Nan Goldin’s films thrill at Stedelijk Museum

A MAJOR exhibition of Nan Goldin’s films is now on view at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

The American artist, who is best known for the novel photographs she took of New York subcultures beginning in 1979, has spent the last four decades documenting love, death and addiction, through striking images that revolve around her own life.

Having helped to draw attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Goldin has most recently lent her support to the growing opioid crisis, as a founding member of the advocacy group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now).

Last year, her political efforts were highlighted in an Oscar-nominated documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.

Nan Goldin, Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi, NYC, 1991. © Nan Goldin

At the Stedelijk, curator Vincent van Velsen has organised what is essentially a retrospective of Goldin’s filmmaking practice, presenting a number of moving-image works that are based on the slideshow format. These works are composed from hundreds of images which appear, one after the other, in sequence.

Admirers of the artist will have become accustomed to experiencing her two-dimensional images, with photographs being displayed across the walls of museums and galleries, but as this exhibition makes clear, Goldin always intended for her work to be experienced as she had originally envisaged.

This is, in fact, the first time that an exhibition on the artist has focused entirely on her films. The presentation at the Stedelijk could be a triumph for that reason alone, then, given that the artist has spoken about her slideshows as the most important work she has ever made.

Nan Goldin, Ivy on the way to Newbury St., Boston Garden, Boston, 1973. © Nan Goldin

The six slideshows included here are each given a space of their own: individual architectural structures akin to small-scale cinemas, designed by architect Hala Wardé, which one enters and exits, meaning that each slideshow can be experienced intimately, without the disruption of other works playing at the same time. It’s an intelligent move from which other museums could learn.

Installation view, Nan Goldin – This Will Not End Well, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Photo: Peter Tijhuis

Taking the exhibition’s title (This Will Not End Well) into consideration, the tone of what’s to come couldn’t be clearer. An air of melancholia, which often veers into the morbid, threads through the show.

Goldin’s most celebrated work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1979-2022), is a visual diary that chronicles her tribe—friends, family and lovers—through nearly 700 portraits. It’s a deeply personal narrative, formed out of the artist’s own experiences in Boston, New York and Berlin, in the 1970s and ‘80s.

This extensive slideshow is accompanied by a varied soundtrack that spans from Maria Callas to The Velvet Underground.

Nan Goldin, Elephant mask, Boston, 1985. © Nan Goldin

In The Other Side (1992-2021), Goldin pays tribute to her transgender friends, while Memory Loss is a bleak depiction of drug withdrawal, alluded to by the exhibition design (one enters through a long, blue-lit corridor which seeks to emulate the feeling of claustrophobia).

Similarly, to access Sisters, Saints and Sibyls (2004-2022), a slideshow that explores the life of Goldin’s sister, Barbara, who was institutionalised before committing suicide at the age of 18, you’re required to walk up the staircase of a structure reminiscent of a New York fire escape and watch the projection from a precarious balcony, which helps to evoke the uneasiness that is at the heart of the film.

Nan Goldin, C performing as Madonna, Bangkok, 1992. © Nan Goldin

Portrait of Nan Goldin. Photo: Ali Smith

What the exhibition ultimately puts forward, though, is a world that is highly charged and active. Through the pain, sorrow and relentless suffering can be felt acts of survival. Goldin’s world is full of life, even when it appears almost impossible.

by Derby Jones

Nan Goldin: This Will Not End Well is on view at the Stedelijk Museum until 28 January 2024.

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