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Nan Goldin: pleasure’s image, P.A.I.N., and the politics of loss

Arts & Culture | October 15, 2019

Content warning: discussion of substance addiction, abuse

Languid bodies, unmade beds, couples mid-sex, men masturbating, black eyes, nocturnal habits, drug paraphernalia. Nan Goldin’s diaristic images afford an unadulterated look into her life through the ’70s and ’80s in a Boston and New York steeped in hedonistic color. But somewhere inside these snapshots of soft caresses and swaying couples, Goldin’s images often point to something smothered, suffocating, and exploitative, often revealing a profound ambivalence about ourselves and others. Placing pressure on the intersection of bliss and suffering, Goldin’s work asks us what is left to do with these images of pleasure when confronting histories of systemic loss. 

At age 18, Goldin was introduced to Boston’s drag and transgender subculture, a rich underground world which centered around the historical nightclub called The Other Side. These early black-and-white portraits of her friends and lovers display a collaboration between subject and photographer. “I was in love with them,” Goldin would say. “In those years I truly did not live as a woman. I lived as a queen.” 

After enrolling at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) in 1973, Goldin spent years admiring the photography of Robert Frank and Larry Clark, who in an earlier movement experimented with a revealing, bold style of spontaneous autobiography. As Goldin left Boston for New York and Berlin, she continued to work in this Confessional aesthetic, producing images which would eventually culminate in the iconic book Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The book explores themes of closeness and hostility in intimate relationships and the strained dynamics between men and women. Visual motifs emerge: women’s self-imaging in the mirror, addictions of all kinds, Goldin’s own battered face and bruised body. 

Goldin has said that she photographs due to a fascination with the content and the escapism it affords. She often professes a lack of interest in the technical, claiming to learn much from her own students about the mechanics of photography. She also disavows conceptual motivations or investment in the latent psychology of her images. Rather, Goldin is moved mostly by the content of the image and expressing it in maximal candor; she conceives the picture as a historical document, an index of lived time and place. 

As her community of loved ones were devastated by AIDS and substance addiction through the ’70s, these images of past loves also now double as a record of unspeakable personal loss, and of public health crises left neglected. “My tribe is dead…All of the people I was meant to get old with are gone,” Goldin told an interviewer at the MOCA.

Beyond their content, Goldin’s photos also flaunt her striking visual style: saturated and glossy, unpretentious and dead-on, flashier than a deadpan aesthetic. Reto Thuring, the MFA’s Chair of Contemporary Art, said, “If you look at Nan’s work, one can see a lot of great sense of composition and formal sensibility. Oftentimes her photos look more casual than they actually are. Yet it is important that it is really documenting people around her and everyday life in an intuitive way, because that is the thing that gives them the authenticity with which we read the work.” 

Hers is a gaze with a privileged access of intimacy—a familiar, if adoring, gaze that enjoys the subject’s reciprocation. Her photos reveal subjects desensitized to the camera’s constant presence in their daily life by the force of closeness, clearly the result of cohabitation with the photographer. Goldin recognizes that the lack of distance between herself and her subject is a key feature in her images. “That was a lot of the power of the work; that I was in the exact same state that I was recording,” Goldin said. “These were the people I lived with, these were my friends, these were my family, this was myself. I’d photograph people having sex while I was having sex…There was no separation between me and what I was photographing.”

Some have speculated that Goldin’s intimate, casual photography was a precursor to social media and the Instagram age. “I really don’t want to take credit for it, please,” Goldin laughed in a MOCA interview, noting that social media fails to provide “a profound forum for people to actually talk about their experience through pictures.” 

And yet, there are clear parallels between Goldin’s core motivation throughout her works and the collective experiment in documentary practice that is Instagram: an archival impulse that runs through an individual life, the need to outsource memory, the desire to leave records. Goldin’s is a hyperpersonal form of documentary. Her pleasure and satisfaction can be felt all over her images, and her work makes no attempt to erase her own gaze.

