woensdag 12 juni 2019

Views & Reviews Paradise Lost: Exhibitionism and the Work of Nan Goldin Photography

Nan Goldin (55s) door Guido Costa (Auteur)
Andere auteursNan Goldin (Fotograaf)
Phaidon Press (2010), 128 pagina's

Ben Burbridge
I’ve tried to maintain a naiveté all these years, so that I don’t become too conscious of the elements that work, so that I don’t lose the emotional connection. That’s a hard balance. How do you remain naïve and knowledgeable at the same time?  [1]

Peu de gens devineront combien il a fallu être triste pour ressusciter Carthage.[2] ‘Privacy’, Installation View, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 2012. © Schirn Kunsthalle

When ‘Privacy’ opened at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt at the end of 2012 it suggested a radically new way of seeing the work of Nan Goldin.[3] The curator,  Martina Weinhart, drew together work by thirty-five artists dating from 1959 to the present, to demonstrate what the press release described as ‘strategies of self-presentation’:

Private—a word from the past, or so it would seem these days. A word of hardly any relevance in an era when everything—from one’s favorite recipe to one’s current relationship status—is posted on Facebook. Exhibitionism, self-revelation, the urge to tell stories, the pleasure of presenting and voyeurism are the social strategies of our day and age—a structural change of the public sphere has long since taken place.[4]

Weinhart’s catalogue essay offered some further thoughts on the place of Goldin’s work in the narrative: one of a number of art practices involving the public display of intimate worlds that, now, seem to rehearse the exhibitionism of contemporary culture. These are ‘paths [that] lead from the nucleus of privacy in the nineteenth century to today’s transparent postprivacy.’ [5] ‘Privacy’,

Installation View, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 2012. © Schirn Kunsthalle

While in many ways enlightening, the large exhibition and brief, schematic essay stopped far short of accounting for the complex ways in which the proposed dialogue impacted on the respective parties involved. To do this requires a sustained and reciprocal look at discussions of exhibitionism in Goldin’s photography and wider cultural transformations. The following essay addresses this task. My argument proposes a paradigm shift in understanding Goldin’s practice,  excavating and re-thinking neglected aspects of recent photography history based on possibilities suggested by the present. Firstly, it considers exhibitionism as a significant and under-researched aspect of the work, casting light on a topic that, for the writer Richard Woodward, ‘has not received the scrutiny it deserves from photography scholars and theorists.’[6] As recently as 2010, curators approached Goldin’s intimate snapshot-style pictures of friends in terms of voyeurism, surveillance and a personal compulsion to record. [7] By contrast, ‘Privacy’ emphasised her practice as a form of photographic disclosure: a private life placed on public display. Secondly, the essay compares the sharing of intimate photographs online and as art, to unpick the complex relationships that exist between them. In particular, my work demonstrates the extent to which the emergence of new photographic practices has destabilised assumptions that once underpinned aspects of photography’s artistic display, through the de-professionalised forms of exhibitionism they encourage. The analysis signals the ways in which radical changes to a wider photographic landscape demand existing art practices be reconsidered.

Intimate Records
The photography of Nan Goldin is well-known. Pictures showing the intimate lives of the artist and her friends came to prominence in the 1980s, entering the canon of contemporary art photography in the 1990s. The ‘family of Nan’ is made up of what are popularly interpreted as a cast of bohemian outsider figures, shown in a range of intimate situations: in bars, apartments, baths, lost in thought, having sex, shooting up.[8] Although Goldin’s subject matter has lightened in recent years, the naked body and scenes of a sexual nature remain among her defining motifs. The content of the photographs finds an aesthetic equivalence in their ‘snapshot’ style: evoking the domestic feel of the family album or the type of pictures once pinned to the walls of teenagers’ bedrooms. They often appear to be candidly produced, with the subject unaware—or unconcerned—that they are being photographed. In formal terms, the work is defined by its casual framing, cropping, the use of flash to create dramatic shadow, and the fact the prints often appear grainy. The pictures’ casual appearance is offset by a knowing aesthetic element, coupling a rich palette of colours with the play of light and shadow.

The photographs have been presented to the public in a variety of formats. Goldin’s most famous work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1984) was initially exhibited as a slideshow. Photographs were grouped together according to themes, accompanied by a soundtrack described by Goldin’s friend, Guido Costa,  as mixing ‘classical, pop and rock music that is intentionally both ironic and sentimental’.[9] The Ballad was published as a book in 1986, co-edited by Marvin Heiferman, Mark Holborn and Suzanne Fletcher.

Nan Goldin, The Ballad of sexual Dependency, Aperture, New York, 1986

Goldin has published a number of subsequent books, including Cookie Mueller (1991), documenting her relationship with the eponymous actress until her death from AIDS in 1989, and The Other Side (1992), comprising photographs of transvestites and transsexuals taken over a twenty-year period. Her work has been the subject of numerous exhibitions, including retrospectives at the Whitney in New York in 1996 and the Whitechapel in London in 2002. In exhibitions, the work is often presented as framed prints grouped together in grids or ‘salon-style’ hangs.

Nan Goldin, ‘Thanksgiving’, Installation view, Saatchi Gallery, London, 1999 © Saatchi Gallery

The interpretation of Goldin’s work is striking in its consistency. Two versions of her practice were set out in the artist’s introduction to The Ballad from which few writers have deviated during her thirty-year career. The photographs are understood either as documents of a specific group of people and her relationships to them, or as a series of meditations on human relationships and emotions in a general sense. The photographs of ‘Bobby Masturbating, New York City, 1980’, ‘Getting High, New York City 1979’, or ‘Nan After Being Battered, 1984’, for example, are records of particular people at particular times doing particular things. Alternatively, they speak of Goldin’s belief that, ‘Even if relationships are destructive, people cling together. It’s a biochemical reaction, it stimulates that part of your brain that is only satisfied by love, heroin, or chocolate; love can be an addiction.’[10] In either case, emphasis is placed on what is recorded and represented in the images, not on the act of disclosure involved in display.

