Much was written about the New York art scene of the 1980s and the way a new generation of artists found the exploration of the self relevant in a broader social and political context. The city was bankrupt, the rents were low, and various places functioned as off-exhibition places and clubs where young people used to meet, exchange ideas, create, and party. However, that electrifying atmosphere was largely disrupted with the appearance of AIDS and the beginning of cultural wars.
Among the most prominent photographers of that period was the woman who gravitated in the realm of gender and sexual politics. Nan Goldin managed to capture the essence of that period by taking shots of her friends and their life events, emotional and health states, and their addictions. Throughout the years, she received critical recognition and has become one of the leading American photographers of the second half of the 20th century.
In recent years, Goldin gained public attention for her activism regarding the opioid epidemic, as well as captivating series of work equally engaging as her early works. For all that, we decided to speak about Nan Goldin as the Widewalls Artist of the Year 2019.
Celebrated for her work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (titled after a song in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera) made in 1986, Nan Goldin once stated that photography saved her life. As a matter of fact, if looking closely ever since her late teens, this prolific artistic figure was using the camera to intimately depict her own life and the lives of her friends belonging to the margin. These uncompromising and sometimes unsettling photographs reflect her desire as she once stated - "to leave a record of my life that no one can revise."
Goldin was born into an intellectual Jewish family in the suburbs of Washington D.C. The suicide of her older sister Barbara that occurred when she was eleven impacted her greatly, and she left home at fourteen. Shortly afterwards, she started taking photographs of her friendships. In 1978, she moved to New York and became part of an underground circle of friends and lovers who became her surrogate family. The images made during this period show the atmosphere before the AIDS crisis.
At one point, Goldin started staging slideshow performances of her photographs by continually re-editing the selections and sequences. The project grew in scale as time went by, featuring themes such as gender, love, sexuality, and domesticity. Since 1995, Goldin has been collaborating with the famed Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, to depict uncanny landscapes, New York City skylines, her lover Siobhan, as well as babies, parenthood and family life. She even worked with commercial fashion brands such as Jimmy Choo and Dior.
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In 2017, Nan Goldin revealed she was recovering from opioid addiction caused by OxyContin, the drug prescribed to her for the pain in her wrist. She battled through rehabilitation, after which she decided to launch a campaign called Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.), aimed to pursue the famous Sackler family for their involvement in the company Purdue Pharma, manufacturers of OxyContin. Goldin stated that the campaign tends to make the patron contributions of the Sackler family to art institutions and universities even with a lack of responsibility taken for the opioid crisis.
P.A.I.N. insists that the Sackler Family should admit their fault and that they fund opioid addiction treatment programs. According to them, behind the family’s financial support of the mentioned institutions is an agenda of improving their public image, regardless of the scandalous addiction caused by the medicine produced by the Sackler’s company. Therefore, P.A.I.N. has been organizing protests in front of museums and cultural institutions such as The Smithsonian, THe Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Guggenheim Museum, The Louvre, and more recently The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, demanding that they reject the Sackler donations and remove their name from their facilities, until the corporation takes the responsibility and funds rehabilitation and public education projects.
During 2019, Goldin and twelve other members of P.A.I.N. were arrested during a large protest centered on New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo's lack of action on the opioid epidemic. In the meantime, Purdue Pharma received numerous lawsuits and recently filed for bankruptcy, while the Sackler Trust stopped the donations earlier this year.
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#Repost @time ・・・ @nangoldinstudio leads a die-in demonstration against the Sackler family at the @Guggenheim Museum in New York in February. The protest was organized by Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, a group founded by the photographer following her recovery from an addiction to OxyContin, the drug manufactured by the Sackler family's Purdue Pharma. This image is included in TIME's annual selection of the year's Top 100 Photos. See the full list at the link in bio. Photograph by @elizabethbick
Alongside her activism, Nan Goldin has been continually exhibiting her photography around the globe.
Currently on display at Marian Goodman Gallery in London is her latest body of work titled The Sirens. For this occasion, her historical works are contrasted with debuting three new video works.
The slideshow Memory Lost revisits Goldin’s exploration of drug addiction; this assemblage of intimate imagery offers a highly emotional articulation of memory of addiction followed by a new score commissioned from composer Mica Levi. The second video work which bears the exhibition title Sirens was made from found footage and is also followed by Levi’s music.
The Other Side is a slideshow originally made in 1994 as an homage to Goldin’s transgender friends marking her one of the first artists to represent this diverse community. The installment also includes new three-channel video installation Salome (2019), based on a series of landscape photographs taken during the 2000s in France, Brazil, Italy, and Ireland. The exhibition has been already welcomed by the art critics, indicating the continuity and unpretentious devotion to certain subjects.
In 2019, Nan Goldin was also pronounced one of the most influential art figures in the past twelve months according to the recently revealed ArtReview Power 100 list made by a panel of 30 art professionals around the globe.
Finally, it is clear why we appointed the renowned photographer our artist of the year. It is not only because of her exceptional domains and contribution to photography, but also for her ongoing concern for the social and political aspects related to human well-being.
Editors’ Tip: Nan Goldin: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency
First published in 1986, Nan Goldin's The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a visual diary chronicling the struggles for intimacy and understanding among the friends and lovers whom Goldin describes as her tribe. These photographs described a lifestyle that was visceral, charged and seething with a raw appetite for living, and the book soon became the swan song for an era that reached its peak in the early 1980s. Twenty-five years later, Goldin's lush color photography and candid style still demand that the viewer encounter their profound intensity head-on. As she writes: Real memory, which these pictures trigger, is an invocation of the color, smell, sound and physical presence, the density and flavor of life. Through an accurate and detailed record of Goldin's life, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency records a personal odyssey as well as a more universal understanding of the different languages men and women speak. The book's influence on photography and other aesthetic realms has continued to grow, making it a classic of contemporary photography. This anniversary edition features all-new image separations produced using state-of-the-art technologies and specially prepared reproduction files, which offer a lush, immersive experience of this touchstone monograph.
Featured images: Nan Goldin, P.A.I.N. protests, via sacklerpain.org.