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Nan Goldin: Träume
Nan GOLDIN, Veils, 2014, C-Print mounted on dibondCourtesy of Nan Goldin and Art Bärtschi & Cie

The mythological references behind Nan Goldin’s latest work

The photographer's most recent collage proves we can always learn something from her art

In Greek mythology, Demeter was the goddess of the Harvest, worshipped for her gift of soil, mild weather, and her kind heart. In her most well-known myth, Demeter ventures down to hell in search of her daughter Persephone. As she travels to the underworld, she passes through seven gates and at each point, sheds one of her seven veils. Every veil represents the goddess’s connection to the earth. Each time Demeter removes one, she reveals more about her true, inner self – insights more intertwined with elements of the underworld than was initially perceived. It’s unknown whether the veils in this story are real or metaphorical, therefore not only do they represent the many intricate layers of the soul, they show how the veil has been intrinsically linked to identity since the beginning of time.

Just like in Demeter’s myth, the veil takes central force in Nan Goldin’s latest work, “Veils” (2018) on show at Art Bärtschi & Cie Nan Goldin: Träume exhibition, running in Geneva, Switzerland until May 10. The new work is an addition to the grid works that Goldin has been releasing over the past 10 years, where she collages her photos, including many unreleased works, next to mythological statues and classic paintings in order to reveal hidden intricacies and new meanings in her timeless photos. From statues of Eros reviving Psyche with his kiss, to paintings of Tiresias, the ancient prophet who underwent a sex change, figures of mythology find kinship in the figures of Goldin’s works, turning her subjects into mythical creatures too. 

“Veil” (2018) features four of Goldin’s photos juxtaposed with five classic paintings, all of which use the veil in different forms. In the top right-hand corner, we find an intimate, energetic photo of Goldin’s friend Geno under the twilight of the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. SShot in 1999, Geno is holding a black veil – the blur indicating that the veil is being twirled around above her head, half masking her mind. Geno is juxtaposed with two of Goldin’s photos to the left, and is situated above three classic paintings, all of which depict the veil alongside the nude human form. Directly below Geno is Theodore Chasseriau’s classic painting of “Susanna in the bath” (1839). The image shows a nude female figure bathing with a veil, as two wicked men appear almost obscured into the background as they peer at her naked body.

To the left is another Chasseriau painting, “Tepiadrium” (1853) which gives a private look into a female bathing house. In this triangle of carefully placed images, there’s an intense voyeurism, as scenes depict moments of intimacy. But the subject matter of each photo is a reflection of how voyeurism evolved over time: once it was the peeping male sexualisng the female form as she takes a private bath, now its of Goldin’s intimate gaze lensing the soul of her close friend.

To the far left of the Chasseriau paintings is “The Judgement Of Paris” (1718-21) by painter Jean-Antoine Watteau. The image shows a naked female figure from the back as she dances with a veil. The Judgement of Paris is a Greek myth that depicted a contest between the three most beautiful goddesses in Olympos: Aphrodite, Athena and Hera. For philosophers, the myth represents humanity's struggle between a contemplative, active, or sensual life. The ideal choice was to combine all three. In Watteau’s oil painting, characters are grouped around the central nude figure of Aphrodite as she drapes a veil over her head. The painting sits below two of Nan’s photos showing the same figure using two different draped veils to conceal their identity.

It is fitting that Goldin uses mythology to reveal hidden intricacies in her work because just as mythology has persisted over thousands of years to teach the world about morality, so do Goldin’s timeless photos, but they humanise mythology even further. As urban mythology, Nan Goldin’s photos will be forever retold and allegorised to teach the future about the many raw realities of sexuality, addiction, freedom, and, overall, being human. 

Nan Goldin: Träume is on at Art Bärtschi & Cie in Geneva until 10 May 2018. You can find out more information here