Nan Goldin at the Tate Modern: an evocative exploration of the human condition

A must-see exhibition currently at the Tate Modern is the socially politicalised and seminal work by American realist photographer Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985-6). The particularly affecting and personal exhibit journeys through her photo diaries from the 1970s and 1980s, narrating the LGBT movement, sexual and emotional intimacy, the HIV crisis, Goldin’s personal struggles and the landscape of a turbulent period in social history. The free display at the Tate showcases framed prints, posters and a slideshow of The Ballad.

Goldin claimed photography saved her life. Born in 1953 to a middle-class Jewish family, she grew up in suburban Washington DC. She had a troubled start to life – her elder sister Barbara killed herself when she was just 11. Goldin later said her sister was driven to suicide by anger, sexual repression, and internal conflict with 1960s conventions of acceptable female behaviour. These pressing topics have, unsurprisingly, dominated Goldin’s artistic focus.

The legacy of Barbara percolates through Goldin’s desire to cherish relationships by intimately photographing friends, lovers and life. She left home at age 14, attending a free progressive school, smoking marijuana and dating older men. After being introduced to the camera in 1968, she began intimately photographing her daily life – an evolving record of existence and people. Goldin’s visual diary was uncensored, graphic and affecting. She moved to New York in 1978, as the AIDS crisis plagued the LGBT community, and thus much depth exists beneath her documentation of New York’s drag queens whom she lived amongst and greatly admired.

Nan Goldin, Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC 1991. Tate. © Nan Goldin

Her seminal artistic endeavour, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, is a time capsule of a moment in gay and youth subculture in the 1980s. The autobiographical account portrays the short-lived avant-garde ‘No Wave’ music and arts scene, and post-Stonewall subculture. Alongside depictions of Goldin’s family, lovers and sexuality is the graphic reality of heroin abuse traversing Berlin, Boston and New York.

In the current age of social media and the vain pursuit of ‘realness’ and ‘no filter’, Goldin’s visual diaries are sordid, honest and generation-defining examples of unrestrained truth-telling. Her subjects are physically laid bare through posed and candid portraits of their naked bodies in bed or on the toilet. Yet sometimes Goldin’s subject’s vulnerability is all in the eyes; Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi is as intimate as Greer and Robert on the Bed.

Goldin’s self-portraiture offers an intimate look at the woman behind the lens. Nan One Month After Being Battered depicts a defiant and bruised Goldin staring at the camera, red-lipped and glamorous. This image was the dramatic climax and end to an abusive yet passionate relationship, and Goldin never excused herself as a subject of vulnerability and trauma in her work. Comparably, a calmer self-portrait sees Goldin looking out a train window in Germany, the green hue of the passing scenery once more contrasting her red lip.

Goldin claims The Ballad begins and ends with the universal human conflict between autonomy and dependency. Men and women being strangers to one another yet intensely coupling up, needing and seeking out interdependent relations and toxic intimacy. The original design behind The Ballad was a slideshow narrated by the music of James Brown, Nina Simone, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Velvet Underground intended to entertain Goldin’s friends, and this is recreated in the Tate. To the voice of Simone, a deeply personal and fragile documentation of equally fragile 1980s lives plays out.

The candid portraitures of her friends and lovers are poignant in the knowledge most of her subjects were dead by the 1990s, lost to overdoses or to AIDS. We journey with Goldin’s camera through hotel rooms, back seats of cabs, weddings, parties and late-night streets. The collection immortalizes the artist, her friends and New York City in a period of crisis, art, culture and loss, resulting in an evocative exploration of the human condition and its myriad forms.

Nan Goldin is open at the Tate Modern until 27th October 2019. For more information visit here:

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