In Olivia Laing’s genre-defying book The Lonely City, she observes certain contradictions, difficulties, and paradoxes active in the phenomenon of loneliness. I have found myself revisiting Laing’s book lately, which I first read during insomniatic nights in Madrid last year. On holiday with my best friends but unable to sleep, I would sit up reading the book until the early hours, then watch from the window as the city began to glow in the morning light. This was a Summer that was both special and strange. Having just graduated from university, I felt as if I was leaning over a precipice. I had no plans for graduate life, and after my holiday I would be moving back home to Bristol.
Looking back I suppose I first encountered The Lonely City whilst anticipating isolation, and dreading it. The book seems to have a different resonance now, as lockdown creeps onwards, and I find myself awash with dissonant emotions, epitomised by the oxymoronic mantra ‘together but apart.’ The proportion of time I am spending alone has risen, but my participation in digital activities is at an all time high.
What is the difference between the feeling of loneliness and the fact of being isolated? How can we settle into the continual reminder of absence that accompanies each online interaction?
Laing turns to art to seek answers to her own questions, and the strength of her book lies in her ability to identify works imbued with a quality of loneliness, whilst revealing the critical and emotional utility of turning to them in times of need.
When out in public and adhering to the two meter distancing rules, we are continually reassessing our relation to other bodies, and, paradoxically, offering apologetic eye-contact to ensure each stranger doesn’t take the avoidance personally. If only slightly, these interactions have affected the composition of our social fabric, making the everyday alien enough to incite an interest in uncanny art.
Whilst scrolling mindlessly through social media recently, I encountered the work of Polish painter/illustrator Joanna Karpowicz. Her pictures were being shared with the caption ‘quarantine mood’. And it’s true, her art captures the oddness permeating familiar streets and forces us to consider the strange and shifting dynamics of our current situation.
Solitude as a social obligation has shrunk my immediate surroundings, all the while our consciousness must continually comprehend a growing global crisis. I love Laing’s participatory approach to art, and as I fell deeper into the paintings, I began to wonder what exactly creates that ‘mood’ of isolation, and what can our response reveal to us about our relationship with loneliness when isolation is mandatory?
Anubis in Spoon River, Joanna Karpowicz, 2016.
Karpowicz is uniquely aware of a capacity to chill her viewer through depictions of solitary figures, especially when positioned close to, but out of reach from well lit structures.
Her series entitled ‘Pictures with Anubis’ have been circulating on Twitter, and depict a range of sparsely populated scenes, each of which is surveyed by the silhouette of Anubis, the Egyptian God of death. In ‘Anubis in Spoon River’ he lurks in the far right corner, but elsewhere he enjoys picnics and goes to the beach. He embodies the role of guide, flaneur and benevolent bystander.
He can be an amusing figure, but, dependent on Karpowicz’s lighting, can also be interpreted as an approaching threat. The centrality of voyeurism in the series, imposes with rigour a crisis of identification, and presents a binary that we must flit between – who do we align with, the observer or the observed? And would we have responded differently to the demands the image makes on us prior to social lockdown?
Laing opens The Lonely City with a study of Edward Hopper, and one need only glance at the work of Karpowicz to feel the alien glow of isolation and appreciate his influence. Laing writes that Hopper’s work is groundbreaking in its suggestion that loneliness is ‘something worth looking at.’ She goes further to propose that ‘looking itself was an antidote, a way to defeat loneliness’s strange, estranging spell.’ I liked this observation, but it presented me with a challenge. Karpowicz’s images, I feel, emit a mood of loneliness, but identifying its source is harder. The subjects do not seem lonely in the way that Hopper’s do. In fact, the woman in ‘Anubis In Spoon River’, who stands alone on a deserted platform seems at peace, at least judging by her posture. We aren’t looking at lonely people, we are looking at people who are alone. This distinction is crucial. So what is it that makes a lonely picture?
Automat, Edward Hopper, 1927.