Similar emphasis is evident in the language used by writers to describe the work. In a 1999 issue of Parkett dedicated to Goldin’s photography, Arthur C. Danto states, ‘the artist is the recorder of a life she also lives’, [11] while Lisa Liebman sees her as ‘a mirror…to contemporary people and society she has portrayed with such relentless intimacy’. [12] The slippage between ‘recorder’ and ‘mirror’ is telling. While the former obscures the decision to exhibit what has been recorded altogether, the latter alludes more directly to the act of showing, but only in a passive sense: an act of reflection, not display. The notion of the work as a mirror also shapes understandings of its primary audience as the subjects depicted, rather than an undifferentiated museum-going public. The decision to make a private life widely visible appears an incidental consequence of Goldin’s art, not a defining feature.

The Absence of Critique
What has prompted this consistency? In part, the interpretations respond to material characteristics of the work and its display. A concern with the personal is encouraged through the captioning of individual images with the subject’s first name, location and date. The universal is courted through the grouping of particular sets of pictures together to create thematic narratives; this is particularly true of The Ballad, where the soundtrack reinforced links through choice of song. The knowing aesthetic element, heightened when photographs are printed at a large scale and shown in frames, also provides them with a striking visual presence. Other factors have played their part. The diaristic character of Goldin’s work has provided her with an unusual control over interpretation. This has allowed a dense mist of self-mythology to hang over the photographs, through which it can sometimes prove difficult to see. The introduction to The Ballad explained her practice though a compulsion to record intimate life as a personal act of memorialisation. It was positioned as a response to the artist’s fading memory of her elder sister, following her suicide as a teenager: ‘I don’t ever want to lose my real memory of anyone again.’[13] The narrative has been developed across interviews during the course of thirty years, with the need to record increasingly linked to a desire to avoid the revision of personal history encountered in the American suburbs as a youth. The decision to make this personal project public is rarely discussed.

Mythology extends to the presumed audience for Goldin’s work. The Ballad was first presented to friends in the clubs of New York’s Lower East Side. Here, photographs performed distinct social functions for members of the same sub-culture they documented: serving up ‘raw slices of the collective experience’ and building a sense of shared identity.[14] The particular community present at the early screenings helped create an intimate space positioned somewhere between the public and the private. The subsequent re-contextualisation of the work within art’s institutional mainstream took place gradually, as Marvin Heiferman explains:

From clubs to screening rooms to film festivals, the slide show was booked with regularity. The first idiosyncratic and grungy colour prints that Nan made herself were included in a handful of gallery exhibitions and a few adventurous museum shows.[15]
The majority of writers have focused on the creation myth provided by the early screenings, not the art world phenomenon that followed.[16]
Intimate and confessional photography like Goldin’s contains what Charlotte Cotton has described as an ‘inbuilt protection…from serious and especially negative art criticism’:

By developing a body over time, the photographer links his or her life with the continued taking of photographs. A new book or exhibition is rarely judged an outright failure because that would suggest a moral criticism of the photographer’s life, as well as their motivations.[17]
The issue is exacerbated by the general collapse of art criticism into PR during the 1990s, evident in the predominance of monographic essays, artists’ interviews and reviews based on the whims of critics’ personal taste rather than definable criteria. The change can be partially attributed to the expanded market for contemporary art, which undermined the role once played by critical judgement.[18] The situation proved particularly true of contemporary photography, which was largely neglected by collectors until the 1990s.[19] In consequence, writing about Goldin’s work has generally swerved between celebratory ‘explanation’ and something closer to Sunday supplement “life-style” features. The texts that accompany the photographs in exhibition catalogues—a platform that discourages critique—pushed the tendency further. Autobiographical accounts written by subjects, song lyrics and poetry were drawn together in ways presumably intended to augment the ‘feel’ of the work, rather than hold it up to critical scrutiny.[20]
When the work was critiqued, this generally focused on a potential voyeurism: further reinforcing the importance of looking, and thus recording, over issues of showing and being seen. Here is Goldin, in another much-quoted passage from her introduction to The Ballad:

There is a popular notion that this photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one to be invited to the party. But I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my friends.[21]
The defence was subject to notable counter-critique in an essay by Liz Kotz, written in 1998. This took issue with the way that Goldin’s insider status had been cynically used to set aside the Foulcaultian unpicking of documentary photography that dominated theory throughout the 1980s:[22]
Clearly, it is not just Goldin’s voyeurism, but our own, which is pervasively disavowed in such claims. Presented under the guise of an “intimate” relationship between artist and subject, these images re-legitimize the codes and conventions of social documentary, presumably by ridding them of their problematic enmeshment in histories of social surveillance and coercion.[23]
Even here, the work is framed in terms of viewers’ voyeurism: casting Kotz’s essay as a symptom of the same critical discourse it invokes. The desire to be seen and a compulsion to show remain secondary to discussion of the politics of documentary and surveillance.

