Featured in
Issue 233

Nan Goldin’s Disorienting Loss of Control

At Moderna Museet, Stockholm, the artist’s solo exhibition shows just how much her work has been absorbed into our collective imagination

BY Natasha Marie Llorens in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 28 DEC 22

‘I don’t ever want to be susceptible to anyone else’s version of my history,’ Nan Goldin writes at the end of the catalogue essay for her monumental photographic work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, published in 1986. More than 35 years later, the title of Goldin’s retrospective at Moderna Museet in Stockholm could be read as a response to that understandable desire to be in control of her own narrative: ‘This Will Not End Well.’ Goldin’s history has been absorbed into the collective cultural imagination; it has become canonical, and it is no longer hers alone.

Nan Goldin, ‘This Will Not End Well’, 2022–23, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Moderna Museet, Stockholm

The exhibition, which contains no photographic prints, is presented in fabric rooms specifically designed for Goldin’s work by architect Hala Wardé. A version of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1981–2022) is screened from a bank of whirring and clicking slide projectors stacked one on top of the other. As portraits of friends, lovers and searingly critical self-portraits click past, substance addiction and emotional addiction are presented as both self-destructive and generative. The film Memory Lost (2019–20) offers a different view of the artist’s life-long struggle with addiction. Snow-laden trees shot from the window of a rehab centre are paired with audio recordings of the artist’s friends calling to check on her. Culled from Goldin’s answering machine in the 1980s, these messages break the illusion that the artist’s experience of isolation only pertains to the recent imagery. The contrast between the gorgeous, visceral defiance that marks The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and the resounding solitude in Memory Lost is disorienting: these are two versions of the same history that don’t align.

Nan Goldin, Couple on the blue beach, n.d., from digital slideshow ‘Memory Lost’, 2019–2021. Courtesy: © Nan Goldin

With The Other Side (1992–2021), a newly edited version of another now-canonical project depicting the lives of Goldin’s friend group of drag queens and transgender people beginning in the early 1970s, the viewer is thrust back into the intense sense of community that made her work so transformative to the medium of photography. They refuse any idea of the truth of the subject that isn’t witnessed by lovers and friends, that isn’t held in a group of people bound together by a mutual sense of rejection from a normative society.

Nan Goldin, Fashion show at Second Tip, Toon, C, So and Yogo, Bangkok, 1992, from slideshow ‘The Other Side’, 1992–2021. Courtesy: © Nan Goldin

Sisters, Saints and Sibyls (2004–22) is a video slideshow drawn from photographs of Goldin’s childhood and of her sister Barbara, who committed suicide by lying in front of a train aged 16. Goldin tells her sister’s story – or tells her own story through the lens of her sister’s fate – but the result is less convincing than when she turns her camera on people who were participating actively in the intimacy of a shared moment with the photographer. Fire Leap (2010–22), composed from Goldin’s archive of children’s portraits, has a similar limitation. Though some of the shots are beautiful, there is a palpable distance between the photographer and her subjects, with the images lacking the brutal vulnerability Goldin elicits so skilfully from adults.

Nan Goldin, Bruno with the tattoo, Naples, 1995, from the digital slideshow ‘Fire Leap’, 2010–2022. Courtesy: © Nan Goldin

The last of Wardé’s silos of fabric holds Sirens (2019–21), an enigmatic video made up entirely of found footage. According to the wall label, Sirens is Goldin’s attempt to capture what it feels like to be high using other people’s films. It is the only work in ‘This Will Not End Well’ that is not taken directly from the artist’s lived experience. Freed of the imperative to tell the searing, subjective truth about her own life, in Sirens the artist expresses the vertiginous fragmentation of the senses at the height of the high, and the body’s existential inertia when it ebbs away. In doing so, Goldin resolves the fundamental challenge of conveying the incoherence and ephemerality of the experience by entirely letting go of the real.

Nan Goldin’s ‘This Will Not End Well’ is on view at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, until 26 February 2023.

Main image: Nan Goldin, French Chris on the convertible, New York City, 1979, from the slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1981–2022. Courtesy: © Nan Goldin

Natasha Marie Llorens is an independent curator and writer based in Stockholm, Sweden, where she is professor of art and theory at the Royal Institute of Art.