Jimmy Paulette and Tabboo in the Bathroom, NYC, 1991
By Carole Naggar, originally appeared in Mother Jones, Jan-Feb 1992
Secrets. They are at the heart of her work. Nan Goldin thinks we should not keep secrets to ourselves, or they will start seething like pus, infecting us and the society we live in, one of the most puritanical in the world.
“My photographs,” she says, “are now focused on investigating issues of drug addicition and recovery, the effects of AIDS, and the reconstruction of personal identity and community.” In the nineties, the glamour of self-destruction has worn off. To describe “people who walked through fire and came out the other side,” Nan Goldin draws, as usual, from her personal experience. In the summer of 1988 – a very dark period in her life – she entered a drug rehabilitation center in Boston. Self-portraits and portraiture of her friends were an “irrevocable exorcism,” she says. “I did those to fit back into my own skin, to reacquaint myself with myself. The camera is a mirror, the pictures are a diary through which I change.”
My own two-and-a-half-year old son does not believe that he will always be a boy. To him, past and future run in a cycle. He will say things like, “When I am a baby again, I will drink a bottle of milk.” Someday, he thinks, he will be a horse, a walrus, a tree, the wind. And if girls do not have penises, they could buy them at the supermarket. This makes me remember how, as a girl growing up between two boys, I had desperately wanted to be a boy too. Wearing dungarees and a red checked shirt might help the process, I thought, and I dreamed about cutting my long hair. There is still a part of me that wants to be a boy, an undecided, ambivalent, ancient part, which makes me feel against evidence that gender is not irreversible.
Some who were born male deeply desire to be women, and they act out their dreams. The contrary is true, too. In her recent work, Nan Goldin has encountered and become close with friends who are going in and out of drag. They embody the fantasy that gender is malleable. So that now, it seems, her pictures are focused not on the homosexual community as such, but rather on love as a powerful source of renewal and change, something that occurs between people whose race and sex ultimately do not matter.
“My dream was that you slept with people you liked,” she says, “and you would not know about their sex until you undressed them.”
You would not know, looking at Lynette and Donna, if they are friends, sisters, or more; you would not know, looking at Tom’s face and the expectant light in his eyes, that he is gravely sick; you would not know, but for the caption, that the person Siobhan makes love to is a woman, Nan Goldin. Looking at Tabboo’s painted lips, you would know one thing – at his torso, another. Both are true.
Her pictures resonate with these multiple truths. While they challenge our assumptions, their premise is hope. Hope is just another name for the vibrant palette, the warm glow of light that envelops sensuous bodies, as in, for instance, her portrait of Butch – pregnant, smiling in her tub.
Nan Goldin is more intent on the veracity of emotion than on formal composition, and so her images, to a superficial eye, could look like snapshots from a family album. To me, this is precisely what gives them their strength. Like Christian Boltanski, who often uses found photographs, she knows that the more banal pictures seem, the more powerful they are, and the easier it is to project on them. The viewer, as if peering into someone else’s diary, feels drawn in, becoming one of her subjects, one of her friends.
What is intimacy? she asks. How close can you get to another person? Are frontiers between sexes as definite as some would like to think? More pointed, more obsessed, but also broader and deeper than before, her work in progress gives a strong, positive feeling. It shows change, the cycle of life and death at work; it speaks not of pain only, but of the making of a community welded by fire and now confident enough to look at the world and question it.
Carole Naggar is a writer, painter and curator of photography.
ASX CHANNEL: NAN GOLDIN
(Text @ Carole Naggar, Images @ Nan Goldin)