Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
  2. Film
20 January 2023

Nan Goldin’s politics of sex

The film All the Beauty and the Bloodshed shows how, from the Aids crisis onwards, the photographer merged steely activism and intimate art.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

In 1978, as a 25-year-old student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Nan Goldin was awarded a $5,000 arts grant that enabled her to spend time in London. She lived in a squat, photographing skinheads for a series on the city’s subculture. There are images of young men dancing, smoking or having sex, taken in dingy-looking rooms with brown carpets and yellow wallpaper. Goldin immersed herself in these communities, even living with a group of skinheads – “briefly, until they became the soldiers for the National Front”, she said. “I was always inside the work.”

One photo from this series shows a woman with her back to the camera. She is stood in front of an open window hung with thin curtains, which cuts across the frame at an angle. Though we can’t see the woman’s eyes, she seems to be looking down on the city; grey rooftops are visible in the distance. Her naked back is marked by delicate pink scratches. “Self-portrait with scratched back after sex, London” contains many of the hallmarks of Goldin’s later work: an off-kilter, unstudied composition, high contrast thanks to the liberal use of flash, naked bodies, wounds, herself.

It would go on to be included in Goldin’s famous sequence The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Like many in the series, this is an image ostensibly about intimacy that is filled with longing, loneliness and a lurking sense of threat as much as human connection or passion. “The Hug, New York City” shows a faceless, violent embrace in a dark corner; in “Heart-Shaped Bruise, New York City” tights are pulled down amorously to reveal the injury; “Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City” is full of tension – and not just sexual. Then there’s perhaps her most famous image, “Nan One Month After Being Battered”, a self-portrait with swollen, purple eyes, taken after Brian attacked her in Berlin – Goldin required major reconstructive surgery.

These are just some of the photographs included in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, a documentary film about Goldin that vividly demonstrates how for her the personal and the political do not just intersect, but are indistinguishable – in both her life and work. The director, Laura Poitras, jumps between two narratives. One is the story of Goldin’s life: the suffocating suburban childhood that led to her elder sister’s suicide (Goldin left home at 14), art school in Boston, the shabby glamour of queer 1980s nightlife in downtown New York, her and her friends’ experiences of the Aids crisis, and her addiction to the opioid OxyContin. The other is her work to end the art world’s connection to the Sackler family, the pharmaceutical dynasty behind OxyContin, after she founded the advocacy group Pain (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). Poitras triumphantly dramatises how Goldin used her position to influence several galleries – the National Gallery, the Met, the Louvre – first to reject Sackler funding, then remove their names from the buildings entirely.

Goldin’s work with Pain was directly inspired by her memories of Act Up, the grass-roots group campaigning for intervention in the Aids pandemic – she stages “die-ins” with Pain activists in major public spaces – and there are infuriating sequences exploring how that disease decimated her immediate community. In 1989 Goldin curated an exhibition called “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing”. When her friend the artist David Wojnarowicz wrote in the catalogue that Cardinal John O’Connor, who tried to prevent teaching about Aids in New York, was “a fat cannibal” in “black skirts”, the National Endowment for the Arts threatened to pull funding for the show unless the catalogue was removed. A media storm ensued about the politicisation of art. “Is the fact that I may be dying of Aids in 1989, is that not political?” Wojnarowicz says directly to camera in archive footage. He died in 1992.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

In a 2018 essay for Artforum Goldin wrote, “I believe I owe it to those affected by this epidemic to make the personal political.” In Poitras’s film we see how Goldin remained true to her word.

“All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is in cinemas from 27 Jan

[See also: Beauty standards are changing at speed. What is the impact on our bodies?]

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action

Topics in this article : ,

This article appears in the 25 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why Germany doesn’t do it better