architectural configurations: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with near-unbearable exposure. "I probably am a lonely one," he once told an interviewer, and his paintings radiate an empathic understanding of what that's like. You might think this would make his work distressing, but on the contrary I found it eased the burden of my own feelings. Someone else had grappled with loneliness, and what's more had found beauty, even value in it.


Loneliness doesn't only affect the solitary. It can also prey on people who have what seem from outside like highly populated lives. This is certainly the case with Andy Warhol, who was almost never without a glittering entourage and yet whose work is surprisingly eloquent on isolation and problems of attachment, issues he struggled with lifelong.

          Warhol’s art patrols the space between people, conducting a grand philosophical investigation into closeness and distance, intimacy and estrangement. Like many lonely people, he was an inveterate hoarder, making and surrounding himself with objects, barriers against the demands of human intimacy. Terrified of physical contact, he rarely left the house without an armoury of cameras and tape recorders, using them to broker and buffer interactions: behaviour that has light to shed on how we deploy technology in our own century of so-called connectivity.

          Even as a little boy, Andy was notable for his skill at drawing and his painful shyness: a pale, slightly otherworldly child, who fantasised about renaming himself Andy Morningstar. His parents were Ruthenian immigrants, and he was passionately close to his mother, particularly when at the age of seven he contracted rheumatic fever, followed by St Vitus’s Dance, an alarming disorder characterised by involuntary movements of the limbs.

          This spell of social withdrawal left a mark on him, as did the experience of being betrayed by his own body. As an adult, Warhol was hampered by an absolute belief in his own physical abhorrence: his bulbous nose and receding hair; his strikingly white skin, covered in liver-coloured blotches. What he most wanted was to be desired by one of the beautiful boys on whom he developed serial crushes, a breed exemplified by the poised and wickedly glamorous Truman Capote – who described his suitor cruelly as ‘a hopeless born loser, the loneliest, most friendless person I’d ever met in my life’.

          In the 1960s, just as he was beginning to make a name for himself as a Pop artist, Warhol found a novel way of handling his problems with intimacy. He bought a television at Macy's: an RCA 19-inch black-and-white set. Able to conjure or dismiss company at the touch of a button, he found he cared much less about getting close to other people, a process he’d found so hurtful in the past.

          It was the beginning of a passionate love affair with machines. Over the years, he fell for a range of devices, from the stationary 16mm Bolex on which he recorded the Screen Tests of the 1960s to the Polaroid camera that was his permanent companion at parties in the 1980s. Part of the appeal was undoubtedly having something to hide behind in public. Acting as servant or companion to the machine was another route to invisibility, a mask-cum-prop like his wig and glasses.

           But Warhol also used machines as a way buffering his interactions with other people. Filming, taping and photographing meant he could possess people without risk: a strategy of enormous appeal to the lonely, who fear rejection almost as intensely as they desire intimacy.

          In this, as in so many things, he was the herald of our own era. His attachment prefigures our rapturous, narcissistic fixation with phones and computers; the enormous devolution of our emotional and practical lives to technological apparatuses of one kind or another. I understood exactly why he called his tape recorder his wife. I would have been lost without my MacBook, which promised to bring connection and in the meantime filled and filled the vacuum left by love.


Loneliness can wed people to machines, and it can also drive them away from the world. The lonely disappear in plain sight, retreating into their apartments because of sickness or bereavement, mental illness or the persistent, unbearable burden of shyness, of not knowing how to impress themselves into society.

          If anyone can be said to have worked from this place, it's the outsider artist and hospital janitor Henry Darger, who was born in Chicago in 1892. Darger’s life illuminates the social forces that produce isolation – and the way the imagination can work to resist it.

          For decades Darger lived alone in a boarding house room crammed with hoarded rubbish. In 1972 he became ill and was moved unwillingly to a Catholic mission. When his room was cleared, it was discovered to contain hundreds of paintings, of almost supernatural radiance.

          These baffling, beautiful collages were populated by soldiers and naked little girls with penises. Some had charming, fairy-tale elements: clouds with faces and winged creatures sporting in the sky. Others showed exquisitely staged and coloured scenes of mass torture, complete with delicately painted pools of scarlet blood. Together, they described a coherent otherworld: the Realms of the Unreal, site of a devastating civil war between forces of good and evil.

          Since his death, theories about Darger have proliferated, put forward by an impassioned chorus of art historians, academics and psychologists. These voices are by no means convergent, but broadly speaking they have established Darger as an outsider artist nonpareil: untutored, compulsive and almost certainly mentally ill. Over the years, he’s been posthumously diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia and declared a paedophile or serial killer, an accusation that has proved enduring despite an absolute lack of evidence.

          It seemed to me that this second act of Darger’s life compounded the isolation of the first. The things he made have served as lightning rods for other people's fears and fantasies about isolation. But what this pathologising elides is the damage wreaked on individuals like Darger by society: the role that structures like families, schools and jobs play in any person’s experience of isolation.

          Like many lonely people, Darger's childhood was full of shattered attachments and broken ties. His mother died when he was four. His father was too ill to care for him, and so he was sent to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, a place where extreme violence was common. After escaping, he worked in the city’s hospitals, where he spent nearly six decades rolling bandages and sweeping floors. Intelligent and talented, he was deprived of both love and an education, and in his entire life only had one friend.

