in Frieze | 05 SEP 93
Featured in
Issue 12

Making Up is Hard to Do

Nan Goldin

in Frieze | 05 SEP 93

"While I was away in 1988 Cookie got sick. When I came back to see her in August 1989 the ettects of AIDS had robbed her of her ability to talk. But when I hotographed her she spoke to me, she was as present as ever. I used to think I couldn't lose anyone or anything if I photographed them enough. I put together this series of pic-tures of Cookie from over the 13 years I knew her in order to keep her with me. In fact it shows me how much I've lost."

Nan Goldin was born in 1953, in Washington DC. When she was eleven years old, her sister commit-ted suicide. Her sister's psychiatrist predicted the same fate for her. Goldin ran away from home at 14, and started taking photographs when she was 18 - the same age that her sister committed suicide. Initially, Goldin took Polaroids, then she shot movies on Super 8 and finally she started taking regular photographs. She went to the New England School of Photography, ostensibly to learn about fashion photography. Describing herself as 'too confused, technically' to shoot fashion, she ended up taking a straight 35mm photography course. Emotionally and visually, Goldin's early influences were Boston transvestites, Hollywood movies from the 30s and 40s,early Warhol films and European cinema. She was introduced by Henry Hornstein to the work of Arbus, Weegee and Sander. Ln the mid 70s,Goldin began her photographic diary The Ballad of Sexual Dependency - the audio-visual work which was later published in book form. Goldin had travelled between America, the UK, Germany and the Far East. She took a lot of drugs, and was treated for alcoholism. She recorded the life and death of her best friend, Cookie Mueller. Most recently, she has published a book of photographs of her extended family of transvestites and transsexuals - 'the third gender'- which is entitled The Other Side. Over the last two decades her body of work has made articulate, with terrifying eloquence, a vivid element of the human condition.

Read back, Nan Goldin's life has all the qualities of exposure and suffering which are traditionally ascribed to the mythic character of the romantic artist. Her temperament and her love have taken her into the half-world of a genuine bohemia; she has seen many of her friends and fellow-travellers die from drugs and AIDS-related illnesses. She has recorded, photographically, that portion of society which is divorced from the usual restraints and support systems that service and control contemporary urban life. She could be a Rimbaud, a Genet, a Pasolini or a Hubert Selby Junior - ripe for early death and a place in immortality as a 'cult' artist. Cult artists, more often than not, end up as mounted specimens of exotica in the museum of cultural history. We marvel at their romanticism and their endurance; we study them as pioneers sent out to the extreme edges of experience, in the hope that they will bring us back reports from the depths and heights of existence. We expect the cult romantics, in many ways, to have paid the ultimate price for their art. But Goldin, to my mind, is neither a cult artist nor a romantic - despite the evidence of her subject matter. Her aesthetic runs too deep to localise her work to one specific, lurid milieu. If Goldin was a writer, she would be closer to Chekhov than Kathy Acker or William Burroughs. Her photographs, individually and collectively, tell stories drawn from her lived experience. Their lucidity and honesty grants their narrative a universal signifi-cance. Like Dickens, Goldin can investigate joy and suffering in a way which holds a mirror to her times. And, as her photography is almost the equivalent of a first-person narrative, Goldin manages to be - like Flaubert's definition of the artist - both everywhere and invisible in the landscape of her work. She has expressed herself and her world, and this is a task at which few succeed.

Goldin's subjects, particularly in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency are personal and domestic; her friends and loved ones are photographed in con-texts and moments of extreme intimacy: the viewer is placed in the immediate environment of the photograph, and is thus exposed, as in real life, to the shock of undisguised and untreated emotion. And yet these images have the stillness, and the archival sense, of photographs in a family album. There is the sense that we are being granted access to a private world, only in Goldin's work, with her permission, we are not merely voyeurs. We are being shown truth.

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency describes directly, as a book or a slide presentation, the lives and loves of a group of young people. Ballad comprises over 700 images,as well as a sound-track. One witnesses the succession of photographs, as opposed to looking at them. It is not a comfort-able journey because it exposes our frailties and our affectations, our hopelessness and cruelty, as well as our hopes and desires. In her introduction, Goldin writes: 'I don't select people in order to photograph them; l photograph directly from my life. These pictures come out of relationships, not observation.' There is an absence of self-consciousness in Ballad which makes several of the photographs almost embarrassing to look at; like watching a drunk at a party, or an addict in a shop, there are moments when one is both shocked and intrigued to see how close to the surface of everyday life the more violent expressions of emotion can be. These images, whilst dealing with facets of behaviour which engage our emotions and our sympathy, have been strangely de-politicised; our response, hopefully, is compas-sionate and humane towards art which respects and celebrates life, whilst mourning the manner in which we can abuse it.