The Personal and the Political
On the few occasions when the public display of Goldin’s work is considered, discussion has folded into arguments forged in the context of the late 1960s and 1970s. Here is Goldin in 1997:

Of course it has a political agenda. It always has. The agenda is about making what is considered private in a society, public. It is about discussing real histories of people’s life [sic] rather than media versions of histories and it’s about making it clear that all possibilities of gender and sexuality are legitimate in life, and that all possibilities of gender are as valid as any other.[24]
The notion of the personal as political developed in the context of the 1960s as a means to contest the marginalisation of women’s issues within areas of New Left politics.[25] Here Goldin links it to efforts to contest mainstream media representation and the exclusions it involves. The point gains particular force in relation to her photographs of friends affected by HIV/AIDS, produced during a period when large areas of the media remained badly misinformed about the illness and negative reporting contributed to its stigmatisation.

The issue takes on a different character, considered in relation to an interview from 1996:

I came from a family and a culture that was based on ‘Don’t let the neighbours know’. That was the gospel. And I wanted to let the neighbours know what was going on in my house and find out what was going on in their house.[26]
In which case, the political potential of the personal is linked to a more general rejection of repressive suburban conformism. Drawing on the work of Ellen Taylor-May, Weinhart sees the lives documented by Goldin’s photographs as harking back to the late 1960s rejection of normative domestic life: abandoning ‘family, home-centred consumerism, marriage-centered sex, polarized gender roles, and the quest for meaning through children’.[27]  Something similar can be said of the photographs’ public display. A wilful exhibitionism functions to verify the artist’s bohemian identity: defiantly sharing images of all that the “square” suburban mainstream would sooner keep hidden. The act of display is shaped as an Arbusian effort to break ‘through the façade of bourgeois life’.[28]
A focus on the counter-cultural character of Goldin’s practice may have obscured its conformist dimensions, which link it more closely to the period in the 1990s when it came to art world prominence. In his book Freakshow, Jon Dovey has explored the proliferation of subjective, autobiographical and confessional modes of expression across literature, factual TV programming and digital media during the 1990s. He roots the tendency in a general post-modern anxiety regarding the authority of grand narratives, which left us with only ‘the politics of the self to keep us ideologically warm’.[29] For Susan Murray and Laurie Ouelette, the diaristic media of the 1990s paved the way for the reality television that came to dominate broadcasting at the turn of the millennium (a time when diaristic art photography found particular success in the UK). This was ‘an unabashedly commercial genre united less by aesthetic rules or certainties than by the fusion of popular entertainment with a self-conscious claim to the discourse of the real.’[30]  Motives for appearing in confessional media are said to vary, but the promise of public visibility and a subsequent ‘continuation of the observed life’ through minor celebrity is key.[31] The discussions border onto wider ideas about the spectacular character of subjectivity under late-capitalism: no longer measured ‘by an individual’s achievements in the public interest’, but ‘according to the degree of acquired visibility and public exposure’.[32]
In her 2012 book, Artificial Hells, Clare Bishop situates the recent vogue for participatory art as a ‘constantly moving target’. As a mode of artistic practice, participation is said to lack intrinsic value, its meaning defined through the term’s broader cultural connotations and its implementation in cultural policy. In this sense, the inter-activity of reality television and commercialised social networking has implications for participation as art.[33] When exhibitionism is addressed in these terms, a similar dynamic is clear. The politics of public visibility in Goldin’s work seek legitimacy in the culture of 1960s America, gaining further credence in the context of Reaganite neo-conservatism. The political potential of exhibitionism has rapidly transformed, however: co-opted as a form of mainstream media spectacle during the 1990s and—as we shall see—as mass photographic practice in the past ten years. Despite the changes, interpretation of Goldin’s work has remained relatively constant.

The fact that Goldin’s exhibitionism has, until recently, been taken as a bohemian affront to suburban conformism can be explained in relation to three factors. Firstly, Goldin has made frequent reference to herself as an ‘old hippy’ raised in a school modelled on Summerhill in England.[34] The subsequent focus on her formative experiences, rather than the wider culture in which her work was promoted and consumed, is indicative of the general control she has exerted over interpretation. Secondly, it may be symptomatic of a tendency to regard artistic practice as a world apart from the perceived banalities of mass culture. In which case, the issue of interpretation relates more to the institutional framing of Goldin’s work than the particular historical context in which it is inserted. Thirdly, the failure to think about her work in terms of a changing culture may be rooted in the distinctly photographic character of the brand of exhibitionism at play.

In Pierre Bourdieu’s 1965 sociological study, photography was analysed as a social practice circumscribed by class-based distinctions. These dictated the occasions it is appropriate to photograph, and the ways in which photography should be displayed and consumed. In the case of domestic images, photography remained an essentially private artefact. This has implications for its public display:

…the ordinary photograph, a private produce for private use, has no meaning, value or charm except for a finite group of subjects, mainly those who took it, and those who are its objects. If certain public exhibitions of photographs are felt to be improper, this is because they are claiming for private objects the privilege of the art object, the right to universal attachment.[35]
While we must be cautious grafting arguments forged in the context of 1960s France onto the culture of the late 1980s and 1990s, the condition of domestic photography’s public sharing has—until fairly recently—remained strikingly stable since Bourdieu’s time. While a wider media culture took on an increasingly confessional character, and unsettled traditional distinctions between public and private, family photographs continued to be consumed by small groups of friends and relatives in family albums. Where images of the family ‘went public’, it was normally the closely controlled format of the portrait, not the intimate domestic snapshot, that provided an outward-looking face for the private world.[36] Writing about Goldin’s subject matter in 1997, Nicolas Jennings suggested that, ‘Good taste is not the issue. Or, rather, avoiding the banalities of good taste is the issue’.[37] The same can be said for her photographs’ public display. The act of disclosure flaunted convention and set Goldin apart from a wider photographic culture. During the past ten years much has changed.

