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Nan Goldin, “Trixie on the cot” (1979)
Nan Goldin, “Trixie on the cot”, New York City (1979). Cibachrome print (41 x 60 cm)Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery © Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin is so busy right now

Alongside the release of Oscar-nominated doc All The Beauty and the Bloodshed, the artist is also the focus of two major exhibitions, a new publication, and a prestigious award

Since picking up a camera at the age of 15, in the early 1970s, Nan Goldin has grappled with the question of if, and, how photography can save a life. She’d run away from her home in suburban Boston following the death of her sister by suicide, and the medium provided her with a lifeline, a voice, “an entrée into human contact”.

Finding family among the drag queens and transgender community who graced Boston’s gay bar, The Other Side, in the mid-to-late 1970s, Goldin photographed her new friends and lovers obsessively. As she explained in the 1995 documentary, I’ll Be Your Mirror, it was a way of “never losing the memory of anyone again.”

After moving to New York in 1978, she continued her unflinching documentation of all the crevices of existence in her subcultural scene. She captured love and heartache, desire and destruction, the hedonistic highs and abject lows of drug consumption, and the extremes of life on the margins.

Yet, as AIDS began to claim the lives of her chosen family in the 1980s, she questioned the immortal powers of image-making: “I used to think I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough,” she said in I’ll Be Your Mirror. “I confronted the reality as I watched a number of my friends die… It was then I realised how little photography could preserve.”

Even so, photography has remained a way for Goldin to “make bearable the things that felt unbearable” and to keep her loved ones present. Spanning more than five decades, her images are a reminder of how much this prolific artist has lost, but also of how much she’s lived.

Goldin’s current exhibition at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin attests to this. Spotlit against plain black walls and devoid of accompanying text – much like the slideshow films Goldin composed, set to music, and presented in bars, nightclubs, and art spaces throughout her career – the images seem to crackle and thrum with life in the intimate gallery space.

The exhibition coincides with Goldin’s acceptance of the AdK’s 2022 Käthe Kollwitz Prize. “Since its inception in 1960, the prize has been awarded to artists who hold a central position in contemporary art,” explains curator Anke Hervol over email. “Goldin has broken taboos, transcended boundaries, and advocated for the acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. The immediacy of her images stems from the way she physically and emotionally belongs to the world she is capturing.”

The non-chronological sequence begins with recent portraits of her beloved friend and roommate, transgender writer Thora Siemsen, taken in the stillness of Goldin’s Brooklyn apartment during lockdown. These are the latest from her series The Other Side, and are placed alongside early black-and-white photographs of the drag community in Boston: a roommate applying makeup, a posse of friends stepping out into the night, a naked queen dancing in a swirl of feather boas. 

Images of queer communities in the 1990s and 2000s follow… taxi rides, drag shows, and backstage rituals across Bangkok, Berlin, Manila and New York. During a conversation with Siemsen in 2021, Goldin recalled: “When I meet someone and I don’t feel like they know how beautiful they are, and they haven’t really fit into their body in a certain way, I need to show them that. I want to show people how beautiful they are.” 

And, of course, there are works from her most indelible series, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency; a slideshow originally conceived in 1983, which she’s continued to edit and rework ever since. In this epic work, there is pleasure in abundance: in the bodies that envelop on the hot sand of New York’s Fire Island; in the lovers that embrace in a tangle of skin and sheets. There’s also pain: in the self-portrait of Goldin curled up in bed, gazing at her abusive lover, Brian; in the hollow face of actress and Lower East Side socialite Cookie Mueller, standing beside the casket of her husband, Vittorio Scarpati, in 1989. Mueller would also die of an AIDS-related illness, a mere two months after him.

Known primarily for her portrayal of people, Goldin’s haunting large-scale works of natural landscapes and wide open skies also hang heavy. Painterly yet out of focus, they are drawn from Memory Lost, a slideshow series composed in 2019 about the disorientation of drug withdrawal. A blurry full moon captured through the trees of Paris’s Bois de Vincennes seems to shiver with emotional intensity.

The Käthe Kollwitz Prize is just one major mark of recognition for Goldin of late. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022), Laura Poitras’ documentary about the artist’s years-long campaign to hold members of the Sackler family and their pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma, accountable for the opioid epidemic, has just been nominated for an Oscar. The personal has always been political for Goldin, and the documentary further spotlights her role as artist and activist.

In addition to the AdK’s exhibition, Goldin’s major career retrospective, This Will Not End Well, is currently on display at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and set to travel to Amsterdam, Berlin and Milan. It's accompanied by the release of a photobook of the same name by Steidl, “the first comprehensive presentation of Goldin as a multimedia artist”. Focusing exclusively on her slideshows and video installations, the retrospective aims to embrace her vision of how her work should be experienced, and contains 20 poignant texts penned by her friends and subjects.

Goldin’s enduring appeal rests in the life-affirming quality of her work. Since the 1970s, her images have provided solace and salvation to those who see their own struggles and stories reflected back at them – and they seem to burn even brighter as the years roll on.

Käthe Kollwitz Prize 2022. Nan Goldin at Akademie der Künste on Hanseatenweg, Berlin runs through March 19 2023. The award ceremony takes place at the Akademie on March 3, with the artist in attendance. 

Nan Goldin: This Will Not End Well is published by Steidl and Moderna Museet, and available to order now.

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