“In spite of it all, people have a need to couple. Even when they’re being destroyed, they’re still coupling. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency starts and ends with this premise, but in between there is the question of as to why there is this need to couple and why it is so difficult.” – Nan Goldin (1986)
Born in 1953 into a middle-class Jewish family, Nan Goldin is yet to fully explore her childhood in her work, though she has made it clear she was forced to inhabit a culture of repression, of which she was resentful. A few years after her sister committed suicide, she left home for an alternative schooling, during which she lived on a commune and was introduced to sex, drugs, and photography. In her late teens, she moved to Boston with fellow photographer David Armstrong. There, she lived among a community of gays and drag queens, studied and developed her distinctive ‘slice-of-life’ style, which Tillman of The New York Times argues, “forged a genre, with photography as influential as any in the last 20 years.” After graduating, she moved to New York City, where she began both her series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (made up of images taken from 1979-86) and a life/career as fascinating as inextricable. A collection of this early work is currently displayed in the Tate Modern until 27 October (for free, which was a very nice surprise).
The initial room of this collection holds many of the most striking prints from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, as well as a few from The Family of Nan (1990-92) series. As you walk in, it’s easy to feel confronted by the intimacy of the images, an intimacy with which it feels you are being trusted – a feeling that will not ebb as you make your way through. Trust is everything in Goldin’s work and she recognises this. There is a tendency for some, as outsiders, to view the scenes in her work as ‘exotic’ and therefore slightly voyeuristic. The people and activities that she captures, however, are not simply subject-matter, but pulsating worlds and subcultures of which she was very much a part, and which she felt a duty to respect in documenting them. Goldin lived amongst the post-Stonewall generation of New York City as the AIDS crisis grew and claimed some of her closest friends. She and many of those around her were heavy drug users and she, herself, was a victim of domestic violence and sexual abuse. These are not just constant themes in Goldin’s work but a lived and shared reality for all involved, which is what made her style of photography so politically as well as aesthetically radical at the time.
Powerful though the prints are, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was actually made to be exhibited as a 45-minute-long slide show, consisting of almost 700 images organised thematically and set to music, which was shown at the Tate in one of its many variations (Goldin has continued to reedit and remix it throughout her life). In 1986, soon after she ‘completed’ the series, Goldin said in an interview that, though she likes the prints, she doesn’t “worship the photographs as objects. I am interested in content. The slide show enables me to make political points more clearly. It helps me reveal my ideology. I can clarify my intentions through the juxtaposition of the lyrics of the sound track and the image.” This clear preference for the multi-track medium indicates her later turn to more cinematic work, but it is also clear in the slide-show itself.
Variations of the series have featured songs by The Velvet Underground, James Brown and Nina Simone, among others, which progress with the intimate and richly-coloured images of herself, her friends, and their lives in the 1970s/80s. The photos are all flash-lit, with Goldin saying in an interview with The Guardian: “I honestly didn’t know about natural light then and how it affected the colour of the skin because I never went out in daylight. The work I do now has so many different tones.” Whilst that might be true, the effect light has in this particular series arguably makes the images more confronting, exposing, and less clean, in line with their content. The slides move between photos of couples (her central preoccupation) engaged in sexual acts of varying explicitness, solitary friends and empty rooms, heroin injections, weddings and funerals. There are images of Goldin herself after being beaten by her then-lover. Some are out of focus but all have a clear place in the series.
Those people in the series make up Goldin’s chosen family and, as with her sister and biological family, are associated with a distinct sense of loss. By the time the project was finished, many of the individuals in it had died of AIDS-related illnesses – most had by 1990. Goldin, in fact, felt urged to seek help for her substance-abuse when someone asked her, “How can you be killing yourself when your friends around you are dying?” As the slide show draws to an end with pictures of open-caskets and tombstones of lovers and parents, it becomes clear that the series is not just about depicting the realities of the lives and relationships led by these people but memorialising them in something politically charged and beautiful. If you have a chance do go and see it, do.
– Sophie Chapman, Copy Editor