Perhaps the most widely disseminated photographic practice is the family album, serving as a supposedly intimate witness to the rituals, large and small, that fill our lives. The fact that these albums now exist mostly online makes no difference to the roles that they fulfil. We want to mark specific occasions, events and milestones, those that can be shared with others, or moments of a more private significance. There is, as a result, something essentially sentimental about this particular use of the medium, given how it is intended to create a fixed version of the past, but it is more than a little performative as well, in that such albums allow us to be seen acting out the parts we assign to ourselves – and the parts that the culture we live in has already decided on for us. The camera legitimates those roles, demonstrating to the world – as well as to ourselves – how successfully we have lived up to the various expectations we are burdened by. It should be obvious, then, that these photographs don’t really show life as it is, that they are mostly just a succession of poses and forced grins. By contrast, Nan Goldin’s work has always served as kind of surrogate family album, but it is a radically re-imagined one, whose challenge resides in the emotional openness she long perused. At the core of Goldin’s art is a fundamental sense of acceptance and of inclusiveness; she makes her work from precisely what all conventional family albums tend to leave out.
This adaptation of ‘vernacular’ forms is much in evidence with Goldin’s exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, her first solo showing in Ireland, which, for reasons that are not immediately clear, is titled Weekend Plans.[i] The exhibition is pitched somewhere between a retrospective and a curatorial elaboration of one particular theme, in this case the close, influential friendship between Goldin and the Irish-born film-maker Vivienne Dick. In fact, a selection of Dick’s work is being exhibited at the same time, so the two shows are clearly intended to exist in dialog. Alongside numerous portraits of Dick there is a range of other works by Goldin, most notably The Ballad of Sexual Dependency slideshow, plus self-portraits and images made on two trips to Ireland in 1979 and 2002, some of which have never been exhibited before. A recent picture of Goldin standing by an open window in a haze of cigarette smoke and looking defiantly back at us, sets the tone for a subsequent group of images that centre on various depictions of femaleness, including the well-known portrait from 1980 of Dick in a green dress. Here she is also standing by a window, and also gazing back at the viewer (as well as Goldin herself, now behind the camera). Underscoring the visual link between these two images seems intended as a way of representing their long friendship, but the differences are equally striking. Goldin’s self-portrait is lit by sunlight from the window, while Dick’s portrait was made at night with flash; Dick is dressed up for going out, Goldin is wearing everyday clothes. Each obviously marks a very different time in their respective lives, but the connection between them remains, in spite of this.
A more direct pairing, one of the images quite well known, the other probably less so, also makes for a revealing insight into the concerns that drive Goldin’s practice. In the first image, a woman the caption identifies as Trixie sits on a camp bed in a flowery dress, legs crossed, smoking a cigarette. In the other, she stands atop a ladder, smoking again, but now with the dress hiked up and one hand just about covering her blood-smeared crotch, which serves at the visual and metaphorical centre of the image. This rhetoric of disclosure isn’t all that’s at stake here though, regardless of how much Goldin’s work might be touted as ‘raw’ and ‘diaristic’ in nature, a view that the exhibition literature repeats. There is also a significant tension between the deliberately exaggerated nature of Trixie’s dress and ghoulish make-up in the image of her sitting on the cot, where she appears almost doll-like, equating the markers of conventional femininity with a corrupted artifice, and the (relative) visibility of her menstruation in the other image, which at once undercuts the doll-like presentation, and yet also furthers it by alluding to the cultural tendency that reduces woman to no more than the functioning of their bodies. Showing the two images together, as they are here, is a subtly insightful piece of curation that helps to emphasise the understanding of social and sexual roles that Goldin has always demonstrated, but that is often subsumed by the reading of her work as subjective expression.
Importantly, it also helps to site Goldin’s work in relation to a cultural context of art-making and avant-garde film, including Dick’s, on whose productions she occasionally served as stills photographer. Leading into the galleries showing Dick’s work are two images made on the set of her film Liberty’s Booty. These show, first, a woman named Shelley asleep on a sofa, and then, the same woman exiting a room where we can see the silhouetted form of a man sitting on a bed behind her. This relates to a particular scene in the film showing an argument between the irate “trick” on the bed and Shelley, a sex worker, over the cost of her services.[ii] Of course, given the blend of cinema vérité techniques and performance (or reconstruction) that defines Dick’s work from this period, it isn’t made entirely clear which of the women in the film actually are sex workers and which are playing a role. Indeed, it becomes increasingly apparent that Dick views the relationship between men and women as a microcosm of the power relations that structure society, where almost all women are obliged to prostitute themselves – literally and otherwise – in order to gain some degree of advantage in a world dominated by men. This ‘structuralist’ treatment of human relationships, besides being a good deal more nuanced (and formally daring) than such an academic description can allow, also suggests some intriguing parallels between Dick’s work and Goldin’s, especially with regard to The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the particular qualities of which I outline below. Unfortunately, the present exhibition does not take the opportunity to address these in any more detail, falling back for the most part on the familiar, romanticised conception of Goldin’s practice.
