Nan Goldin – Until 27 October 2019 @Tate Modern
One of my favourite photographers – Nan Goldin – and her documentation of the gay subculture of the 1960s after the Stonewall riots, the HIV infection crisis, the opioid epidemic and the LGBT culture, takes room at this month’s “Displays at the Tate Modern” – these monthly selections are simply too engaging.
We get sucked into Nan’s life and her stories at first glance, and those intimate details she shares with us make us part of her family; we immediately bond with the artist and her offer of an honest and integral version of truth. The large and iconic prints of the the photographer entirely cover the entrance’s room: it is the story of her debut with the camera, a “collaboration” that Nan claims to have saved her life.
Born into a bourgeois family in the Jewish quarter just outside Washington D.C., Nan began photographing her friendships starting at public school; progressive acquaintances, some of whom will stick to her for the rest of her life. At 14 years old, after the traumatic loss of her sister Barbara who committed suicide when Goldin was 11, she left her native house and moved to New York. It’s 1978, and the Big Apple is where Nan creates a dense network of people which which she actively replaces with the classical family. That nucleus is portrayed in all her work – the pictures are a door to the past, a time machine to events that she wants to keep untouched, despite the fact that the AIDS virus was spreading and would have soon replaced life with tragic deaths. The photos are impartial, reliable, often depicting harrowing times. ‘Nan One Month After Being Battered’ is an example: a self-portrait of the artist covered with bruises after a violent attack by the at-the-time-boyfriend, a picture that conveys the idea of loneliness and also the difficulty of relationships. These painful pictures alternate with instants of peace and stability: “Portrait On The Train ” shows us a more balanced Nan after a rehabilitation admission from drugs and alcohol.
The desire to leave a memory of her uncorrectable life is more intrusive in the second room, with the “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”. The title is a clear reference to the opera song “The Three Soldiers” by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It is conferred as a diary, preserving the most important characters of Nan’s life: friends, family and lovers that the artist refuses to forget – treasured memories that are conceived for Nan rather than the public. It is an Instagram where her friends pose without concealing – there is no need to recreate an embellished reality, only to frame a candid and simple version of their lives.
The collection is divided into large thematic sections where the photos flow one by one while the music goes – Velvet Underground above all. The journey through these slides aims to explore the human condition in all disparate events: holidays, celebrations and tragedies. Love and violence, life and death parade on the same carpet. They are photos taken from the late 1970s to the present, that Nan exhibited every time in a different order and that today seems even more dramatic. Addicts, dragqueens, a scruffy world that comes directly from the past to be projected onto the giant screen – Goldin’s life and the one of her community, from the parties with pregnant women and children frolicking around, to funerals and petrifying open coffins. And again, girls and boys look at the camera while posing naked, couples entertain themselves, and us, with oral and non-oral sexual activities, bare arms and spoons full of heroin are heated up and there are needles in the foreground, women carrying the residue signs of violence on their bodies. Nothing can be hidden, frankness doesn’t leave any chance for corruptibility. The fragility of life portrayed in the dark and in the light makes Nan’s friends and lives more than ever tremendously present.