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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.

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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?]

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