Nan Goldin. Devil’s playground

From 23 October 2002 to 13 January 2003

Curated by Catherine Lampert in association with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev for the Castello di Rivoli venue

October 23, 2002 – January 13, 2003

Nan Goldin’s art evokes what personal memory fails to preserve – a person’s glance, the texture of skin, or the feel of flesh. At the same time, her art visualizes what characterizes personal memory and distinguishes it from the collective – the way we have of ‘filing away’ life in idiosyncratic fashion, like a fluid and changing universe of traces and details, and without objective relationships of scale among the various memories.

Goldin wants to remember her personal life in every detail; people encountered, experiences shared, emotions felt, relationships that endure over time.

Sometimes she does not decide what she thinks of a person until she has photographed that person: and so photography provides her with a tool to free her fears and a guide for ‘translating’, grasping and understanding her own life. By analogy, and a bit by emulation, those who look at her works sharpen their sensibilities and ‘see’ intensely, empathetically, more.

The fresco that Goldin has composed over the course of a life measured by encounters in various places, from New York to Tokyo, from Paris to Naples, greatly resembles a comédie humaine, a

large collective portrait made up of many characters, each captured individually. It is a hymn to humanity in its joys and sorrows, its desires and desperations. Above all, her images are portraits of friends, alone, or often in couples. There are also some self-portraits of particular intensity, as well as portraits of children. The same people are photographed at different moments in their lives, marking relationships that continue in time and that constitute that very close ‘family’ of friends by whom Goldin loves to be surrounded. The titles of the works tell us the names of these friends, making them familiar: Suzanne Crying, New York, 1985; Cookie and Vittorio’s Wedding, New York, 1986; Joey at the Love Ball, New York, 1991, etc. Their succession of images becomes our album of memories. We see them sleeping, dancing, showering, making love, together at parties, waiting, crying, nursing, on the beach, in the pool, in bars, in hotel rooms. Sometimes we see them taking drugs, or with an already veiled and euphoric gaze. Goldin’s point of view is charged with compassion, and she captures the melancholy on these faces. She makes no judgement and restores an individual identity to those who usually remain faceless and removed from society, as in the case of her gay and transvestite friends, those living with AIDS, and the outsider world in general. In recent years, Goldin also has photographed magical landscapes like the intensely blue sea in a grotto in Capri, the Stromboli volcano steaming at dawn, ex-votos in Somma Vesuviana, or the smoking tar pits of Solfatara near Pozzuoli. In these images of landscapes or personal and romantic still-lifes, friends are fleeting presences, only shadows, or they become portraits

of places imbued with memory, sometimes crises.

Historically, photography was a technique developed to faithfully reproduce reality. However, in the postmodern era of the society of spectacle, it increasingly has become a technique for inventing a parallel reality, a fiction, or a simulacrum. Goldin is not a postmodern artist. Instead she is a modern photographer, someone who still believes in the capacity of the photographic image to represent the truth, to indicate and make a memorial from authentic experiences. Goldin’s art is also one of the clearest manifestations of the vitality of the realist tradition today, that tradition in literature and painting where everyday life and the most humble of beings are represented with dignity.

Born in Washington D.C. in 1953, the artist spent her early childhood in a typical residential neighborhood of the great American suburbs. When Nan was eleven years old, her older sister, Barbara Holly Goldin, committed suicide. This dramatic event became a key element in the artist’s subsequent life. She left home at fourteen years old, first for foster homes and then living in communes. At around the age of fifteen, Goldin began taking photographs with the intention of creating a visual diary of her everyday life. Photography also became a mechanism for working through loss, and for preserving this loss ad infinitum. Every shot is the maximum moment of an encounter, that instant that inevitably precedes separation, the lens that closes, darkness. Love and preserving life are intimately connected in this persistently vital and erotic art.

And so while still a teenager, she began to shoot ‘snapshots’, thousands of images, like most young people did during the 1970s and 1980s – before computers. At the same time, Goldin obsessively filled written diaries, notebook after notebook.