In spite of this, however, Goldin’s best work has a sense of structure and a coherence that belies the wider notion of her as a self-involved exhibitionist or the chronicler of some eternal downtown demimonde. If her output is usually described as being ‘transgressive’ this is because of what the pictures show – people supposedly outside the mainstream, having sex, getting high. But there are also, and just as important, pictures of people on trains, at birthday parties, dancing, staring out windows, doing nothing at all. Everything is treated by Goldin as a legitimate experience, to her it’s all valid, all worthy of being seen, of being incorporated into the family album she is creating, one that is transgressive not just because it shows the dope or the fucking, but because she places these things on precisely the same level as the banalities that are the hallmark of every other family album. These experiences are not supposed to be visible within the photographic iconography of ‘ordinary’ life, and yet that is exactly where Goldin wants to locate them. The use of such determinately vernacular forms of photography, then, the slideshow and the snapshot, is perfectly in keeping with the inclusive basis of her work. Parallel to this, Goldin, born in 1953, is a child of post-war prosperity and of the illusions that defined those years, as well as their stifling social conformity, personified for Goldin by the repressive forces that helped drive her older sister Barbara to suicide. So, her work is also about the attempt by Goldin’s generation to reject the certainties and the expectations of their parents, to shape a new mode of living for themselves, to make new communities – new families.
At the centre of this effort, just as it is the centre of Goldin’s work, is The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Growing out of improvised and often shambolic performances at the end of the 70s, the work has gradually evolved into its present form, described here, with maddening imprecision, as consisting of “nearly 700” images. The earliest performances were silent and later Goldin presented them with live musical backing, in keeping with the fact that many of these initial showings were in clubs. Eventually the idea of using a pre-recorded soundtrack took shape; it is now an integral part of the work’s effect, with a collage of musical snippets informing how we read the images. The slideshow itself consists of numerous loosely themed sections, with each section bringing together different views of the same general subject, so there are, for example, many successive images of couples, of women looking in mirrors (sound-tracked by the Velvet Underground’s I’ll Be Your Mirror, of course), women bathing, women by themselves, men by themselves, women and men together, empty bedrooms, people in cars, people having sex, people getting high, and so on. Goldin herself has stated that she never worked at getting any “conscious metaphors” into the images and there is, I think, every reason to believe her.[iii] The pictures are obviously made spontaneously from her life and from the people or situations that interest her, but the organisation of the images in this thematic fashion is in itself suggestive.
The structuring of the work seems intended to make visible the persistence of specific patterns in our lives and in our relationships, patterns that Goldin implies we are obliged to play out again and again. The possible forms that our relationships might take are circumscribed by these patterns, by the ways we try to make our lives fit to them. In that respect, Goldin seems at least as interested in the coding of identity and of desire as she is in the specific situations or experiences being photographed. This is not to say, of course, that the work engages in anything so distanced – and distancing – as social criticism; Goldin puts herself as much on the line as anyone else here. But the precise arrangement of the Ballad, the way it traces the reoccurrence of specific experiential tropes, is fundamentally connected to the question of how people form relationships, of everything that holds them together – and keeps them apart. These are, by necessity social questions, questions that go to the very core of what it is to be human, because we are only ‘human’ with others, even if it’s just confronting our own face in the mirror. The Ballad, then, is an archive of human relationships, that for all of its diaristic immediacy, makes us aware of the conditions that transcend individual lives, although this is, obviously, where those conditions tend to play themselves out.
Its repetitive structure is also the heritage of conventional slideshows, because all family albums tend to look alike, to duplicate the same fundamental obsessions, the same absences. Goldin’s family album is no different, except she is both aware of this repetition and trying to escape its implications. One especially telling picture of Goldin’s lover Brian, who would later beat her severely, shows him glaring back at the camera, while Fred Flintstone – a literal caveman – looks over his shoulder from the television screen behind. The pull of our socially constrained roles, even of our very natures, is sometimes too much to resist.[iv] Goldin emphasises this in different ways by the contrast of music and image. These pairings might seem a little blatant at first, but putting images of men posing in their different ways against James Brown’s It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World, or women bathing with Dionne Warwick’s Don’t Make Me Over has the effect of making the apparent confidence of these sentiments feel distinctly at odds with the poses they are being contrasted to, so that the inherent limitations of both become obvious. There is also an implied progression to the different sequences, as the hunger for connection fails to overcome the seemingly unbridgeable distance that exists between men and women, and Goldin’s own life telescopes down to the end of a needle – perhaps another way of showing the visceral ‘addiction’ of romantic love. Then, in the second last section, the different couples become gradually more estranged, until finally a succession of empty beds is followed by tombstones engraved only with conventional identities (Father, Husband, Mother, Wife) rather than actual names, suggesting that the burden of such roles is almost inescapable, along with the desires that form them, confirmed by the last image of embracing skeletons.
