‘I am often filled with rage at my sense of powerlessness in the face of this plague,’ Goldin wrote in the catalogue for the 1989 exhibition Witness she curated in New York, bringing together artists to address the issue of AIDS. Over three decades later, that rage is still evident, in both her long-running body of photographic work capturing those around her, as well as her work drawing attention to the current opioid painkiller epidemic that has swept the US. Speaking at the New York Film Festival last year, director Laura Poitras said, “Nan has influenced a generation of filmmakers – generations, multiple generations of filmmakers, through her storytelling and the emotional depth of her work.” Poitras’s documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022) depicts the opioid crisis and Goldin’s fight against the Sackler family, whose artworld philanthropy was sustained by the revenues of the pharmaceutical company behind the addictive drugs (the Sacklers deny any wrongdoing). After years of struggling with addiction, Goldin founded P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) in 2017 to confront the artworld’s double standards and artwashing. Goldin tops the list as the most visible and prominent model of artist as not just documenter and witness, but also spokesperson, whistleblower, activist and ethical voice.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed missed out on an Oscar, but after winning a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last year it was widely released via streaming channels. The buzz will have brought new audiences to the institutional shows Goldin had lined up, from This Will Not End Well at Moderna Museet, Stockholm, which closed in February, moving to the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in August, to a show of the 126 transgressive works from Goldin’s seminal The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) – in which lovers and strangers meet, cavort, party and fight in the beaches, bars and cars of Provincetown, Boston, New York, Berlin and Mexico – at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Younger generations of artists, as well as those from the world of film and fashion, will find that the former self-described ‘go-go dancer’ (‘like a lot of women in the art world were doing at the time’) and sex worker was addressing decades ago so many of the themes current in today’s culture: raw confessional autobiography, queer identity, intersectional feminism, body autonomy and corporate ethics. Her embrace of the photobook as an enduring medium, alongside prints and slide projections, has ensured she’s won fans even in countries where her shows haven’t yet arrived (though since she joined Gagosian’s 19-strong gallery empire this year, her geographical reach is even stronger).
Goldin has referred to This Will Not End Well, which will be followed by the publication of a nine-volume boxset featuring reproductions of the artist’s slideshows, as her last retrospective, noting, ‘I don’t have many years left’. But the battle against the Sackler family continues: while more museums drop their patronage (V&A Dundee and Oxford’s Ashmolean among the latest), America’s Supreme Court blocked bankruptcy proceedings in August that would have protected individual family members from civil suits. “I’ve never seen any such abuse of justice,” said Goldin when the Sackler’s legal move was originally waved through. Goldin’s insistence that art exists not in its own world but in the world at large, and should not be free of moral responsibility when it comes to that engagement, has led her to leverage her success as an artist to take prominent stances on other issues. Following the 7 October terror attacks in Israel and the subsequent bombing of Gaza, and the artworld’s desire to take positions on the Israel-Hamas conflict, Goldin called out the ‘blacklisting’ of artists, sticking to her guns despite pressure from collectors, galleries and institutions on artists to withdraw their public positions. For Goldin it’s not just about an artist expressing their rage, but channelling it into a move for change. For her, art is a medium that can remind people that they have agency in a world that constantly tells them that they do not.