This Will Not End Well
29.10 2022 – 26.02 2023
Essay by curator Fredrik Liew
Nan Goldin (born in Washington, D.C., in 1953) has always wanted to be a filmmaker and contends that her slideshows are films made from stills. This retrospective exhibition is the first to take a holistic approach to Goldin’s multimedia work. In a close collaboration between Goldin and architect Hala Wardé, it has been designed as a “village” of slideshows in which each building is a unique structure made in relation to the form and content of each piece.
Hope and despair, sadness and joy, and private and political struggle coexist in this village. The ambiguity is reflected in the exhibition title, This Will Not End Well, echoing fear and foreboding, but whose dark tone also contains ironic humor and warmth, Goldin’s characteristic joie de vivre.
There are six major installations in the exhibition covering fifty years of work. Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls (2004–22), a more recent work, transports viewers to Nan Goldin’s childhood. The piece is based on the life of her older sister, Barbara Goldin, a highly sensitive person who rebelled against the strict conformity of American suburbia in the 1960s. A profound lack of understanding and tolerance led to Barbara’s death by suicide at the age of eighteen. Nan was eleven at the time.The narrative takes shape through family photographs, documents, filmed recordings, and a monotone voiceover. With medieval choral music and religious motifs from art history, Goldin ties the story of her sister to the legend of Saint Barbara, a maiden who was locked away by her pagan father to protect her from the gazes of men. Saint Barbara was ultimately beheaded by her own father for defying the patriarchal order and asserting her Christian faith.
Goldin recounts her close relationship with her sister and the forces that drove her to take her own life, including how Barbara’s fate was shaped by a toxic family who feared the sexuality and anger of a girl-child. Goldin also tells the story of her own institutionalization and self-harm in direct relationship to her sister’s history. As in all her work, Goldin fights against stigma, in this case the stigma of depression and suicide.
Themes of a life beyond norms and of the search for a new kind of relationships are central to Goldin’sartistic practice and can be understood in part through this coming-of-age tale.
Friends and Slides
At the age of fifteen Goldin moved into a commune and attended Satya Community School in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Satya applied an alternative educational philosophy based on a school in England called Summerhill, whose unconventional methods gave students the freedom to decide whether or not to attend lessons and an equal vote on school matters. As classes were not compulsory, Goldin and her friends went to the cinema almost every day. This made a big impression on Goldin’s early creativity, and it was then that she realized she wanted to be a filmmaker. When teachers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, were able to secure a donation of Polaroids for the school, Goldin found her voice through photography. The people she first photographed were those with whom she developed lifelong friendships.
After Satya, Goldin moved in with a group of her friends who were drag queens in Boston in the early 1970s. Her photographs from that period were her first body of work and paid homage to the beauty of her friends and the life they lived together, centering around a bar called The Other Side. During this time, she decided to push her work further by going to art school, where she had her first encounter with the history of photography.
While at art school she had no access to a darkroom to develop and print images, so she began working with slides to present her work. This soon developed into a practice of making slideshows. The photographs from the years with the queens in Boston were later made into a book and a slideshow work called The Other Side (1992–2021).
Goldin moved to New York in 1978 and began working on what was to be her first major slideshow: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1981–2022). The Ballad consists of images from Goldin’s various lives and relationships over many years, telling stories of love, intimacy, connection, beauty, pain, and loss. It essentially depicts her nonbiological family as it evolved from Satya forward.
The Ballad tells of the struggle between autonomy and dependency in relationships. It is edited into chapters that range from gender identity, violence against women, parties, and gossip, to children, prostitution, and sexual relationships both violent and tender. It has become a landmark in art history, and it is hard to relate to the fact that in the 1970s and early 1980s Goldin was repeatedly told that there was no such thing as a good woman artist.
The Ballad is dedicated to the many people lost to the AIDS crisis that decimated Goldin’s community. In the late 1980s Goldin turned her losses into activism, and she curated the first major show in New York about AIDS, which turned into a national controversy.
Goldin’s love of slideshows is based on the medium’s conduciveness to constant reediting and updating to reflect her changing view of the world. She has never shown the same version of The Ballad twice, as it continues to evolve.