Broadcast Yourself
The social networking site Facebook launched in 2004, including a facility that allowed photographs to be shared online with a mass audience. An estimate from January 2012 put the total number of photographs on Facebook at 100 billion: a figure that is by now significantly larger.[38] Other popular sites for photo sharing have emerged in recent years, including Flick’r, Tumblr and Instagram. The latter, purchased by Facebook in 2012, encourages users to upload their photographs in ‘real time’. While these sites are by no means centred entirely on the sharing of photographs of people’s intimate lives, such images dominate those posted on Facebook and Instagram, which have become platforms for pictures of parties, loved ones, holidays, and other incidental details of ‘life as it is lived’. Although viewers of photographs are sometimes controlled using privacy settings, there is no question that audiences have expanded since analogue days.[39] The new image practices relate to the broadcast of people’s private lives using web cams, described by Theresa Senft both in terms of the construction of online communities and the pursuit of ‘micro celebrity’.[40] The participatory culture of intimate display finds an extreme example in sites dedicated to online amateur pornography, where people post images and videos of themselves having sex.[41] The practices have contributed to a general anxiety, expressed in some vocal corners of the media, that our current society runs a dangerous risk of ‘over sharing’.

What are the implications for Goldin’s work? For Daniel Rubinstein and Katrina Sluis, transformations to snapshot photography are key to understanding wider changes to how photography is perceived. In particular, the mass audiences with which Web 2.0 provides the once-private snapshot highlights its previous, paradoxical condition as a practice ‘both ubiquitous and hidden’.[42] Taken more broadly, online photo-sharing has contributed to a re-conceptualisation of photography, with issues of documentation and indexicality increasingly joined by a renewed concern with issues of mutability, shifting context, transmission and display.[43] Recent essays by Weinhart and Woodward illustrate the point: explicitly linking their efforts to excavate photography’s neglected exhibitionist histories to models suggested by digital practice. My proposed shift in understandings of what, exactly, is seen to characterise Goldin’s work represents a further consequence of the current situation. A changing photographic landscape has made the artist’s own exhibitionism clear.

The moving terrain of mass practice also raises questions about the nature of the exhibitionism  it helps to highlight. For Goldin, the politics of publicly displaying an intimate world exist in refuting prescriptive models peddled by the media: shaping her practice in opposition to a commercial image world. Her photographs spoke on behalf of the unrepresented, who could not recognise their lives in those presented by broadcasters. The suggestions now seems peculiarly prescient of the utopian discourse invoked to champion the world of Web 2.0, according to which it represents a democratic arena capable of challenging media monopolies on representation. The means of media production have been handed to the masses, allowing ‘everyone to gain greater participation in, and control over, the mediated version of reality in which they are immersed.’[44]
If the claims made for social media are to believed, then Goldin’s efforts to speak on behalf of marginalised groups lose something of their urgency, and may even be seen to stifle the voices of those represented. The accusation has dogged documentary practice since at least the late-1970s, but has grown more acute now that it has become easy for people to publicly present an intimate life, should they choose.[45] The online representation of intimate worlds is potentially collaborative, perhaps even dialectical. For Theresa Senft:

…we present images, gestures and words for consumption by various audiences. In response, those audiences produce portraits, stories, counter-points, and even satires of their own. We are then faced with a choice: either we respond to their responses, or we do not. When we do (hoping to correct, alter, or extend their interpretations of us), the status of our self-representation shifts.[46]
Goldin’s exhibitionism is, by contrast, addressed to an undifferentiated audience and remains unconcerned with their response. Any influence is one-directional: replicating significant structural characteristics of the media system it sets out to challenge. While Goldin’s work may present alternative templates for intimacy and family that more accurately reflect her experiences, these are templates nonetheless.

Exhibitionism and Spectacle
The notion of a participatory digital culture as democratic and utopian should be treated with caution. Writing in 1994, Carmen Hermosillo anticipated the increasing corporatization of cyberspace. This was not ‘some island of the blessed where people are free to indulge and express their individuality’ but a space where ‘businesses…commodify human interaction and emotion…we are getting lost in the spectacle’.[47] The statement casts light on the present discussion in two ways. Firstly, Hermosillo’s materialist perspective links exhibitionism to the pursuit of profit. Viewed in these terms, Goldin sells photographs of her intimate life as rarefied commodities on the art market. She reaps direct financial benefits from her exhibitionism and retains a significant control over who gets to buy her work.[48]  In contrast, the majority of commercially owned social networking sites make money by gathering data relating to users’ behaviour and selling it to advertisers. As Mark Adrejevic has explained, the ‘incoherent promise of universal access to the apparatus of self-promotion’ doubles ‘as an invitation to comprehensive self-disclosure’ in terms of the personal world displayed in photographs and the portrait of intimate life resulting from the close monitoring of online activity.[49] Exhibitionism has become democratic, but it has also been de-professionalised. In the process, people have relinquished ownership and control over the intimate pictures they share, creating a commodified version of the personal from which they rarely profit directly.