After attending the Boston School of Fine Arts, Goldin moved to New York in 1978, drawn by the myth of the artist’s life in the big city. She became immersed in the intense climate of the East Village in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with its parties, music, film scene, drugs, and both heterosexual and homosexual sexual experiences. In the Times Square bar where she worked to earn money, or at underground cinemas and downtown clubs, she projected unique slide shows. This was the genesis of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1981-1996), one of her masterpieces. This multimedia work is made up of more than seven hundred slides projected and accompanied by musical passages that serve as the narrative voice. In 1986 it was published as a book of photographs.

Encountering the installation is a continuous emotion: the musical background is a collage of the eclectic music the artist loves; the projected images run along the wall in incessant fashion, from the photo of a birthday party in 1981, with Goldin seated in ‘her’ boyfriend’s arms, to other embracing couples, to friends who cry while they confide in Nan, to women in bathtubs, to people drinking: “It’s ultimately about how difficult it is to couple, says the artist, and how intense the need is.” Looking at all these lives, all these desires and moments of solitude induces in the viewer a sense of emotional overdose, something like looking at the details of every figure in a representation of hell in a Medieval Last Judgment.

In 1996 a major retrospective of Goldin’s art was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Titled “I’ll Be Your Mirror“, it brought together powerful images expressing the range of joys and sorrows that her work had reflected up to then. This new traveling exhibition, “Devil’s Playground”, began its tour at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 2001 with subsequent venues at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, and the Museu Serralves, Porto. It includes two of her noted slide shows, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1981 – 1996) and Heartbeat (2001) which was made specifically for this exhibition with music by Björk. It also presents over three hundred prints of photographs taken since the 1970s, with a particular attention towards her recent works.

Over half of the pictures were created since 2000 and after her move from New York to Paris, where she currently lives. They are grouped symphonically in large families of images hung salon style, and sometimes as entire room installations. These groups of pictures include themes titled “The Other Side”, “Recovery”, “AIDS”, “First Love”, “Mon am'”, “Elements” and “Still on Earth”. In “First Love”, we see different moments of desire and tenderness in the life of her young nephew and his first lover (Simon and Jessica on the Metro, Paris, 2001; Simon and Jessica Kissing in my Shower, Paris, 2001; etc.) while “Mon am'” portrays another more mature couple of friends, with occasional apparitions of the woman’s child (Valerie and Bruno Sex, Hand on Wall, Paris, 2001; Valerie, Bruno and Mel Laughing in Bed, Paris, 2001; etc.). Since the mid-1990s, Goldin’s images have become more tender and more infused with light, more about connection than alienation. The underlying theme of survival – the artist’s own as well as that of others – is present throughout Goldin’s oeuvre – but it emerges forcefully in these recent pictures, after the loss of many of her friends to AIDS and drugs over the years.

The mysteryof loss, the depth of feelings it arouses, as well as the spiritual longing it triggers, are also expressed through powerful images of relics, ex-voto and religious images (Skulls and Tears, Chapel of Salpétrière, Paris, 1999; Masectomy ex-voto, Madonna dell’Arco, Somma Vesuviana, 1996). People are portrayed always with empathy both indoors and outdoors as they blend into and lose themselves in their surrounding landscape, while at the same time the landscape becomes personal and intimate, almost portraiture. In the intensely haunting images of this “Devil’s Playground“, the sky and the sea are not totally separate, and the air becomes thick. Similarly to the sensation of being in water, the body becomes continuous with place. The Self expands in time and in space, with Goldin’s camera gazing upon infants (Ulrike, Stockholm, 1998) as well as the elderly approaching death (Guido with his Mother, Grandmother and Shadow, Torino, 1999), and she portrays the mysterious ecstatic moments of intimate love-making, moments when sexual merging means momentarily losing the boundaries that we construct for our ‘selves’ in public life. In this indistinct, fluid universe of shimmering sea and hazy light, she portrays the subtle and constant shifts in tone and mood, the soul-searching and infinite changes that qualify humanity at its best.

Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

From 23 October 2002 to 13 January 2003