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Nan Goldin’s New Show Is a Raw, Emotional View into the Dangers of Addiction

Nan Goldin, Sirens, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris, and London.

Nan Goldin, Sirens, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris, and London.

Two days after the opening of her first exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery, staged a “die-in” protest across town in London. The first PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) protest in the U.K., it took place at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). Goldin and around 30 protesters from the advocacy group she founded in 2017 lay on the ground of the museum’s Sackler Courtyard entrance, in a scene similar to protests she led at the Met and the Guggenheim in the past two years. Like those New York institutions, the V&A has accepted monetary gifts from the Sacklers.
Nan Goldin, artist and founder of PAIN, with the mission head of AIDES, Fred Bladou, during an anti-Sackler protest at the Louvre. Photo by Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images.

Nan Goldin, artist and founder of PAIN, with the mission head of AIDES, Fred Bladou, during an anti-Sackler protest at the Louvre. Photo by Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images.

Goldin hasn’t had a solo exhibition in the U.K. since her touring show “The Devil’s Playground” came to Whitechapel Gallery in 2002. In recent years, Goldin has been making headlines not for her art, but for her activism. Her target has been the Sackler family, the owners of pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, which created the opioid painkiller OxyContin and promoted it, even after learning how dangerous it can be. Goldin, who was a heroin user in the 1970s and ’80s, is in recovery from an OxyContin addiction that began in 2014. She founded PAIN with a mission to lobby museums and arts institutions, demanding that they publicly refuse Sackler money.
The new show at Marian Goodman—Goldin’s first outing with the gallery since it began representing her last year—opened on November 14th, the day after the artist was ranked as Art Review’s second-most powerful person in the art world. Titled “Sirens,” a nod to the video that is the show’s centerpiece, the exhibition features three never-before-seen works, as well as older, formative photographs.
Nan Goldin,  Memory Lost, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris, and London.

Nan Goldin, Memory Lost, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris, and London.

It’s not often you see an art critic in tears, but such was the scene at Marian Goodman last week, as silent sobs were stifled in the dark while two intense new video works, Memory Lost and Sirens (both 2019), played for the first time in public. Another never-before-seen, three-channel video installation, Salome (2019)—which juxtaposes extracts from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Charles Bryant’s Salomé (1923), and Carmelo Bene’s Salome (1972)—is also presented alongside older photographic portraits by Goldin.
Installation view of Nan Goldin, “Siren” at Marian Goodman Gallery, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris, and London.

Installation view of Nan Goldin, “Siren” at Marian Goodman Gallery, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris, and London.

There’s also an updated version of the funereal The Other Side, the slideshow work (named after the famous 1970s drag queen bar in Boston) that Goldin began in 1994. She wrote, in a book of the work, that The Other Side includes the pictures that “inspired [her] to become a photographer.” They portray Goldin’s circle—including her best friend, the late photographer ; her roomate in Beacon Hill, and other friends; Naomi, who also went by Frankie and later died of AIDS; artist and writer Sunny Suits; and drag queen Ivy. In a new edition of the book, Goldin explains how her relationship to this body of work has shifted, both positively and negatively, noting that despite the fact “the invisible has become visible,” violence—especially against the trans and queer community she has been part of—continues to rise. “Not everyone lives in safe spaces,” she writes.
Nan Goldin, Sirens, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris, and London.

Nan Goldin, Sirens, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris, and London.

“It is 27 years since the original version of this book was published,” Goldin continues. “So much has changed. The language has shifted and suddenly I can’t freely navigate the terrain without stumbling. It is a minefield.…At The Other Side there wasn’t space for political correctness, because the community was living on the edge of a society that didn’t care if they lived or died.” In the context of Goldin’s activism, The Other Side now takes a different tone, more mournful than celebratory.
The dichotomy between freedom and addiction has been a continuous theme of Goldin’s practice since her breakthrough slideshow and book, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985). And this theme is unmistakably at the center of the trio of new works—her most unflinching and direct appeal about the impact of addiction yet. “Sirens” is at once a doleful memorial, a tribute to lives lost, and an urgent call to arms. The veneer of the glamour and hedonism that Goldin herself is enthralled with—as much as her audiences were in the 1970s and ’80s—is worn thin as the truth of drug abuse is peeled back, as brutally as the broken skin that’s picked at with a safety pin at the start of Sirens. Goldin has never shied away from difficult subjects, from domestic violence to death and sex; “Sirens,” as the title suggests, feels more like a warning than a demand for recognition.
Nan Goldin, Greer modeling jewelry, NYC, 1985. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris, and London.

Nan Goldin, Greer modeling jewelry, NYC, 1985. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris, and London.

The video work Sirens is a soaring, evocative exploration of what it’s like to get high. The work’s title actually refers to the sirens of Greek mythology, who seduced sailors to their death. Entrancing and overwhelming, Sirens pulses with the energy of the night, dancing in the dark. Goldin’s first-ever film solely using found footage, it includes scenes borrowed from works by , Lynee Ramsay, , Federico Fellini, and Henri-Georges Clouzot, as well as documentary footage of a rave in London in 1988.
Memory Lost is an emotionally gruelling 24-minute slideshow that works symbiotically with Sirens. An intensely personal look at Goldin’s own addiction and the way it has shaped her life, Memory Lost’s effect comes cumulatively, via hundreds of photographs that examine addiction symbolically and literally, moving between Earth and sky, from the most alive to the dead and gone. Transcendental music composed by Mica Levi (who created the soundtrack for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, 2013) is punctuated with crackling messages from an answering machine that return to the question of consciousness—more fraught in the context of drug taking: “Are you awake?” “Were you sleeping?” “Were you able to sleep?” “Did I wake you up?”The panic rises and falls, the sense of impending dread that one day, the person you’re trying to reach won’t be there anymore.
Nan Goldin, Ivy on the way to Newbury St., Boston Garden, Boston, 1973. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris, and London.

Nan Goldin, Ivy on the way to Newbury St., Boston Garden, Boston, 1973. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris, and London.

Do you have to have experienced addiction, or to at least have experienced an intoxicated high, to really understand Goldin’s work? Possibly, but the emotional tug isn’t lost on the sober. Memory Lost is not about addiction and its devastating effect on the mind and body, but the fragmentary nature of memory, and photography’s desperate pursuit to contain it—an idea that’s been rooted in the medium since Barthes wrote about it. In fact, it’s not the images that really stay with you when you leave “Sirens.” It’s an atmosphere that haunts you, with some of the faces you’ve seen—like that of artist , a close friend of Goldin’s, who died from a drug overdose in 1996 after battling addiction and anorexia.
As an artist, Goldin understood early on how to harness the power of images—not as single, standalone photographs, but as a reel that unravels and takes you with it. If she was ahead of her time in this approach, now, she is emphatically with our time, artistically and politically.
“We have to prioritise saving lives,” Goldin writes in her new text for The Other Side. This is the fundamental and enduring message of “Sirens,” her most activist work yet.
Charlotte Jansen