Hermosillo’s discussion of spectacle suggests a second possibility. Written in 1967, Debord’s Society of the Spectacle was forged against the backdrop of expanding broadcast media; to television, in particular. This had created social relations mediated by images and a society of passive consumers, sharing only in their alienation. Spectacle was ‘a concrete inversion of life, the autonomous movement of the non-living’.[50]  For Julian Stallabrass, the culture of Web 2.0 has the capacity to complicate the description.[51]  Whereas Debord saw spectacle as ‘the opposite of dialogue’, an ability to upload content unsettles a one-directional broadcast dynamic in ways that can allow for agency.[52] The dialectical possibilities described by Senft further underline the communicative and dialogical potential of an online image world. The links this creates between intimate life and its broadcast may also be reciprocal, however, transforming the experience of intimacy and linking it to an anticipated public display. The uniform posing of a stage-managed private life circulating on social networks offers a clear indication of the risks involved. For Debord, ‘representation and appearance come to replace a life once lived directly’.[53] Applied to aspects of an online image culture, the words may never have rung so true.

When viewed in such terms, the need felt by some to disavow the exhibitionism in Goldin’s practice takes on new importance. The artist has done what she can to assuage the suspicion of a choreographed or self-conscious private life. She has insisted that she does not ‘think about the wider audience, the people I don’t know,’[54] just as her close friend, David Armstrong, does not let the prospect of being seen ‘penetrate [his] thoughts’.[55] The fact that Goldin started out by showing her photographs to audiences of friends lends weight to the suggestion. But, after exhibiting in the Whitney in 1984, publishing The Ballad in 1986, and going on to make a career from the public display of her intimate life, could this stated innocence have been preserved?[56] At what point does life lived out in front of the camera come to acknowledge its presence, anticipate an expectant art world audience, and—in the process—mutate into something resembling the photographs already on public display? Is an image world internalised and reproduced in ways akin to teenagers pouting like porn stars for the camera, or do the higher purposes of art photography somehow set it apart? For at least one of Goldin’s subjects ‘there’s something of an exhibitionist aspect to it…because you know that it’s Nan.’[57] The template provided by her work has the potential to operate in both directions: out towards the “heroin chic” and emerging hipsterdom of the 1990s, but also in towards the lives of the people she represents, not least her own.[58]

For Bourdieu, the admission of photography into art’s institutions relied on it maintaining a distance from ‘middle brow’ photo practice. In the case of Nan Goldin, such distinction once lay in a willingness to record and to share her intimate moments, when others appeared reluctant—or, at least, lacked the opportunity—to do the same. Her work has changed during the past fifteen years, with the increased appearance of exteriors and landscapes generally attributed to changes to her life resulting from her “going clean”. In a 2008 interview, Goldin explained:

People used to say, about my work, that we all have pictures like that, personal, sexual pictures, but we just never show them to anyone. But for me it was the landscape photographs I took that I kept hidden.[59]
Might the reverse now also be true? At the very least, the statement indicates an awareness both of structural tensions that define photography’s status as art, and the significance of showing intimate moments in setting her work apart. In the same interview, Goldin voiced contempt for the mass disclosure promoted by contemporary media:

I feel the world around me has changed in a way that I would never have guessed as a young hippie. It’s not what I expected at all. It is not my world. Basically, I think that the world has been completely destroyed by computers, the sensationalism of emotion in talk shows.[60]
Would it be more painful, still, to recognise her work as implicated in the change? Goldin speaks eloquently of a failed counter-cultural vision and, perhaps, of its assimilation into the capitalist mainstream. At the same time, she hints at a disdain for the uniformity of mass culture as it encroaches on the territory which once set her work apart.

When placed against the wider culture that Goldin herself invokes, the dependency of her own brand of exhibitionism on its institutional framing to guarantee a sense of difference has become too clear. To put the point another way: imagine for a moment certain photographs by Nan Goldin circulating on Facebook, or even on amateur porn sites - it isn’t difficult to do.[61] Her contempt for aspects of contemporary culture also betrays a reductive view of digital, denying radical possibilities or political potential in favour of sentimental nostalgia for a golden age of free love and bohemian experimentation. There are problems with this position. For Benjamin, nostalgia could prove a powerful tool, but one that must be deployed, dialectically, as a mobilising force: shaping, and shaped by, experiences of the present in ways capable of correcting the future.[62] The most important projects facing us today lie not in the wholesale rejection of new technology in favour of fixed and fetishised versions of the past, but in efforts to recognise how current situations demand positions taken in the context of previous struggles be contested, revived or revised.

While the effects of a shifting culture appear largely absent from writing about Goldin’s work, they can still be felt elsewhere. After major retrospectives in 1996 and 2002, her art world profile has notably diminished as her practice drifts further away from a perceived cutting edge.[63] Where subsequent artists have taken intimacy as their subject, the sincerity that proved the hallmark of Goldin’s work has been displaced by a knowing or ironic dimension. Ryan McGinley’s work started out as a self-conscious creation of Goldin-style images using a cast of New York hipster friends. It rapidly became something more fantastical: the artist and his gang going on road trips funded by art buyers, getting naked and taking drugs all in order to be photographed. Terry Richardson has made a career from photographing himself, or having himself photographed, while he has sex with models.The pictures generally include a camera somewhere in the frame, indicating this as a critical parody of a wider culture. The shortcomings of irony as critique are obvious: Richardson’s photographs are a flicker of misunderstanding away from what Martha Rosler memorably described as ‘a slicked-up version of the original’.[64] In Evan Baden’s staged tableaux of teenagers posing semi-naked for webcams or Joachim Schmid’s quasi-ethnographic archiving of ‘Other People’s Photographs’, online image cultures are viewed by artists and their audience at a sardonic remove, occasionally lightened by whimsical ironic humour.

