Nan Goldin at Marian Goodman Gallery, London

‘Sirens is not a normal show for Goldin, since it has not been a normal year’ – J.J. Charlesworth on the artist and activist’s latest show

By J.J. Charlesworth

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

The photograph is of a pale-skinned young woman, from the midriff up, against a red wall. Her aquiline nose and high cheekbones appear in closeup. She wears only a body-ornament made of strands of cascading, filigree-threaded silver stars that fall from a headpiece down over her small breasts. Blonde hair scraped back, she looks down to somewhere outside the frame.

This is Greer Lankton in Nan Goldin’s Greer modeling jewelry, NYC (1985). The transgender artist was, like the photographer, part of the New York demimonde of the 1980s that straight America repressed or ignored: lesbians and gays, transsexuals, drag queens, postpunks and artists. Hanging at the heart of this epic part-triumphal, part-elegiac show, Greer modeling jewelry condenses a recurring theme of Sirens: the inherent glamour of individuals who reinvent themselves. By taking on new appearances and personalities, they create a reality in which the norms of straight society can be ignored.

Yet this reality is precarious, sustained by little more than friendship, mutual support and – behind the cascade of stars – human bodies that prove to be frail without the protection of wealth, status and conventional social institutions. In Sirens, death is always waiting out of frame: photographs from Goldin’s legendary 1985 slideshow and 1986 photobook The Ballad of Sexual Dependency are positioned alongside those from the 1993 iteration of The Other Side (a slideshow of black-and-white pictures of drag queens taken during the mid-1970s) and newly made videoworks. In the video slideshow The Other Side (1994–2019), for example, the previously elfin and sparkling Lankton is older and thinner, gnawed by anorexia; she died from an overdose in 1996. Goldin, who was surrounded by AIDS and addiction, survived. 

Although only just. Sirens is not a normal show for Goldin, since it has not been a normal year. During the 12 months since she joined Marian Goodman Gallery she has added to her status as a pioneering artist the role of crusading activist, having almost singlehandedly brought the US opioid crisis to the artworld’s attention by pointing the finger at the Sackler family made staggeringly rich by it. It was the Sackler-owned Purdue Pharma that, during the late 1990s, developed and aggressively marketed the opioid-based painkiller Oxycontin as a magic pill for long-term chronic pain; its success helped the Sackler Foundation become one of the most powerful philanthropic organisations in the artworld.

Goldin herself became addicted to Oxycontin after being prescribed it to manage the pain of an injured hand: when the prescription ran out, she, like millions of addicted Americans, drifted on to street drugs. She got clean in 2017, and then she got angry, founding the pressure group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) and protesting the institutions where Sackler money was most visible. She had skin in the game: early in 2019, Goldin announced that she would boycott her own retrospective at London’s National Portrait Gallery if it did not turn down a £1 million grant from the Sackler Foundation. The museum acquiesced, and soon institutions around the world announced that they would refuse any further donations from the Sackler Foundation, which in turn indefinitely suspended its philanthropic activities.

Sirens is not a normal show for Goldin, since it has not been a normal year. During the 12 months since she joined Marian Goodman Gallery she has added to her status as a pioneering artist the role of crusading activist

These events are alluded to in Sirens by a glass cabinet at the gallery entrance displaying P.A.I.N.’s recent protest and publicity materials. The show’s new works bookend the presentation of newly editioned prints from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and The Other Side – from the bleak anger that runs through the new video Memory Lost (2019) at one end of the gallery, to the triumphant celebration of queer desire that thunders out of the short, quasi-pop video Salome (2019) at the other.