‘Anubis in Spoon River’ is eternally liminal: a train platform without a train, a waiting room without passengers, and the certainty of impending night. The lights of the waiting room are operational yet functionless without occupants. The glow is inviting, but without people, the light symbolizes a continually rejected invitation to normality. This renders the scene ghostly, something identified too in the quiet streets of lockdown. Karpowicz’s manipulation of light urges us to consider the kinetic dynamic of the station – to acknowledge the power balance enforced through mechanisms of sight. The waiting room is at once a place of comfort, and a stage in which one could make themselves vulnerable. It hits me then that Karpowicz is diverting our gaze back onto ourselves as we realize, we have been positioned decisively across the tracks from both the woman and the light of the waiting room. She is unaware of Anubis’ proximity. We are the lonely figures in the painting, burdened with the knowledge of Anubis’ presence.
Anubis and kids from the block, Joanna Karpowicz, 2013.
Light illuminating emptiness is a recurrence in Karpowicz’ work. In ‘Anubis and kids from the block’ the streetlamps idly point away from the painting’s subjects. This futility is ominous. Karpowicz’s brightly lit but empty rooms have a renewed resonance in lockdown, in which technologies of communication fall short by virtue of their very necessity.
You cannot participate in a zoom call without acknowledging the absence of your digital partner. In these paintings the anticipated communal effects of electricity fall short without the consenting participants. Technologies, purported to ease the effects of isolation, can’t help but draw attention to the very thing it seeks to eliminate. The cognitive dissonance embodied in this paradox is imbued in the painting as we watch Karporwicz’ subjects avoid the light. Absence becomes the singularly illuminated subject.
In the distance we see the cells of light that make up an apartment block – an image prolifically tied to ideas about loneliness in urban spaces, and one that Laing touches upon often: ‘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.’
Anubis is waiting at the swimming pool, Joanna Karpowicz, 2015.
In ‘Anubis is waiting at the swimming pool’, we revisit Karporwicz’ ability to paint light, but the pool’s glow evades the glamour of Hockney, and instead reminds me of Barb’s fate in Stranger Things. Here, water is a symbol of thresholds, distortion and other worldliness. A window glows in the attic of an otherwise uninviting house, once again Karporwicz inverts conventional codes of appeal, with the warm but empty glow being repellent rather than inviting. The scene is incongruous, it’s reminiscent of the haunting photographs of empty London, oozing decadence but with no one to admire it.
In the past year, I’ve only really begun to understand the complexities shifting in my personal relationship to loneliness. It’s been a sensation oddly defined by familiarity. Moving home, the bus that had taken me to school for so many years, now took me to work in a call centre. After living indepently with my best friends, the overwhelming familiarity of home was also something I felt at odds with.
I realised loneliness can be retrospective too. You can recognise it lurking in a past version of yourself, and suddenly you become Anubis, watching the solitary figure with sadness. Approaching the bus stop, I could almost see my teenage self in my uniform, waiting. Loneliness can drape itself over any scene, as we see through the intimate spaces Karpowicz presents. And like Anubis standing quietly in the corner, sometimes I barely notice the feeling at all.
I’m now spending lockdown in my hometown, but find myself seeing the streets with a changed perspective once again. Windows have become symbols which epitomise social lockdown. Now more than ever, we are aware of a world immediately behind the glass panes of our neighbours’ houses. Imposed isolation has led to a surge in community spirit thanks to mutual aid and street Whatsapp groups. Global initiatives, such as leaving teddies in windows for children to spot on walks, as well as the countless rainbows pinned to windows to pledge solidarity with the NHS, draw our eyeline away from the street in a way that was unconventional before.
This new sensation complicates familiar codes of viewing, subtly estranging our relation to well known streets. Karpowicz’s paintings exude a sense of waiting, and her strange Anubis-tinged world is stagnant. The lights illuminate no one, the train hasn’t arrived, the pool has no swimmers. The question remains – does loneliness have an antidote which doesn’t perpetuate it?
I find solace in Karpowicz’s reliance on light to suggest loneliness. Laing writes that increasingly we view loneliness as ‘a problem to be fixed.’ In these paintings loneliness is neither an intrinsic feature of character, nor a death sentence. There’s no telling how long Anubis will wait, but we can choose to view the scenes as transitory rather than stagnant. We are in an immensely anticipatory moment, and the paintings speak to those of us whose only capacity to help lies in the frustratingly passive act of waiting. With that comes watching. This resonates with the strange voyeurism embodied in Karpowicz’ work, explaining why I find her work so captivating, especially right now.
Imogen grew up in a haunted house in Bristol. She loves swimming and writes poems.