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The visual storyteller: Nan Goldin

Immersing in Nan Goldin's visionary realm in her retrospective, This Will Not End Well, we embark on an exploration of the evolving landscape of imagery in her art, seamlessly fusing her artistic journey with photography and film. Nan Goldin's retrospective, This Will Not End Well, initially premiered at Moderna Museet in 2022, now continues its journey at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam until January 28, 2024


Words: Zeynep Gülçur


Nan Goldin, Teri with her dog in a taxi, New York, 1987, © Nan Goldin


This Will Not End Well is the first exhibition to present a comprehensive overview of Nan Goldin’s work as a filmmaker. The exhibition is installed in six unique buildings designed by Hala Wardé, Lebanese/French architect who frequently works with Nan. Each building is crafted in direct response to the particular artwork it houses.


Nan's fondness for slideshows stems from the medium's flexibility to undergo constant re-editing and updating, allowing her to mirror her evolving perspective of the world. Notably, she has never exhibited the same version of The Ballad (1981–2022) twice, as it remains an ever-evolving creation.


This approach to her work not only showcases her dynamic and evolving artistic identity but also places her within a broader context of art and photography. Conceptual art played a pivotal role in the transformation of photography's artistic standing, and discussions about art frequently revolved around the experience of images. Critics like Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes approached photography with a profound sense of its significance as art, artifact, and a cultural signifier. With This Will Not End Well, Nan is not only continuing her exploration of photography but also pushing the boundaries of contemporary photography to new heights, yet again, she becomes part of a broader conversation about the evolving role of imagery in our culture.


Nan Goldin, Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi, NYC, 1991, © Nan Goldin


But what led to the shift in Nan’s life where, after five decades of presenting The Ballad in her signature format of slideshows, she is now embracing the title of "filmmaker"? It's worth noting that I will not label Nan as simply a filmmaker, not because she isn't one, but because she transcends that role and encompasses so much more.


As Susan Sontag puts it, "In almost every case, our manner of appearing is our manner of being. The mask is the face." The idea that our external presentation often reflects our true nature and that the face we show the world is intimately linked to our inner selves. As for Nan, her work and her life are intricately intertwined in a symbiotic embrace. To attempt to separate her creative endeavors from her personal journey would, at best, seem unfeasible.


Nan Goldin, Mark and Mark, Boston, 1978. © Nan Goldin.

Did Nan Goldin's collaboration with the director Laura Poitras help her realize more about her qualities as a filmmaker? Certainly, the partnership with Poitras opened new doors and perspectives, making Nan realize the powerful impact her storytelling could have on the big screen. The creation of the documentary All The Beauty And The Bloodshed stands as a powerful act of activism, leaving a lasting mark by holding the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, accountable for the opioid crisis. It has ignited vital conversations about the ethical dilemmas entwined with billionaire philanthropy, bringing these issues to the forefront. Throughout this journey, it has done more than just showcase Nan as an artist with a powerful activist voice. It has also pushed the frontiers of contemporary photography and filmmaking, compelling them to act as tools for driving social change and justice.


“Objectivity is the very essence of photography” the photographer Paul Strand once said, however, Nan stands apart from many photographers in her distinctive approach. Rather than adopting a spectator's stance, she operates from within. Her work is rooted in life, community, and the collective, making these elements central to her artistic expression.


What we're witnessing here is a comprehensive autobiographical creation, with six major installations covering fifty years of work, each representing a fundamental pillar of Nan's life.


Nan Goldin, Sisters, Saints and Sibyls, 2004–2022, Installation view This Will Not End Well, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Fotoğraf: Peter Tijhuis


Unlike framed photographs that encourage in-depth examination, in Nan’s slideshows, the images are propelled by a soundtrack, a narrative, and a rhythmic flow, with each picture displayed for only a brief moment. Notably, the individual images are presented without titles, dates, geographical references, or other accompanying information. These conventional markers typically associated with photographic images are deliberately discarded in favor of a broader, interconnected narrative.


The renowned The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1981–2022), a 41-minute and 52-second emotionally charged slideshow comprising seven hundred slides accompanied by diverse eclectic music. Begun its life in the New York club scene in the late 1970s, it is organized into chapters that cover a wide range of themes, including gender identity, violence against women, parties, children, prostitution, and both violent and tender sexual relationships. It has become a landmark in art history. Constantly re-edited and updated, this version is meeting with the audience for the first time.


Nan regards these works as “most important work ever done”, emphasizing them as "films created through still images”. Upon viewing The Ballad, one may be reminded of Chris Marker's iconic 1963 film, La Jetée. Marker's La Jetée is recognized as one of the most influential and pioneering sci-fi films in cinematic history, as it weaves a tale of time travel constructed primarily from still photographs. In this context, if Chris Marker can be considered one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema, Nan undeniably deserves the title of filmmaker.


Nan Goldin, This Will Not End Well, Installation view, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Fotoğraf: Peter Tijhuis

For her work Memory Lost (2019–2021), Nan made a departure from her usual practice and invited composers to create a score for the first time. The soundtrack also incorporates archival recordings from telephone answering machines and interviews with friends who have grappled with drug addiction. These elements collectively bear witness to signs of desperation, loss, and abandonment, showing the individual struggle as a shared collective experience.


While working on Memory Lost, Nan simultaneously created the companion piece called Sirens (2019–2020), which portrays the pleasures and ecstasy of being high with drug use. Sirens draws a parallel with the captivating allure of the mythical Sirens from Greek mythology. This is the first work by Nan that is entirely assembled from existing footage, composed of scenes extracted from thirty different films by directors like Henri-Georges Clouzot, Kenneth Anger and Lynne Ramsay.


“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live by ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.” Joan Didion wrote in her book The Year of Magical Thinking after the death of her husband, John. A potent depiction of grief, that resonates universally and naturally overflows with recollections and memories of the lost one. It is in this delicate exploration of grief and remembrance that Nan's work, Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls (2004–2022) finds its resonance. Nan invites us on a deeply personal journey, one that confronts the tragic loss of her sister Barbara. Barbara's story is one marked by institutionalization and a tragic suicide at such a young age. In Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls, Nan masterfully weaves this narrative together with the biblical tale of Saint Barbara, all the while intertwining it with her own life's story. The piece is poignant, touching on our innate desire to maintain a connection with our departed loved ones.


Meanwhile Fire Leap (2010–2022) directs our focus towards children, capturing their innate awareness before societal constraints intervene. Nan insightfully remarks, “When children arrive, they know everything, and life teaches them to forget.” This perspective also sheds light on The Other Side (1992–2021), a homage to Nan's transgender community, celebrating “gender euphoria”, the freedom to be true to oneself, and the potential for transcendence.


Nan Goldin, This Will Not End Well, Installation view, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, Fotoğraf: Peter Tijhuis


Nan Goldin's work reminds us that art is a powerful medium, not only for creative expression but also for addressing societal issues and making a lasting impact. Her ability to immerse viewers in a narrative, her unique fusion of the personal and the universal, and her capacity to redefine the role of the artist make her a trailblazer in the world of visual storytelling. As we explore the intricacies of her work, we are reminded that art has the power not only to reflect the world but to reshape it, and Nan continues to do just that, leaving an indelible mark on the canvas of contemporary art and culture.


As implied by the exhibition's ironic title, This Will Not End Well, it appears that Nan will continue to push the boundaries further and further until “the end”.

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