As digital images pervade our lives, and more people feel the compulsion to share photographs of their once intimate moments with wider audiences, a practice such as Goldin’s no longer appears so different to what everyone else is doing. Looking back at the 1980s and 1990s, it is easy to feel nostalgia for an earlier, more innocent world of intimate photo sharing, just as Goldin’s photographs betray nostalgia for the counter-culture of the late 1960s. The gallery may no longer function as the primary site through which personal photographs become public. But perhaps it can provide a critical and contemplative space in which to make sense of, to subvert, potentially even to resist, the digital spectacle that confronts us. Current artists’ strategies directed at this task prove as offensive as they are ineffective: creating yet another spectacle of the masses and their peculiar photographic habits for consumption by art world elites. They present further obstacles to the dialogue necessary to build cultures united not in alienation, but in the common understandings that allow us to confront spectacle with meaningful collective replies.

Image references
‘Privacy’, Installation View, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 2012. © Schirn Kunsthalle back
‘Privacy’, Installation View, Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, 2012. © Schirn Kunsthalle back
Nan Goldin, The Ballad of sexual Dependency, Aperture, New York, 1986 back
Nan Goldin, ‘Thanksgiving’, Installation view, Saatchi Gallery, London, 1999 © Saatchi Gallery back

Het daglicht ontdekte ik pas in 1988; Nan Goldin over foto's en schaamte
De verslaafden, travestieten en hoeren om haar heen beschouwt de Amerikaanse fotografe Nan Goldin als haar familie. Het Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam toont de intieme foto's van dat ongewone gezinsleven. “Ik wil de afstand overbruggen tussen mij en de ander, tussen mij en de wereld en ik geloof ten diepste dat fotografie dat kan.”

Nan Goldin, I'll be your mirror, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Tot 17 augustus. Catalogus: ƒ 85. In het kader van De Roze Filmdagen vertoont Cinema de Balie in Amsterdam van 19 t/m 22 juni dagelijks om 21.30 uur de film 'I'll be your mirror' van Nan Goldin (16mm./51 min.) Korting op vertoon van het toegangsbewijs van het Stedelijk Museum.

 Anna Tilroe
 13 juni 1997

“Met die heroïne chic heb ik niets te maken. Het komt uit de mode-wereld en is in elkaar gezet vanwege het geld. Daar gruw ik van.” De zangerige, licht ondulerende toon waarop ze spreekt, een toon waar de lach zich soms genotvol in nestelt, wordt doffer als ik haar de kwestie voorleg. Jonge fotografen verbinden momenteel mode en het junkie-leven met elkaar zodat je zou kunnen denken dat het mode is om verslaafd te zijn. Ze beroepen zich daarbij vaak op de foto's die Nan Goldin de afgelopen twee decennia heeft gemaakt van drugsverslaafden en transseksuelen, foto's die nu alom worden geprezen en gerespecteerd. Maar Goldin protesteert. “De huidige generatie fotografen ziet geen verschil tussen geënsceneerde foto's en foto's van het echte leven”, zegt ze tijdens ons gesprek vlak voor de opening van haar retrospectieve tentoonstelling in het Stedelijk Museum.

“Ik denk dat er verschil is, dat er zoiets als werkelijkheid bestaat en dat beelden echt kunnen zijn. Maar ik word met die mening zo zoetjesaan net zo zeldzaam als een dinosaurus.”

Toch is de werkelijkheid die Goldin fotografeert niet bepaald de werkelijkheid van iedereen. Het is de leefwereld van hen voor wie het normale ondragelijk is, of onbereikbaar, hoe je het maar wilt zien. Het is ook de leefwereld van Goldin zelf. Ze werd in 1953 geboren in Washington D.C. en groeide op in de streng gereguleerde sfeer van de typische Amerikaanse buitenwijk, suburbia.“Ik voelde mij daar als vierjarige al een vreemdeling”, zegt ze, “en toen mijn zuster op achttienjarige leeftijd zelfmoord pleegde, verloor ik alle geloof in het gezinsleven.”

Vanaf dat moment begon ze haar familie zelf te kiezen. Ze leefde vanaf haar veertiende in allerlei communes (we schrijven de late jaren zestig en de jaren zeventig) en sloot vriendschappen die tot op de dag van vandaag zijn gebleven met mensen die zich, net als zijzelf, een outsider voelden. Mijn familie, noemt zij hen, en het leefklimaat van die ongewone familie vormt het onderwerp van haar omvangrijke oeuvre, door iemand ooit betiteld als the family of Nan.

Goldins stem wordt onverwacht heftig wanneer ik zeg dat, nu zij zo beroemd is, de neiging om voor haar een pose aan te nemen alleen maar kan zijn toegenomen: de geportretteerde weet dat hij door velen bekeken zal worden.

Goldin: “Mijn foto's gaan niet over narcisme en poses aannemen. Ze gaan over mijn relatie met mensen! Dat is een vertrouwensrelatie. Mijn vriend is zeer introvert. Hij zei dat door mij gefotografeerd worden aanvoelde alsof iemand je huid binnendringt en bloot legt wat je van je zelf niet weet, dat hij zich zelf niet kende tot hij mijn foto's zag. De vriendin met wie ik een paar jaar gewoond heb, is erg verlegen, maar wilde wel gefotografeerd worden omdat dat deel uitmaakte van onze verhouding, van onze liefde.”

De camera is er altijd als derde persoon, dat schept afstand.

“Niet met mij. Als ik fotografeer zie ik beter, kom ik dichterbij, voel ik dichterbij. Ik doe het heel natuurlijk. Je zou het niet eens merken als ik het nu deed. Ik zet geen lichten op, geef geen aanwijzingen, alles komt direct uit het moment, de intimiteit voort. Ik wil de afstand overbruggen tussen mij en de ander, tussen mij en de wereld en ik geloof ten diepste dat fotografie dat kan.”