          He built the world of the Realms out of almost nothing, against extraordinary odds. I realised this most forcibly when I visited the recreation of his room in a Chicago museum. It was packed with art materials: pencil stubs made usable by being jammed into syringes; piles of children's paints and crayons; broken elastic bands mended with tape. In all his life, Darger's income never exceeded $3000 a year, and yet he had accumulated these resources, painstakingly gathered from among the discards, the leavings of the city.

          Why? Why did he spend his life creating a universe of such violence and beauty? There is a theory that loneliness stems from a profound sense of disintegration, caused by just the kind of broken childhood Darger suffered. It's a longing not just for love, but for integration, for wholeness. Now look again at Darger's pictures: the unleashed forces of good and evil brought painstakingly together, into a single field, a single frame. Insane? I don't think so. It's the work of someone absolutely alone, struggling with all their might to make sense of suffering and disorder.


You can show what loneliness looks like, and you can also take up arms against it, making things that serve explicitly as communication devices against censorship and alienation. This was the driving motivation of David Wojnarowicz, a still under-known American artist and writer, whose courageous, extraordinary body of work did more than anything to release me from the feeling that in my solitude I was shamefully alone.

          Like Darger, Wojnarowicz had a brutal childhood. As a small boy in the 1950s, he and his two siblings were kidnapped by their father, an abusive alcoholic who took them to live in the suburbs of New Jersey. The Universe of the Neatly Clipped Lawn, David called it – a place where physical and psychic violence against women and children could be carried out without repercussions.

          By fifteen, he was turning ten-dollar tricks in Times Square, and by seventeen had left home entirely. He almost starved during his homeless years. Sometimes he was raped or drugged by the men who offered him money; sometimes he stayed in welfare hotels and derelict buildings, or with a group of transvestites down by the Hudson River.

          In 1973, he prised himself off the streets, though the legacy of shame and isolation never fully dispersed. He came out as queer, and felt immediately lighter, albeit acutely aware of the weight of antagonism stacked against him, the hatred lurking everywhere for a man who loved men and was not ashamed of the fact.

          It was in this period that he began to make art. Photographs of a man in a paper mask of Arthur Rimbaud, wandering the meat markets and bus stations of New York. Lurid, intricate paintings that look like maps of some mythic realm. A film of a drag queen walking slowly into a lake; graffiti of burning houses and choking cows. Within a handful of years he became one of the stars of the 1980s East Village art scene, alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Nan Goldin.

          What happened to him? AIDS happened. In 1988 he was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, then a death sentence. His first reaction was intense loneliness, combined with absolute rage against the bigoted politicians who blocked funding and education, the public figures who called for people with AIDS to be tattooed with their infection status or quarantined on islands. Stigmatisation: the cruel process by which society works to exclude people considered undesirable, whether because of race or poverty or illness or a thousand other factors.

          Stigmatisation is yet another driver of loneliness, reducing a person from a human being to the bearer of something polluting or repulsive. Wojnarowicz's response was to fight back, to resist the silencing and shaming he’d suffered from lifelong; and to do it not alone but in the company of others. In the plague years, he became involved with ACT UP, a direct action group that fused art and resistance into an astonishingly potent force. There isn’t much to find inspiring about the AIDS crisis, except the way that it was combated not by people contracting into couples or family groupings, but by communal direct action.

          Wojnarowicz's work had always been political. Even before AIDS, he’d dealt with sexuality and difference: with what it’s like to live in a world that despises you, to be subject every single day to hatred and contempt, enacted not just by individuals but by the supposedly protective structures of society itself. AIDS confirmed his suspicions. As he put it in his searing memoir, Close to the Knives: ‘My rage is really about the fact that when I was told that I’d contracted this virus it didn’t take me long to realise that I’d contracted a diseased society as well.’

          ACT UP's work undoubtedly drove improved treatment for people with AIDS, but combination therapy came too late for David. He died in 1991, at the age of 37, leaving behind a body of work of radical honesty. ‘I want to make somebody feel less alienated – that’s the most meaningful thing to me', he once said. 'We can all affect each other, by being open enough to make each other feel less alienated.’

          That statement summed up precisely what his art meant to me. Nothing in my years of loneliness touched me as deeply as David's openness: his willingness to admit to failure or grief; to acknowledge desire, anger, pain; to be emotionally alive. His honesty was in itself a cure for loneliness, dissolving the sense of difference that comes when one believes one’s feelings or desires to be uniquely shameful. How had he responded to the sources of isolation in his own life? By speaking the truth, by making art, by building community, by engaging in political action, by refusing to be invisible.



The artists I encountered in the lonely city helped me not just to understand loneliness, but also to see the potential beauty in it, the way it drives creativity of all kinds. These days, I don’t think the cure for loneliness is meeting someone, not necessarily. I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.

          There is a gentrification that's happening to cities, and there's a gentrification that's happening to the emotions too, with a similarly homogenising, whitening, deadening effect. Amidst the glossiness of late capitalism, we are fed the notion that all difficult feelings – depression, anxiety, loneliness, rage – are simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry, a problem to be fixed, rather than a response to structural injustice or, on the other hand, to the native texture of embodiment, of doing time, as David Wojnarowicz memorably put it, in a rented body, with all the attendant grief and frustration that entails.

          So much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with being compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up wounds as if they are literally repulsive. But why hide? What’s so shameful about wanting, about desire, about having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness? Why this need to constantly inhabit peak states, or to be comfortably sealed inside a unit of two, turned inward from the world at large?

          I have been lonely, and no doubt I will be lonely again. There isn't any shame in that. Loneliness is a special place, I'm certain of it: adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive.


Olivia Laing. This is an edited extract from The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, published by Canongate