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Nan Goldin’s Refusal to Look Away

At the tail end of 1989, the photographer Nan Goldin organized ‘Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing’, a group show at Artists Space, New York, which responded directly to the impact of the burgeoning HIV/AIDS crisis. During that same year, there had been almost 14,600 known AIDS-related deaths in the US. The show’s philosophy – defiance against erasure – is at the heart of Goldin’s practice and central to All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022), Laura Poitras’s documentary on the artist’s life and work.

Goldin’s answers to Poitras’s questions form the narration and propulsion of the film. Early on, Goldin stresses the importance of the ‘difference between the story and the real memory’, calling the latter ‘dirty’ and ‘not wrapped up in simple endings’. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed frames her work as exploring the importance of documenting real memory, frozen in time. 

Nan Goldin
Russel Hart, Nan Goldin, c.1970. Courtesy: Nan Goldin

One of Goldin’s most confrontational photographs, Nan one month after being battered (1984), depicts injuries the artist sustained at the hands of her partner after the success of her landmark film The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985). We learn that the work – a series of almost 700 still images compiled in sequence to a curated soundtrack – provoked violent jealousy in her lover. Poitras lingers on the image while Goldin details how it ‘kept [her] from going back’ to that abusive relationship – a testament to the power that can come from documenting even the bleakest moments.

Describing the subjects of her work as ‘running away from America’, Goldin tells Poitras that she ‘thought the art world was bullshit and that Times Square was real life’. She creates space away from the often-judgmental views of mainstream society, presenting scenes that are difficult to behold: the realities of domestic-abuse victims or the frank and arguably non-sensationalist snapshots of New York queer life, such as Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi (1991), which is quintessential Goldin, capturing the city’s drag queens and outsiders. 

A refusal to hide or look away animates her work as an artist and activist. In 2017, she founded Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.), a collective that campaigns against the wealthy Sackler pharmaceutical family for producing and propagating the use of the potentially addictive, over-the-counter opioid OxyContin, on which Goldin herself became dependent after a prescribed spell on the drug in 2014 to treat tendonitis in her left wrist.

Nan Goldin
Nan Goldin, Self portrait with scratched back after sex, London, 1978. Courtesy: the artist

One of the film’s first scenes shows a group of P.A.I.N. activists protesting the Sackler’s funding of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2018, by throwing pill bottles into the moat around the Temple of Dendur (10 BCE). One wears a ‘SILENCE=DEATH’ t-shirt – the slogan from the famous 1987 HIV/AIDS awareness campaign devised by Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione and Jorge Soccarás. Poitras’s film, like Goldin’s photography, refuses blindness as well as silence. 

For Goldin, looking – through the camera or retrospectively at her images – constitutes storytelling. ‘The wrong things are kept private,’ she tells Poitras. Goldin’s work is placed in the context of trying to right this wrong. Candid about the intersection between life and work, the artist says, offhand, that, as soon as she started taking photos of her friends having sex, she had to take these pictures of herself, such as Nan and Dickie in the York Motel (1980). The image is intimate but also not sensationalist, the two of them captured through a door that’s left ajar: Goldin naked from the waist down; Dickie kissing her neck.

Nan Goldin
Nan Goldin, Nan and Barbara holding hands, updated. Courtesy: the artist 

The film is haunted by the spectre of Barbara Holly Goldin, the artist’s sister, who was wrongly institutionalized and subsequently took her own life. The earliest of Goldin’s images in the film are of Barbara and her parents. In the film’s final act – after a succession of brutal Zoom calls between victims of the opioid crisis and the Sackler family – Goldin returns to reflecting on her parents and sister. She insists that if Barbara had ‘found people, if she had been loved, she would have survived’. It echoes one of the first things Goldin reveals about her sister: her queerness and her ‘need to be held’.

At the end of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Goldin’s unflinching gaze becomes a double-edged sword. She reckons with what’s lost as much as with what her art has been able to provide, saying that telling her story is not just for herself but ‘for society’. Poitras continually tries to balance these two sides of Goldin’s practice, holding the personal in one hand and a critique of silence in the other. Goldin has never kept her pain private and, with All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Poitras takes this to a new, even-more-candid level.

Laura Poitras’s All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is released internationally in January 2023.

Main image: Nan Goldin, Nan in the bathroom with Bea, Boston, c.1970. Courtesy: the artist

Abdullah Anaman
Abdullah Anamanhttps://aanaman.me
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