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Nan Goldin, Self Portrait 1st Time on Oxy, Berlin, 2014
Nan Goldin, Self Portrait 1st Time on Oxy, Berlin, 2014Nan Goldin

Life lessons we can take from Nan Goldin’s seminal photography

As her first major solo exhibition London since 2002 opens, we garner the work and wisdom of one of the most profound and prolific artists to document the human condition

Nan Goldin has braved many storms. In a career that spans five decades, the seminal photographer never flinches from plunging some of the darkest, most uncomfortable depths of humanity, yet she still revels in the absolute joy and sheer improbable wonder of being alive. Her tender portraits depict people in the throes of life, enlarging our empathy, and understanding of the human condition.

Having lost many of her friends and contemporaries to Aids, addiction, illness, and suicide, she has said, “I’m the only one left. All the people I was supposed to grow old with have died.” But Goldin almost didn’t make it herself, having had a “narrow” escape after becoming dangerously dependent on the highly-addictive prescription drug OxyContin. She’s now engaged in a fight to stem the epidemic of opioid dependency that’s sweeping the US. 

Goldin’s first major solo exhibition since that of the Whitechapel Gallery’s in 2002 opens today at London’s Marian Goodman Gallery. Titled Sirens, it will feature several bodies of work from her rich, decades-long oeuvre, as well as the debut of three new video works. Memory Lost (2019) is a digital slideshow which looks at a life lived through drug addiction, Salome (2019) explores themes of seduction, temptation, and revenge, and Sirens (2019) is made up of found footage. Also on show is the newly edited version of The Other Side (1994-2019), originally published more than two decades ago, it is a visual homage to the photographer’s transgender friends, and features many images which have not yet been publicly exhibited.

As the exhibition opens its doors, we highlight some of the life lessons we’ve learned from Goldin and her extraordinary photographs.

CREATE A SELF-CONTAINED WORLD FOR YOUR COMMUNITY

Goldin has lived among the drag community since the 1970s. Her book, The Other Side (1993), is a testament to their glamour and defiance. In a 2018 conversation with MOCA Assistant Curator Lanka Tattersall, Goldin revealed: “I fell in love with them. Literally. They were the most beautiful people I’d ever seen.”

She also recalled first being captivated a group of queens – Ivy, Naomi, and Colette – in downtown Boston. “I was immediately infatuated. I followed them and shot some Super 8 film. That was in 1972. It was the beginning of an obsession that has lasted 20 years.”

She was drawn in and eventually began living among them, in the fantastical, self-contained world they created in the margins of society. She said: “In those days it was scary for them to go out on the street in the daytime. There was no room for them in the world, so we had our own world. Normal people thought they were freaks, gay men didn’t like them at all, and lesbians thought they were mocking women.”

However, Goldin has insisted that her photographs aren’t about the margins. “There’s a misconception that my work is about marginalised people,” she further explained. “But we were never marginalised because we were the world. We didn’t care what straight people thought of us. We had no time for them – they didn’t show up on our radar. It was transgressive against normal society, but it was not about outcasts.”

USE YOUR ART AS THERAPY 

Goldin takes pictures as if her life depends on it – and it does. “Photography saved my life,” she remarked in a 2014 interview with the Guardian. “Every time I go through something scary, traumatic, I survive by taking pictures.” Not only did photography provide her with a form of therapy and a way of making her own life legible, it was also the means of justifying her very existence. She told MOCA’s Lanka Tattersall: “I wanted to change the world a little bit, I always thought, even as a child, if I come into the world and I don’t change it or affect it in some way my life isn’t worth it.”

The first and most significant trauma of Goldin's life was losing her sister Barbara to suicide in 1965 – Goldin was 11 and Barbara was 18. “I was very close to my sister and aware of some of the forces that led her to choose suicide,” she told The New Yorker in 2016. “I saw the role that her sexuality and its repression played in her destruction. Because of the times, the early 60s, women who were angry and sexual were frightening, outside the range of acceptable behaviour, beyond control. By the time she was 18, she saw that her only way to get out was to lie down on the tracks of the commuter train outside of Washington, DC. It was an act of immense will.”

Goldin was given a Polaroid camera when she was 15 and it proved to be her lifeline. “Finally I had a voice,” she said last month in an interview promoting the re-published The Other Side with Steidl. “I didn't speak before that. So it gave me an entry into human contact.”

“I photograph myself in times of trouble or change in order to find the ground to stand on in the change. Taking self-portraits becomes a way of hanging on to yourself” – Nan Goldin

Taking pictures has also been a means of documenting her memories and protecting them from revisionism. It’s also been a way to keep herself intact. In 2000, she told The New York Times: “My work has been about making a record of my life that no one can revise. I photograph myself in times of trouble or change in order to find the ground to stand on in the change. Taking self-portraits becomes a way of hanging on to yourself.”

Her haunting 1984 self-portrait, “Nan one month after being battered”, also shows how Goldin uses her camera as a vehicle for catharsis. In an unflinching vision of domestic violence, Goldin stares at the viewer through bruised, bloodshot eyes. Her red lipstick and earrings appear incongruous alongside her injuries, but make the image even more poignant – the idea of her going through the rituals of applying make-up and attempting to reconstruct herself amid the bruises and swelling is desperately brave and touching.

Following a period in rehab, after a dependency on pharmaceutical drugs, Goldin found her practice to be a vital part of her recovery. “In 88, when I first came out of detox, I spent every day doing self-portraits to fit back into my own skin,” she wrote in her book, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986). “I didn't know what the world looked like – what I looked like – so in order to fit back into myself, I took self-portraits every day to give myself courage and to fit the pieces back together.”