But in that respect, and in spite of such outward fatalism, Goldin’s attention to the specifics of her own life and to the lives of those around her serves as a kind of counter-memory, which alters or undercuts many of the accepted narratives around what she is photographing. The capacity to value these experiences and identities in the way that she does is what separates her work from the documentary tradition; it is also, and more importantly, what marks the work as a means of affirming those same experiences and identities as legitimate, as having their own intrinsic value, perhaps especially queer identities, as well as different forms of intimacy between women, which emerges as a central theme of the Ballad. Women appear as friends, as lovers, as archetypes, sometimes all of these things at once, framed in terms of how they relate to each other and to themselves (hence the many images with mirrors). Above all, it is how we form and sustain relationships that concerns her here, the way people connect – and endure disconnection. That these relationships become visible, in all their ambiguity, is due in no small part to the particular photographic forms that Goldin has employed. “My work does come from the snapshot,” she has said. “People take them out of love, and they take them to remember – people, places, and times. They’re creating a history by recording a history. And that’s exactly what my work is about.”[v] At the heart of the Ballad is a desire to value, and to remember, to create a record that validated the communities she was a part of.[vi]
That the work is inherently subjective and diaristic is part of its strength, then. The pictures – and the people in them – come directly from Goldin’s own life. There is no question of her going out to find subjects to photograph or of her functioning as a kind of documentary photographer in any of these situations, except in the most literal sense of ‘documenting’ what happens. Instead she participates as a photographer. The difference is a crucial one, and it means that the images are as much a record of feeling as of fact. This aspect of Goldin’s work is most readily apparent here with images made on a trip to Ireland in 2002, where she uses the landscape as a way of registering her own mood, so in this case we get glowering skies and seascapes, a road at sunset, all measures for a particular feeling. But the immediacy and openness of Goldin’s work, which are her great strengths, also tend to become liabilities when, in the absence of some definite structure, they impose – even justify – a lack of intentionality. It is telling that when her landscape images are grouped together as they are here, largely separated from the pattern of Goldin’s own life, they tend to appear somewhat inconsequential. The failing of this work is that we can only have a vague sense of something Goldin felt or experienced, but no real understanding of what it relates to or why it should matter. Equally, while the images of Dick herself over the years that make up a good portion of the exhibition are testament to their enduring friendship, the selection is no more or less revealing than any other that could have been made from the many extended portraits of women in Goldin’s work, like those of Cookie Mueller or Suzanne Fletcher.
It is clear, then, that an output as sprawling (and at times, frankly, as uneven) as Goldin’s rewards a determined curatorial perspective. With Weekend Plans there are some glimpses of what that can mean, not least in the treatment of the Trixie pictures described earlier, and of Goldin’s self-portraits. But the selection of images, keyed as it is to her admittedly important friendship with Dick, along with an over-reliance on the novelty of previously unseen work, creates the unfortunate impression that this exhibition is a companion piece to Dick’s more conventionally realised retrospective, rather than a survey of Goldin’s work in its own right. There are other and equally valid parallels between the two artists that could perhaps have been explored, and that also would have allowed for a fuller accounting of Goldin’s achievements. As it stands, however, this narrow assortment of work emphasises weaker images and minor themes at the expense of a more meaningful overview, as well as of a deeper comparison between the two artists. In addition, too much space is given to autobiographical drawings by Goldin, which might be charming enough in themselves, but have little to tell us about her most important work. So, while the opportunity to view a foundational piece of contemporary photography like the Ballad in Ireland is certainly welcome, the exhibition as a whole is not the definitive statement it could have been.
Nan Goldin, Weekend Plans, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, June 16 – October 15, 2017.
[i] Actually, the title comes from one of Goldin’s autobiographical drawings, showing a wrist being slit and the legend “weekend plans” underneath it. It is interesting to note, however, that pre-press for the exhibition used the title Sweet Blood Call, presumably after the song of the same name by Louisiana Red that appears on the Ballad soundtrack.
[ii] The images of Trixie mentioned above were also made on the set of this film, during its closing ‘party’ scene. You can view a clip of this here: http://www.luxonline.org.uk/video/artists/vivienne_dick/libertys_booty.html
[iii] Elizabeth Sussman (ed.), I’ll Be Your Mirror, Scalo/ Whitney Museum of Modern Art, 1996, pg. 449. This retrospective catalogue is one of the best published selections of Goldin’s work, and a valuable critical resource, featuring two long interviews with the artist.
[iv] Of course, the implication here is not that men are ‘naturally’ violent and women victims, but rather than our behaviour as individuals is conditioned – sanctioned, even – by our social contexts, the norms of which are sufficiently internalised so as to appear natural.
[v] I’ll Be Your Mirror, pg. 450.
[vi] We might speculate that the diminished focus of Goldin’s work in later years can at least partly be traced to the social and psychological chasm that the AIDS epidemic opened up in her world, and in the lives of those around her, sundering the communities she so valued.