Studying Goldin's photographs, it becomes tempting to believe that her life is only realised for her when it is being photographed. It is as though the theme of addiction and co-dependency, which runs through Goldin's work, is equally apparent in her own addiction to recording her life on film. In The Ballad of Sexual Dependency we are made privy to what Max Kozloff has accurately described as 'the common pleasure site and private hell' of many different sorts of addict: there are drug addicts, pain addicts, emotional addicts, couples who are addict-ed to one another (both joyously and destructively.) The Ballad runs like a lexicon of extreme emotional states, in which couples and individuals attempt to realise their desires, or are caught in moments of bewilderment and perplexity, trying to calculate the temper of their situations. My final reaction to The Ballad is that it documents a decade of excess which resulted in spiritual and physical sickness. Goldin photographs the body in such a way as to reveal both its corporeality (in the manner of Stanley Spencer's paintings, or Egon Schiele's drawings) and its vulnerability. Whether a person is pho-tographed washing, dancing, hugging or masturbat-ing, there is an openness to the image which suggests the wounds and illness that lifestyles can inflict. The effects of drugs, batterings, and AIDS related illness hang over these photographs like the exorbitant bill for a ten year party at which nobody had much fun in the first place. And the final message of these photographs, to my mind, is the contemporary demand that everyone wants to get well. In the 90s there is a sense that we are all in recovery; that whilst our metaphors used to be financial, they are now rooted in illness, treatment and survival to convalescence.

If Nan Goldin's photographs are essentially de-politicised, as I believe they are, then they reinvent the need for the viewer to face their own emotional response to the individual images. In The Ballad, the men appear chauvinistic and self-obsessed. In the portraits of Brian in particular, Goldin seems to have created two texts within the photographs: the first is a study of affection (love, even) and desire; the second is a sense of pity at the little boy confidence, and ultimate naivety, of the rugged male. The men in Goldin's Ballad look like clichéd characters from a Tom Waits song: they draw moodily on filterless cigarettes, they swig from the bottle, they lie naked and defenceless in shabby hotel rooms: there is an animal quality to these studies. And rightly so: it has been frequently said that one of Goldin's most powerful photographs is Nan after being battered (1984); in this horrific self-portrait, Goldin confronts her own camera with bloodied eyes and a swollen face; her expression seems to accuse her boyfriend (who beat her up) whilst also offering itself (ironical-ly?) for dispassionate inspection. The relationships between men and women in Goldin's photographs- as distinct from relationships between women or gay men - are documented as volatile, oblivious, or obsessive. During an interview in 1990, Goldin said: 'People cling together. lt's a biochemical reaction, it stimulates that part of your brain that is only satis-fied by love, heroin or chocolate." Clinging together can create either comfort or claustrophobia; once more, the theme of sickness, and the desire for recovery, is raised in Goldin's work.

If The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a photo-graphic diary which documents the emotional spectrum of living and surviving, and takes on board the presence of death as well as the process of living, then The Other Side, her recently published study of transsexuals and transvestites, is a celebra-tion of survival which champions strength and beauty in the face of sickness and danger. In her introduction to The Other Side, Goldin writes: 'After years of experiencing and photographing the struggle of the two genders with their codes and definitions, and their difficulties in relating to each other, it was liberating to meet people who had crossed these gender boundaries. Most people get scared when they can't categorise others - by race, by age, and, most of all, by gender. It takes nerve to walk down the street when you fall between the cracks. Some of my friends shift genders daily from boy to girl and back again." The queens in The Other Side (Goldin herself uses the term 'queen' to describe her subjects) are photographed with affection and, in some cases, awe. One is immedi-ately struck by the brilliance of the colours, and the ultra-femininity of the models. Many of them, (Kim and Joey, in particular) have the looks and image of a pin-up girl: their transsexuality is ultimately heterosexual, corresponding as it does with tradi-tional, heterosexual notions of glamour and sexiness. In this sense, the queens in The Other Side appear to be having the last laugh in a world such as Goldin's, where sexuality can be so difficult, and notions of togetherness and identity so embittered. The glamour of Warhol's superstar drag queens and transsexuals (with specific reference to Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn) was ground-breaking in its mimesis of genuine feminine glamour. The strength of queens, as well as their ironic code of behaviour, is developed in these portraits of Nan's friends. There is a gentleness about many of the photographs (Joey and Andres after kissing, Berlin (1992) and Jimmy Paulette and Tabboo! In the bathroom, NYC (1991) which - excuse the term - is 'life affirming'. Whilst some of the transsexuals, particularly those in Bangkok, appear as natural feminine beauties, others such as Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi, NYC (1991) are truly 'third gender': caked in make-up, and dressed in a kind of disco/Top Shop neo-punk, Misty and Jimmy Paulette confront the lens with heavy-lidded inscrutability. They could be Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot - presenting themselves as comic and mock-heroic in their glamour; or they could represent, in their combined expressions, a contemporary Sphinx - with or without a riddle.

The playfulness in Goldin's portraits of queens is brought to the photographs by their subjects, just as the tension and frailty within The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is encountered, as opposed to invoked, within the image. The Other Side, in some ways, can be seen as an answering hopefulness and celebra-tion to the darkness and illness of The Ballad. To have captured both sides of this perception of life grants Goldin a kind of saintliness within the world she documents. This is not to sentimentalise or romanticise Nan Goldin, but rather to describe her as an artist who, at a time when metaphor and mediation are used within the arts to stylise reality into something more bearable, has the bravery to confront the real world eye to eye, and faithfully record what she sees. So much of contemporary life is presumed illegible, because of its size, complexity or horror. Nan Goldin, by looking hard at what gives her pleasure, and harder at what gives her pain, reclaims lost areas of compassion and humanity from the tyranny of fashionable nihilism.

1. Nan Goldin: Conclusion of handwritten statement to accompany the exhibition 'Cookie Mueller: March 2,1949 - November 10,1989'
2. Max Kozloff: The Family of Nan, in Art in America, Nov 1987,pp.39-43
4. The Other Side; Pub.Comerhouse Publications,
Manchester and Scalo Publishers, New York, 1993