WE CAN LEARN A LOT FROM CHILDREN

In her 2014 book Eden and After, Goldin documents her enduring fascination with childhood. She has stated that she believes children are more connected with innate human wisdom and natural androgyny. Speaking to Tate for its TateShots series in 2014, she explained: “Children are from another planet. Babies come from somewhere else. They’re closer to whatever it is that we come from and where we’re going. They know more in those years. And then they’re taught to forget.”

She went on to recount a story that she had heard from a friend about a four-year-old child asking a tiny infant: “Baby, do you remember God? Because I’m beginning to forget.”

These images remind us that there’s wisdom in innocence and the importance of trying to reconnect with our child selves long after the world has corrupted us. “Mexican Wrestler at a Carnival” is a beautiful illustration of a child’s capacity for happiness and unselfconscious self-expression. Recalling the pleasure the project gave her, Goldin said: “I don’t see adults very often in that completely unmitigated state of joy.”

USE YOUR PLATFORM TO FIGHT INJUSTICE

Goldin punches upwards. She uses her camera to elevate and immortalised her subjects, honouring their beauty and vulnerability – telling TateShots her work ”comes from empathy and love”. Though she was hugely inspired by Diane Arbus – another seminal photographer capturing the lives of people living on the peripheries – she was troubled by the coldness in Arbus’s work. “I spoke to people Arbus had photographed,” Goldin told MOCA Lanka Tattersall. “They always said she waited until they looked crazy to take their picture.” On the opposite side of the coin lies Goldin’s pictures, which are full of immense kindness. She added: “I can’t photograph out of anger, only love.” 

But Goldin is not afraid to take aim “the abusers”, namely Purdue Pharma, the infamous American pharmaceutical company owned by the Sackler family, who’ve been manufacturing and peddling the highly addictive opioid Oxycontin since 1996. Goldin has spoken candidly about her own addiction and has now focused her energy into fighting the family and the corporation she holds responsible for the opioid epidemic. In an essay published on Artforum, Goldin pulls no punches in her criticism of the Sacklers – so-called philanthropists who have, over the years, donated vast sums of money to art institutions all over the world, in a bid, according to Goldin, to “launder” their reputation. She condemned the Sacklers at one of the group’s protests at New York’s Guggenheim, saying: “They have washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world.” 

“I can’t stand by and watch another generation disappear” – Nan Goldin

P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) is a group founded by Goldin, with the aim of holding the Sacklers accountable for profiteering from drug addiction. The group target institutions who’ve been the beneficiaries of huge sums of money from the family, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim in New York and the Louvre in Paris. Pamphlets distributed at anti-Sackler protests have compelled people to “hammer on the abusers in every way possible”.

Tackling the opioid epidemic is her current focus at present, telling MOCA’s Lanka Tattersall: “This is my new work. This is what consumes me.” In a sense she’s always been consumed in this fight – her whole body of work could be seen as a kind of propaganda for the vulnerable and an attempt to preserve her loved ones. Having watched the majority of her friends decimated by the Aids epidemic, she has said: “I can’t stand by and watch another generation disappear.”

PUT YOUR MESSAGE IN YOUR ART

Speaking in a 2017 video by MOCA about the “defining work” of her life, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985), Goldin described how naively she first went about capturing the lives of her and her friends. Her limited understanding of colour and how it was affected by light, combined with her poor eyesight, may have given her pictures a unique quality – but it wasn’t deliberate. Ultimately, she has always been concerned with content rather than technique and has bemoaned the male photographers who always want “to talk about their equipment”.

All photographic images are subjective – not only are they the product of a series of creative decisions and interventions by the photographer, but the subject, or the moment in time, is often said to be altered simply by the act of being photographed. But Goldin’s relationship of trust with her subjects, her status as an “insider” and her aversion to excessive equipment make her interventions more minimal than many portraits photographers. In the same video, she revealed: “I didn't even move a beer bottle.” 

“It’s the content that matters,” she goes on to say. The message is the message, and the medium is irrelevant. “I’m not really interested in photography. I’m interested in art.”

USE YOUR ART TO SHINE A LIGHT

In a 1998 interview with the Independent, Goldin pondered: “I think the wrong things are being kept private.” Her photography has consistently confronted difficult subjects which have been stigmatised and swept under the carpet. Through her work, she’s always sought to live in plain sight and – as she told the Economist – “lift the veil of shame”. She recalled to the Guardian in 2014: "My sister taught me to hate suburbia from a very young age – the suffocation, the double-standards, ‘Don't let the neighbours know’, was the gospel.”

Talking about her ongoing work with P.A.I.N. and her portraits of people affected by addiction, Goldin told MOCA’s Lanka Tattersall: “There are no faces to the disease of addiction there’s still so much shame attached. I’m going to photograph people who are living with addiction themselves or who’ve lost people and talk about what it can be, and put it on bus shelters…”

Memory Lost (2019) – which will debut at London’s Marian Goodman Gallery today – is Goldin’s first major work on the subject since she began her anti-Sackler activism around the opioid crisis and attempts to redress this balance by recounting “a life lived through a lens of drug addiction”. Accompanied by an emotionally charged new score by composer and instrumentalist Mica Levi, the digital slideshow allows us an intimate insight into the darkness and private horrors of addiction.

Nan Goldin's Sirens will open at London’s Marian Goodman Gallery in London on 14th November 2019 – 11 January 2020