In 2017, her work began to take on a new tone, as Goldin went public about her addiction to OxyContin. Three years earlier, she had followed a doctor’s prescription for the painkiller for an injured wrist. Her addiction was nearly immediate—just one example of the opioid epidemic that currently devastates communities nationwide. Since then, Goldin and her allies have founded a political group called Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.). This campaign targets Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, a pharmaceutical family currently under fire from thousands of civil lawsuits and likely criminal investigation for knowingly orchestrating this public health crisis for profit. 

Since its formation, P.A.I.N. has staged actions to push the world’s most prestigious museums to publicly refuse the family’s donations and remove its name from their signage. The group also demands that the family’s companies allocate profits made from OxyContin to fund rehabilitation and harm reduction programs. P.A.I.N. envisions a future in which Sackler wings of museums are taken down and replaced with Sackler rehabilitation centers. 

In a moment when Americans are mobilizing against the profit incentive in healthcare, P.A.I.N. is far from the only movement pushing for accountability for inaction on public health crises. But Goldin’s movement is perhaps notable for targeting the Sacklers’ reputational currency as its central strategy. Focusing on the domain of high culture, P.A.I.N. weaponizes publicity to stigmatize the Sackler name in a world where it carries much currency. “To get their ear we will target their philanthropy. They have washed their blood money through the halls of museums and universities around the world,” Goldin wrote. 

As institutions such as art galleries and universities face calls for transparency, philanthropy as a funding model is increasingly becoming the subject of discussion. But when unimaginable excess accumulates, it is difficult to imagine alternative models to fund social goods. In June 2018, Goldin led a die-in at Harvard to demand that the university refuse future Sackler funding, without success.

Journalist Christopher Glazek wrote, “Nan Goldin has kept fresh the Sackler story from making headlines, and has given the opioid epidemic something it previously lacked—a coherent aesthetic of protest.” Indeed, P.A.I.N.’s die-ins are thoroughly aestheticized, demonstrations including flurries of mock OxyContin prescriptions and mass takeover of exhibition spaces. Goldin’s takeover of the Guggenheim in February 2019, for example, could easily be seen as a performance art piece. When asked about her “recent work,” Goldin points to these protests, tacitly recognizing the theatrical significance of these die-ins. So far, Goldin’s staged actions have been successful in pushing the Louvre to remove Sackler signage, as well as pushing the Met, the MoMA, and Tate galleries to publicly vow to refuse Sackler money. 

Even more locally, the Sackler family’s connections to Tufts have been extensively covered. Amid reports that Tufts actively receives Sackler donations raised from OxyContin sales, the university administration has refused to share donor data, citing donor privacy. 

There is a central irony here. Being an SMFA alum and having undergone firsthand the harms of Purdue Pharma, Goldin is now leveraging the career which has been buoyed by Tufts—a key participant in the Sacklers’ cultural influence—to make a public call for institutional transparency and symbolic divestment. 

Nan Goldin is now on Instagram (@nangoldinstudio). While her feed is mostly publicity for P.A.I.N.’s demonstrations or scans of her earlier work, she has also published some impromptu snapshots of women nestling and friends at rest—content that would not be out of place on a common finsta feed. It is clear that Goldin’s form of the intimate documentary—the impulse to preserve the revisable—is deeply conducive to the objectives of P.A.I.N., which centers on making the private public and the personal political.

Often, there are strategic weaknesses in organizing for systemic change on commercial digital platforms. Yet, Goldin and P.A.I.N. serve as case studies for the successful use of existing structures of visibility for concrete political aims. When pursuing concretely defined goals that center on the weaponizing of publicity, stigmatization, and reversals of cultural capital, the use of social media platforms can be instrumental in recording and disseminating histories of loss. By showing us that the snapshot can indeed be political, Goldin’s work asks us to consider how we today might mobilize the image of lost pleasure.