Until February 12th, MoMA hosts Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, comprising almost 700 snapshot-like portraits sequenced against an evocative music soundtrack which threatens to transform the show into an art installation instead of a photography show. According to MoMA, the series is ‘a deeply personal narrative, formed out of the artist’s own experiences around Boston, New York, Berlin, and elsewhere in the late 1970s, 1980s, and beyond. Titled after a song in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, Goldin’s Ballad itself a kind of downtown opera; its protagonists—including the artist herself—are captured in intimate moments of love and loss. They experience ecstasy and pain through sex and drug use; they revel at dance clubs and bond with their children at home; and they suffer from domestic violence and the ravages of AIDS’. “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the diary I let people read (…) The diary is my form of control over my life. It allows me to obsessively record every detail. It enables me to remember”, she wrote.
I met Nan Goldin in London a few times and the outcome of that ‘acquaintance’ was my purchasing the artist’s proof of her celebrated ‘Self-Portrait, one month after being battered’ which belongs to this series. Needless to say I eventually found out that she had lied about the number of copies issued but that is a topic for another article. I intuitively found her interesting and, as a result of that, took her for lunch at Morton’s on Berkeley Square in London where she arrived about two hours late and managed to abused one of the employees five minutes after arrival because, according to her, she failed to identify her Bottega Veneta bag. I remember her saying to the poor lady: ‘Of course, you don’t know what a Bottega Veneta is’. It was difficult at the time realising whether she was a cunt or she was pretending to be one in order to sustain the theatrics of her constructed identity?
I think that what lies at the heart of Nan Goldin’s artistic conundrum is the issue of the pose which during the past twenty five years has been at the very core of the question of photography as art. In other words, the Holy Grail of photographic portraiture as art seems to be to capture the sitters authentic self-absortion not when he is ignoring the camera but when he is looking at it. I am saying this because Nan Goldin said to me when referring to her ‘Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City. 1983’ that, at the moment of taking a picture she was ‘terrified’. I asked her how can anyone who feels ‘terror’ manage to take a picture under those conditions, that is, with a camera on a tripod which shutter was activated through a remote cable with that pictorialist lighting and on top of everything manage to include the source of the terror (which is Brian, the aggressor) oblivious to the camera. In other words, if Brian knows that a pic was being taken the terror did not exist for it was another day in the office. Therefore, the picture far from a a snapshot that captures an ‘intimate moment of love and loss’ (as MoMA puts it) is a theatrical representation of what we are led to believe as ‘her life’. Something similar happens with ‘Self Portrait One Month After Being Battered’ for when she told me that the three stains at the bottom right of the surface were blood drops from the wounds inflicted by Brian, I couldn’t help to realise the irony of the place where it ‘accidentally’ fell which coincides with the traditional spot where artists have signed their paintings all along art history. That’s why I asked her whether the selfie was a snap shot or an arranged production where the symmetrical composition is maintained through make up and bruises which are treated as pictorial units. She acknowledged that there was a staged symmetry as a way of making the picture more tolerable. So to talk about these pics as ‘authentic moments of self absortion’ is impossible. Instead we should refer to them as ‘productions where her life is dramatized for theatrical effect’.
It is, of course, impossible to think of Nan Goldin’s work without the precedent of Diane Arbus whose more realistic snapshots raised a series of ethical questions which for Susan Sontag where enough no to consider her photography as art. Sontag asked herself whether Arbus’ sitters see themselves as grotesque as she portrays them? Why does Arbus make it impossible to be sympathetic with her sitters? Is Arbus a collector of freaks? Is Goldin a collector of addicts, liars and fakes? Can that sort of collecting be considered as art or even realistic photography?
The other question is why MoMA praises both of them. Arbus’ was John Szarkowski’s darling , the Chief Curator of Photography for more than thirty years. Now, MoMA canonises Nan Goldin’s career and by doing that, the institution transforms the whole exercise into an allegory of how lying through political correctness can take the cheat far in the world of corporate contemporary art. J A T