The Ballad remained the focus of Goldin’s practice—and the only slideshow—until the early 1990s, when she began working on other narratives. The new works include the abovementioned works The Other Side and Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls, as well as Fire Leap (2010–22), a portrayal of children and all their complexities.
The slideshows that she developed over the coming decades included both new images and photographs that were part of The Ballad, featuring them in different contexts. Goldin’s reuse of the same photographs in different works unleashes the potential of the individual image by suspending its singularity. While framed photographs invite closer inspection, in the slideshows the images are driven by a soundtrack, a narrative, and a rhythm, with each picture being projected for only a few seconds. The individual motifs are presented without titles, dates, geographical references, and other information. Such hallmarks that are usually associated with the photographic image are abandoned for a larger whole.
Personal and Political
In 2019 Goldin created a new major work, Memory Lost, that tells of the dark side of drug addiction. By immersing the viewer in the experience of withdrawal through the use of blurred images, claustrophobic rooms, and dark landscapes, it evokes a strong sense of anxiety and entrapment.
For the first time Goldin invited composers to write a score. The music ranges from an emotionally charged piece commissioned from composer and instrumentalist Mica Levi to the operatic voices of Soundwalk Collective and the pure cacophony of CJ Calderwood. The soundtrack also includes archival recordings from telephone answering machines and interviews with friends who experienced drug addiction. Signs of desperation, loss, and abandonment testify to individual life as a collective experience.
While working on Memory Lost, Goldin created the companion piece Sirens (2019–20), which shows the pleasure and sensuality that drugs can induce. Sirens echoes the enchanting call of the Sirens from Greek mythology who lured sailors to their untimely deaths on rocky shores. It is the first work that Goldincreated entirely using found footage. Playfully composed of scenes taken from films by directors such as Kenneth Anger, Lynne Ramsay, and Henri-GeorgesClouzot. A central feature of Sirens is a seductive whistle composed by Mica Levi that draws the audience into the work.
The meaning of sound is crucial in all of Goldin’s slideshows. The music she has chosen for The Ballad of Sexual Dependency adds subtext and contextual links to the point where it is inseparable from the images. The choir and Goldin’s voice in Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls convey and reinforce the work’s heartbreaking subject matter. The interviews and phone recordings in Memory Lost take us directly into the painful experience, and the soundtrack of Fire Leap is entirely composed of children’s voices singing songs such as “Desperado” and “Space Oddity.”
As this exhibition reflects, Nan Goldin’s work has always been personal and political. Her experience of the AIDS crisis prompted Goldin to form the group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) in 2017, focusing on a contemporary epidemic: the overdose crisis. Since the late 1990s, the consumption of prescription opioids has skyrocketed due to aggressive and unethical marketing. These drugs, which are highly addictive and extremely risky in the event of an overdose, generate vast profits for large pharmaceutical companies that turn a blind eye to the addiction and deaths they cause. The numbers of the overdose crisis continue to rise, with over one thousand people dying in 2021.
P.A.I.N.’s mission is to compel museums to acknowledge their relationship to dark money, particularly from the Sackler dynasty, which owns a large pharmaceutical company and has given huge donations to cultural institutions. In 2019, after a number of successful campaigns and significant media attention, the art world began responding to the group’s calls by turning down donations from the Sacklers and removing the donor’s name from museum walls. Goldin was also involved in a spinoff group called OxyJustice that followed the Sacklers into bankruptcy court, resulting in a settlement of six billion dollars from the Sackler’s massive fortune.
Goldin continues to fight against the stigma attached to using drugs. P.A.I.N. is currently focused on supporting various organizations engaged in harm reduction to keep drug users alive.
The history of photography has a long tradition of claims to objectivity and truth. Nan Goldin, however, differs from most photographers and filmmakers in her approach. Instead of being a spectator, she works from within her direct experience. Life, community, and the collective determine her work. Using multifaceted techniques such as slideshows, films, books, curation, and activism, Goldin tells stories that are not always told or heard. Her output depends on the human need to share and affirm others. Goldin’s work reflects her rare ability to remain curious, listen, and participate—over fifty years on from when she first began inserting slides into her Kodak carousel on the Lower East Side of New York.
More about the exhibition