“I trust every journalist and I get fucked every time,” said US photographer Nan Goldin when she let me into her Copenhagen hotel-room for an interview during the CPH:DOX film festival. Her guardedness is unsurprising, the artist having been both massively influential and crucified by the media for an aesthetic marrying glamour with a dark, sleaze-edged lived reality. Accusations of abetting the fashion world's adoption of 'heroin chic' and 2007's British furore over an exhibited child portrait, which she puts down to a gallery publicity stunt, have dogged her.
I like film that changes your life, that reaches in and takes out your organs and grinds them, and that’s painful, and you feel like you’ll die watching it. 'Melancholia' was like that. I saw it 3 times this week
Still, her warm regard for friends and heroes came through, foremost her current cinematic idol Lars von Trier, who’d had her over for dinner for the first time the evening prior. The Danish provocateur is of course another genius talent prone to press controversy, his 'Melancholia'having won Best Film recently at the European Film Awards despite the film having been overshadowed in the last year by his inflammatory Cannes press-conference “joking”. Goldin also spoke of the influences which bled into her seminal slide-show 'The Ballad Of Sexual Dependency', an intimate assemblage of photographs documenting the hard-living underground of '80s New York, which screened at CPH:DOX.
Dazed & Confused: Is film a big influence on you?
Nan Goldin: It’s the biggest.
D&C: More so than still photographs?
Nan Goldin: Much more. Because it’s so complex – it's narrative, sound and image all at the same time. It’s one of the great, great mediums. That and drawing. Drawing’s so pure because there’s nothing between you and the hand and the picture. I was really addicted to film from a very early age. The first movie I ever saw was 'Old Yeller'. I was about four and it was so vivid, probably more vivid than my own life.
I went to one of those hippie free schools where you have no classes, and no curriculum. I literally went to the movies every day. It was a good education. Very good. The cinema was called Orson Welles, in Cambridge Mass., outside Boston, and they showed three movies a day, for the same entrance fee.
D&C: What filmmakers have been the greatest influences?
Nan Goldin: Lars von Trier.
Nan Goldin: I like film that changes your life, that reaches in and takes out your organs and grinds them, and that’s painful, and you feel like you’ll die watching it. 'Melancholia' was like that. I saw it three times this week. Once alone and twice with two really close friends, and each time it was a completely different experience. An experience most people would avoid. And the first 15 minutes of 'Antichrist', if I could have done anything in my life as an artist, that’s what I would have done. This trauma that happens, happens in this ether of beauty. His work moves me so deeply.
With Melancholia, and I guess you could go back to Bergman’s Persona, this thing of that relationship between women is really interesting. Also in Breaking the Waves. His sister relationships are really intense, and that’s beautiful. No-one else deals with that with the same depth. I can’t really follow plots, they don’t interest me, I care about the psychological pictures of people and how deep they go.
Vinterberg is a favourite of mine too. All the way from Carl Dreyer, the Danes have always been huge in cinema, and it’s so strange. I don’t know the culture that well and I don’t know the art very well, I can’t really place Denmark in any of the other histories of great art but for film it’s extraordinary. For a long time Fassbinder was a huge influence on me, but now I find his work way too cruel. And misanthropic and misogynist. Just unusually cruel.
D&C: Do you ever find that with Von Trier?
Nan Goldin: That’s the myth around him but he treats women the same as he treats men. And gives women at least as many dimensions as men. His work is so complex. It’s not hateful towards people, it’s real. People say he’s very cruel to work with, all that stuff. He was very funny last night and he couldn’t have been sweeter to me. He didn’t know who I was, he didn’t know my work, nothing. He’d Googled me before I came and I was furious (laughs).
D&C: What did he find out?
Nan Goldin: That I’m from Pennsylvania, which isn’t true…
D&C: All the misinformation?
Nan Goldin: Yep, all the misinformation… But I was glad that someone was willing to meet me that didn’t know my work, because once you reach a certain point in your career there’s so much sycophantry and the person gets lost. People forget there’s a person, it’s the myth.
D&C: Why did you decide to photograph rather than film?
Nan Goldin: I didn’t. I’m a filmmaker waiting to make a film. My slideshows are my films and my important work. I’ve been doing The Ballad since ’81. It’s grown and grown and grown and now it has to be digitised, so it’s kind of set. And I have about ten other slideshows and I’m showing a new one in New York. Slideshows you can constantly re-edit, which cinema doesn’t allow you to do. I hate digital. I just found out what a scan was about two weeks ago.
D&C: Do you ever have regrets about your work, given it’s so intimate and personal, and the way some people have treated that offering?
Nan Goldin: You put it really beautifully. I thought I was giving something, and I gave it with trust, and it hasn’t been treated delicately at all. I feel like I exploited myself completely. At the time I thought it was really important that the private is public - the wrong things are kept private and we have to talk about our own lives and tribes, and when people speak from their own experience then other people will also reveal themselves. It’s sort of a political action, and it backfired.
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