The art of activism, through the voice of Nan Goldin

In ‘All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,’ documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras traces the photographer’s relentless search for personal and political truth.

Nan Goldin once said that she took up photography to prove her life experiences to herself. But Goldin’s images prove much more than that: they validate those who are targeted by white cis-heteropatriarchal control systems.

This instinct was burned into her by the loss of her 18-year-old sister Barbara, who committed suicide in 1965 because her parents did not accept her lesbian identity. I saw the paper [Barbara’s] sexuality and its repression played into its destruction,” Goldin wrote in the introduction to his groundbreaking exposition, The ballad of sexual dependence. “Because of the times, in the early 1960s, women who were sexually angry were terrifying, they were outside the range of acceptable behavior, out of control. […] he saw that his only way out was to lie down on the commuter rail tracks outside of Washington, DC It was an act of immense will.” Thereafter, Goldin was adamant: “I don’t want to be susceptible to anyone else’s version of my story again. I don’t want to lose anyone’s real memory again.”

Back in the 1940s, back in the days when Weegee was photographing New York crime scenes, ordinary people climbed into the backs of vice squad vans over the “female impersonation” scandal. When Goldin took photos of that same community 40 years later, she labeled them “drag queens.” Today, many people who were previously considered “drag queens” identify as transgender. In another vein, when Goldin was a child, anyone who earned money from her through sex, as she briefly did, was called a whore or prostitute. Now, they are called sex workers. Identifiers change over time to reflect changing cultural attitudes. But the enduring criminalization, stigmatization, and subjugation of these individuals persist, regardless of the evolution of politically correct language. The oppressive disappearance of these subjects by the dominant culture continues today.

Goldin curated her first art show in 1989. It was a group show featuring creatives living with AIDS, called Witnesses: against our disappearance. This “disappearance” was an intentional act, perpetrated by the US government and the hatred of conservative fundamentalists who call themselves the “moral majority.” It was not a passive phenomenon, but rather a pointed attempt to erase certain types of people from the historical record through state-sanctioned ignorance. Goldin’s job has always been to fight this ignorance and validate the lives of what she called “the other side.” She says, we also exist.

Critics and fans have always mentioned intimacy, both in the content and composition of Goldin’s photos. But the word almost feels too simple to encapsulate its impact. The photographer’s work shines bright with unabashed elegance. There is certainly an intimacy in the way Goldin captures his smiling friends at a picnic, and a different kind of intimacy in his photographs of bruises and wounds left by an abusive boyfriend, or blackouts from his drug addiction. opiates. These photos feel “intimate” because they put personal front and center, both the good and the bad. But there is also something undeniably political about the outspoken nature of what they represent. With his battered self-portraits, Goldin compels people to look at the things men do to women. Capturing the sad fog of blackout poisoning, he denounces the greedy, violent cynicism of pharmaceutical power.

“Goldin’s job has always been to fight this ignorance and validate the lives of what she called ‘the other side.’ She says, we also exist.”

So it made sense that a fellow political artist, journalist and documentarian Laura Poitras, would create her own portrait of the photographer, All the beauty and the bloodshed. The film is a moving illumination of how a young woman became a photographer and artist, and how that artist became a practicing activist. In 2017, Goldin founded the group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) to provide support for people dealing with opioid addiction, like her, and to protest the Sackler family, who have long profited from pain. of others. Specifically, the film shows the ways in which Goldin has taken advantage of her position in the art world to pressure museums and galleries to deny future funding from the pharmaceutical giant and to remove her name from her walls.

All the beauty and the bloodshed It is elegantly composed, combining new and archival images with excerpts from the various slideshows Goldin has built throughout his career. Last year, I saw a recent work titled lost memory at the Marian Goodman Gallery. These digital images epitomize a time of blurry delirium for Goldin. OxyContin’s death grip robbed the photographer of the memories of her that she so meticulously vowed to protect. Dope wrote her own version of her story.

“I love working with a material I know: blue Valium bottles,” Goldin jokes in the film, as he was on his way to die in PAIN. The organization has protested at esteemed venues including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum, both of which have agreed to the demands: remove the Sackler name from their halls and refuse funding for the family. the sections of All the beauty and the bloodshed Related to PAIN’s activism are damning and revealing, featuring harrowing testimonies from those who have lost loved ones to the epidemic, and chilling accounts of attempted intimidation and censorship. the the majority The powerful moments of the film, however, are Goldin’s own thoughts, spoken aloud by Poitras. Goldin’s impressive voiceover ties the film together with forceful and painful memories.

The photographer candidly reflects on the first time she shared her work with curator Marvin Heiferman. He wanted to see more photos of her, so, as she recounts with a laugh of her own, “I brought him a box. And I got the taxi driver to bring up the subject of her giving him a blowjob. That was how I entered the world of art”. Goldin remembers taking the bus to Paterson, New Jersey, “shaking her butt” in nightclubs that did not require her to be topless, in order to buy movies. “Then I started in the brothel,” she continues. “That got pretty ugly. I haven’t kept many secrets in my life, but I never talked about [that time] prior to. But I think at this point in my life, I should talk about it, because of the incredible stigma that exists around sex work.” Goldin mentions Maggie Smith, owner of a Times Square bar called Tin Pan Alley, who hired the photographer to help her distance herself from her sex work. In a talk at Lincoln Center, Goldin said Smith was the first person to make her realize that her art was political.

All the beauty and the bloodshed is a deeply moving image from a monumental artist. In it, Goldin salvages true memories of her family, her lovers and dear friends, fellow artists like Jim Jarmusch, Adrienne Shelly, and those angels of a past plague: Cookie Mueller (“she was the center of life in downtown New York!”), Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowicz, whom Goldin calls his spiritual and political guide. Wojnarowicz essay for Goldin’s witnesses The show ignited the fury of the religious right, as did much of his work during the AIDS plague. “She wanted to dispel the notion of the AIDS victim. I am hardly a victim if I can resist what I see as institutionalized ignorance about this epidemic,” Wojnarowicz says in archival voiceover.

At the New York Film Festival screening, I couldn’t help but applaud when file footage showed a reporter repeating Wojnarowicz’s description of Catholic Archbishop John O’Connor (nicknamed “Cardinal O’Condom” by ACT UP, for his repudiation of the contraceptive), a “fat cannibal in a black skirt”. The audience cheered as the artist doubled down: “Since he feasts on the body of Christ, he is a cannibal. Yes, he has a penchant for black skirts. He is fat, translucent and immoral. In news footage from the time, Goldin, wearing a Silence=Death button, called the NEA’s decision to defund the program “an outbreak of McCarthyism.” Hearing this, he is not surprised that this young woman continues to have a deep understanding of the political power of anger throughout her life’s work. With All the beauty and the bloodshedPoitras shows that Nan Goldin has always been an activist as well as an artist, and a very courageous one.

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