Ze haalt er om mij te overtuigen de fotograaf David Armstrong bij, een van haar oudste 'familieleden' die in het Stedelijk, net als in het Whitney Museum in New York waar de tentoonstelling eerder was te zien, mede-verantwoordelijk is voor de inrichting.

Armstrong sputtert even: “Moet ik die vraag alweer beantwoorden?” Dan: “Ik kan niet omschrijven wat het is om door Nan gefotografeerd te worden. Het is zo natuurlijk en bekend.”

Goldin, op korte toon: “Je wordt je niet overbewust van je zelf.”

Armstrong: “Nee, helemaal niet.”

Goldin: “Misschien later, wanneer je naar de foto kijkt, maar als het gebeurt is het als een sigaret aansteken.”

Je ziet Armstrong op de tentoonstelling, die is ingedeeld naar verschillende periodes in Goldins leven, op tientallen foto's afgebeeld, van drag queen tot ingekeerde dromer. Hij introduceerde Goldin in de wereld van travestieten en transseksuelen nadat zij hem bewust had gemaakt van zijn homoseksualiteit. Het resulteerde in het boek dat Goldins reputatie in 1992 vestigde: The other side. Het toont transseksuelen en travestieten uit New York, Parijs en Bangkok. Op de foto's lijkt iedereen het stadium van de schaamte gepasseerd te zijn.

Goldin: “De meeste mensen zijn beschaamd over de verkeerde dingen, over seks, over verschillende vormen van seksuele voorkeur en mishandeling binnen liefdesrelaties. Die schaamte is cultureel bepaald. Voor veel van mijn homo-vrienden bestond, toen ze opgroeiden, geen model voor hun gevoelens. Ze voelden schaamte en vervreemding. Ik ken zelf geen schaamte. Daarom kan ik de mensen om mij heen in zekere zin permissie geven om schaamteloos te zijn. Bij mij (haar stem zingt weer) kunnen ze zijn wie ze zijn.”

Heb jij je er nooit voor geschaamd vrouw te zijn?

“Mijn oudste zus pleegde zelfmoord omdat ze geen jongen was en mijn familie een jongen wilde. Ik heb toen besloten dat er nooit iets zou zijn waar ik vanaf zou zien enkel omdat ik een vrouw ben.”In de inleiding van The other side schrijft ze: 'De meeste mensen worden bang wanneer ze anderen niet kunnen categoriseren - naar ras, leeftijd en bovenal naar sekse. Er is moed voor nodig om op straat te lopen als je overal buiten valt. Sommige van mijn vrienden veranderen dagelijks van geslacht - van jongen naar meisje en weer terug. (-) De mensen op deze foto's zijn werkelijk revolutionair; zij zijn de werkelijke winnaars van de strijd tussen de seksen omdat zij uit de ring zijn gestapt.'

Heb je ooit twijfels gehad over je seksuele identiteit?

“Ik heb die nooit als een probleem ervaren. Vanaf mijn dertiende sliep ik met meisjes, vanaf mijn veertiende ook met jongens. Ik was zeventien toen ik de queens ontmoette omdat David met drag begon. Ik heb ze nooit als als vrouwen verklede mannen gezien. Ik voelde me seksueel tot ze aangetrokken en had met enkelen ook een liefdesrelatie. Ik deed alsof ik ook een drag queen was, ik leefde ook zo, had geen seks met mannen om ze niet jaloers te maken.”

Ik denk dat in menselijke relaties een verband bestaat tussen dat wat je zoekt en dat wat naar je toekomt. Naar mijn ervaring word je verliefd op je probleem.

Ze lacht: “Waarschijnlijk heb je gelijk. Ik werd als kind al aangetrokken door mensen die iedereen het graf in wenste. Ik werd ook het graf in gewenst omdat mijn zuster zelfmoord had gepleegd. Dat maakte mij in de ogen van de nette burgers een griezel. Uiteindelijk ben ik blij dat ik al vroeg werd uitgestoten: ik ben nu niet opgegroeid om mij te conformeren.”

Leven wordt dan een kwestie van overleven?

“Ja, ik ben een survivor, zo leef ik ook. Een televisie-interviewer hier zei: 'Het leven dat je toont is vreselijk.' Ik zei: 'Ik heb een prachtig leven, heel intens. Voor mij is de hel opgesloten zitten in een of andere nieuwbouwwijk, met tijdschriften, tv en contact op internet. Dat zou mijn dood zijn.' Ik vind het een voorrecht om een outsider te zijn. Ik heb van mijn leven genoten ondanks alles wat voor anderen een horrorshow lijkt. Geen van ons voelt dat ook maar in het minst zo. Er waren goede tijden die slecht eindigden, maar ik zou niets anders hebben gewild.”


De tentoonstelling in het Stedelijk is opgedeeld naar periodes in Goldins leven: de tienerjaren, met zwart-wit foto's zoals iedereen die heeft, de travestieten in de jaren zeventig, haar drugsverslaving in de jaren tachtig en het herstel in de jaren negentig. De latere foto's tonen voor het eerst de buitenwereld los van de mensen of in een bijna idyllische combinatie met hen: de Brooklynbridge onder een goudkleurige wolkenlucht, bomen langs een rivier, een naakte vrouw tussen groen aan de waterkant. Voor het eerst ook is er daglicht. Die foto's zijn vaak dromerig, bijna romantisch.