Installed on three screens, Salome is both a cheerful homage to camp and a resilient two-fingers-up to the patriarchy. The lefthand screen collects three appropriated movie clips of Salome’s ‘dance of the seven veils’: two risqué black-and-white silent-cinema versions and the closing scene from Ken Russell’s thoroughly queered Salome’s Last Dance (1988), in which the veiled dancer finally strips to reveal that he is a proudly penis-waggling man. But what sets off Goldin’s bawdy cut-up Salome is the central screen: a looping early cinema clip in which a host of pancaked, eyelinered men in white tie and tails look agog – all expressionistic leering, gurning and jaw-dropping – towards the adjacent screen on which Salome dances. Merging into a Dalíesque cluster of staring eyes, these anonymous masculine drones lose their minds before the genderfluidity they both loathe and desire. “You know that it’s real if you feel that it’s real!”, choruses the driving electro soundtrack (John Robie’s One More Shot, 1990). And, just to remind everyone of the long history of sexual prohibition in straight culture, on the righthand screen Goldin tacks on a fragment of biblical Hollywood, in which the members of some royal court are punished by the Lord for whatever misdemeanour they have committed with a great storm that brings down the columns of their palace and sweeps them away.

The glam exuberance of Salome gives way to the colder fury that trickles through Memory Lost, a video/photo essay that is a shadowy world of woozy, blurred and tenebrous stills, shots of burn-marked photographs haunted by the ghosts of Goldin’s opioid-junkie reality. White pills set out carefully on a hotel-room desk with the counting-house precision of the addict making sure she has enough to get through the ensuing days; crackling snatches of telephone conversations in which Goldin and her friends talk from the depths of depression and addiction. “What did you get?” asks a voice like Goldin’s. “All that you wanted,” comes the anonymous, defeated voice in reply.

The sirens in Homer’s Odyssey were femaleshaped creatures whose seductive song would drive sailors mad, enticing them to wreck their ships on the rocks of the sirens’ island, thereafter to be eaten by them. The figure of Odysseus, binding himself to the mast and thus unable to respond to their call, has become a symbol of the overpowering nature of desire, of aesthetic delirium, of intoxication in general and of the misogynist figure of the woman as seducer and devourer of the male ego.

Nan Goldin, Picnic on the Esplanade, Boston, 1973. For AR January/February 2020 Review
Nan Goldin, Picnic on the Esplanade, Boston, 1973. Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Paris & London

But sirens are also the sound of alerts and alarms. In recording herself succumbing to the siren-call of legalised addiction, Goldin captures something of its lonely, suburban banality. Memory Lost touches on the social cost of the opioid crisis, although we really only catch glimpses of this through Goldin’s autobiographical lens – there is no social documentary here, apart from a snap of a printed sign in a pharmacy window that makes the panicked declaration ‘We do not sell Oxycontin here!’ There is little fascination, seduction, glamour or individual liberty to be found: only grimy hotels, winter landscapes, holes accidentally burned into mattresses and a little bottle of Oxycontin squatting in the dark confines of a hotel-room safe.

The final new work is the video that gives this show its name. The origins of the found footage in Sirens (2019) are myriad, but the clips – of ecstatic hippies gyrating, of nightclubbers dancing in the gloom and, principally, of the almost extraterrestrially thin and glamourous features of Donyale Luna, the ‘first black supermodel’, whose star coursed through the films of Andy Warhol to the covers of Vogue – hark to an earlier historical moment. “We are stardust,” intones a singer in the soundtrack of songs accompanying The Other Side, and Luna shines with it, though she died of a heroin overdose in 1979. A sprinkle of stardust can’t protect these fragile bodies from the hostility of straight society.

Especially once big pharma figured out that it was possible to make money from the war on drugs. During the opioid crisis, millions of Rust Belt and ‘flyover state’ Americans became addicted to prescription medications. They might have voted for Reagan, Bush or Trump; might once have despised the inhabitants of Goldin’s world. The artworld funded by philanthropic organisations including the Sackler Foundation remained largely indifferent to their suffering, and that political and cultural split stalks Sirens. The unfinished business of the culture wars is the exhibition’s blind spot, because, in the end, the suits got everyone, queer and straight.

There’s no easy solution here, only a possible escape. The skylit upstairs gallery hosts a series of largescale prints, mostly vast depopulated landscapes, darkening horizons somehow still rich in colour. They might represent a departure from everywhere else depicted in the show, a last snap of the shutter to capture transcendence. 

Nan Goldin: Sirens, Marian Goodman Gallery, London, through 11 January 

From the January/February 2020 issue of ArtReview