Goldin: “Tussen 1978 en 1988 zag ik het daglicht waarschijnlijk alleen om zes uur s'morgens als ik in een taxi van bars op weg was naar huis. Ik woonde bovendien in een donkere loft. Ik ontdekte het daglicht pas in 1988 in de kliniek, toen ik afkickte. Dat betekende een grote verandering, in mijn werk én op het menselijke vlak. Tot dan had ik jarenlang de wereld alleen gezien door de filter van mijn verslaving.'

Je hebt ook altijd gezien vanuit welke hoek je de wereld het beste kon fotograferen.

“Nee, ik ben nooit met esthetiek bezig geweest. Ik neem heel veel foto's en selecteer en edit ze later. Ik zet niets in elkaar, vertel niemand hoe hij zich moet gedragen of hoe hij moet gaan staan. Alles gebeurt intuïtief. ”

Toch is die intuïtie gestempeld door andere fotografen: Diane Arbus, Cecil Beaton, Robert Frank, Larry Clark, om een paar traceerbare invloeden te noemen. Die invloeden hebben alleen maar in aanzet met stijl te maken. Goldin moet zich daar, gezien de mengelmoes van stijlen in haar oeuvre, niet werkelijk voor interesseren. Toch herken je haar foto's direct. Ik zeg dat ik er altijd een grote tederheid in voel voor haar onderwerp, en een gevoel voor drama.

Goldin: “Ik leef mij in in wat ik zie. Vrouwen zijn daar beter toe in staat dan mannen. Mannen zijn erg gehecht aan hun ego. Daarom is het moeilijk voor ze om zich in anderen in te leven zonder zichzelf te verliezen. Vrouwen kunnen dat.”

Het is geen natuurlijk gegeven: aandachtig zijn moet je leren.

“Ja, fotografie is voor mij ook het middel daartoe geweest. Ik begreep jarenlang niets van relaties en maakte foto's om beter te zien wat er aan de hand was. In het oude werk ging het over het gedrag van mensen, de laatste jaren interesseer ik mij meer voor hun innerlijk leven, hun relatie met zichzelf en met mij. Het spirituele interesseert me nu. Ik reis ook vaker naar het Oosten.”

Ze relativeert die belangstelling meteen weer: “Onmiddellijk na de opening in het Whitney Museum ben ik, om de herinnering aan de kunstwereld uit te wissen, met mijn vriend in een klooster gegaan om te mediteren. Maar het was voor mij als skiën in de Himalaya zonder ooit te hebben geoefend. Na twee dagen was ik dan ook weer terug in New York.”

Evenzo zoekt ze in het Oosten, Japan, Manila, weer de outsiders op: hoeren, travestieten, de SM-scene. Geen monniken.

Goldin: “Japan is een zeer conformistische, uiterst regressieve maatschappij. Ik help daar mensen om uit te komen voor hun seksuele geaardheid en breng aids-patiënten ertoe publiekelijk over hun ziekte te praten. Ik arrangeer ontmoetingen zodat ze een clan kunnen vormen zoals de mijne. Dat is mijn missie nu: jonge mensen helpen. Als ik homo-teenagers kan helpen met hun zelfbeeld zodat ze geen zelfmoord plegen, ben ik geslaagd. Er is veel zelfmoord onder teenagers omdat er in de maatschappij zo weinig is dat hun werkelijke behoeftes en verlangens reflecteert. Alles is voorgekookt of wordt onmiddellijk vercommercialiseerd. Er is een groot streven naar controle.”

Dat maakt het tegendeel ook heel aantrekkelijk. Op jouw foto's zie je veel chaos, het wilde leven.

“Dat zocht ik ook. Ik wilde geen controle meer, de camera is jarenlang de enige controle in mijn leven geweest.”

Je was ook slachtoffer van een tijdsbeeld. Drugs werden gemythologiseerd.

“Vergeet niet dat drugs maken dat je je werkelijk zeer, zeer goed voelt. Ze nemen de pijn van het leven weg. De herinnering daaraan raak je nooit meer kwijt. Vorig jaar was ik ongewild weer even verslaafd aan pijnstillers. Sinds zes maanden ben ik daar weer van af... Ik wil het niet meer, ik voel dat ik meer balans nodig heb. Ik heb er geen behoefte aan steeds opnieuw hetzelfde te moeten doormaken.”

Word je door de dood aangetrokken?

“Zelfmoord is voor mij altijd een optie geweest, maar ik wil leven, zo lang mogelijk. Misschien dacht ik toen ik drugs nam dat de dood glamorous was, dat het leven geleefd moest worden tot het absolute maximum. De dood scheen onwerkelijk, tot mijn beste vrienden stierven. Toen vond ik dat junkie zijn een vorm was van zelfbevrediging, want ik kon hen niet helpen. Dat is een van de redenen waarom ik ben afgekickt. Een andere is dat veel van mijn vrienden afkickten, en ik doe alles wat zij doen.” Ze lacht.

Je legt veel accent op het hebben van een missie, het helpen van anderen. De titel van de tentoonstelling verwijst daar ook naar: 'I'll be your mirror', naar een song van de Velvet Underground..

Goldin: “Lou Reed heeft mij toestemming gegeven om die titel te gebruiken. Ik heb hem gekozen omdat een vriend mij schreef dat de foto's die ik van hem aan de ontbijttafel gemaakt heb, hem het gevoel gaven dat hij voor het eerst zijn ziel zag. Hij schreef: 'Jij bent mijn spiegel'. Dat wil ik ook zijn: ik reflecteer wat ik zie en voel. Misschien breek ik daarmee even de glazen wand tussen ons en de wereld. ”

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