Nan Goldin: Devils Playground
26 January - 01 April 2002
"My desire is to preserve the sense of people's lives, to endow them with the strength and beauty I see in them. I want the people in my pictures to stare back." Nan Goldin
Nan Goldin is the impassioned historian of love in an age of fluid sexuality, glamour, beauty, violence and death. Recognised as one of the world's most compelling photographers, her work has had a lasting impact on film, design and fashion as well as the fine arts. This definitive survey marks her first UK retrospective and includes a considerable body of new work, produced especially for Devil's Playground.
Goldin is best known for her photographs of people living marginal lifestyles, taken in cosmopolitan centres such as New York, London, Berlin, Tokyo and Paris. Working directly from personal experience, she captures moments that cumulatively tell stories of friendship, desire and their aftermath. Her work traverses the spectrum of human relations from love to isolation, betrayal, loss and self-revelation. Emotionally charged, and shot in intensely saturated hues, these images provide a slice of contemporary history, recounted through the lives of those close to her and characterised by an unposed and private take on her subjects.
A prolific photographer, Goldin edits her images into differing narrative sequences that focus both on the individual and on wider thematic issues. The Boston Years is a sequence of early photographs taken between 1969 and 1974. The first black and white snapshots capture Goldin and her friends in glamorous poses and heavy make-up, reinventing themselves as icons of sexual fantasy. In the early 70s Goldin lived with two drag queens, turning her camera to their public, on-stage personas as well as more intimate moments in their domestic surroundings. Heavily influenced by the shimmer of disappearing elegance in old Hollywood movies, European films and fashion photography, these images remain in both style and content at the heart of Goldin's later practice.
Goldin's standing was firmly established with The Ballad of Sexual Dependency a series made between 1978-88. A book as well as a slide installation, constantly re-edited for 15 years it comprises over 700 images. This fiercely moving journey through a whole range of human relations is set to a soundtrack that includes blues, reggae, rock and opera. It turned Goldin into a downtown star, a cult figure and finally a widely respected artist of international repute.
The second half of the 80s signalled a bleaker and more sombre development in Goldin's practice. The advent of AIDS, the death of numerous friends, the violent breakdown of a long-term relationship and her journey through drug addiction are all documented in some of Goldin's most poignant images. These include sequences dedicated to the memory of friends: Greer Lankton ('Greer'), Cookie Mueller ('The Cookie Mueller Portfolio' 1976-90), 'Gotscho + Gilles', Paris, 1992-93, 'Alf Bold Grid' and 'The Positive Grid'. The deep sense of loss that these photographs communicate is offset by Goldin's subsequent return to affirmative images of the alternative and gay scene. These were taken during her years of living in Berlin and include photographs of a new generation of drag queens which were taken in New York and in clubs in Bangkok, Manila and Tokyo. Also from the early 90s is another slide installation, All by Myself 1995-6, which presents a moving sequence of self-portraits set to an Eartha Kitt soundtrack.
The second part of Devil's Playground consists entirely of work produced in recent years. Goldin's interiors, skies, cityscapes and landscapes (Elements) are empty of people and possess an abstract quality. By contrast, the 'Relics and Saints' sequence - votive elements photographed in churches and grottoes - is almost Baroque in feel. Religious iconography is keenly felt in some of these more recent images, evoked in photographs of women and their children.
The feel of this work is resolutely upbeat and further developed in portraits of couples and lovers. At the core is Goldin's new slide installation, Heart Beat, 2001, an intense paean to love with a pulsating soundtrack composed by John Taverner and performed by Björk. The couples portrayed here also reappear in 'First Love', 'French Family', 'The Boys', 'Valerie and Bruno' amongst others, celebratory photographs in which Goldin's sensitivity to lighting and use of colour reach an even more intense effect, with deep reds, blues and golds echoing the passion depicted.
The human figure has remained at the core of Goldin's photography, captured with grit, exuberance, sensuality, tenderness and pathos. Collectively, her works provide a profoundly humanistic take on sexuality and capture the spirit of our times.
Nan Goldin: Devil's Playground is produced by the Centre Pompidou, Paris and Reina Sofia, Madrid in collaboration with the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The artist worked with curator Catherine Lampert, on the editing and realisation of the exhibition.
In association with the Observer, also supported by the Great Easten Hotel, Selfridges, MAC, the Goldin exhibition Circle of Friends, the Goethe Institut and the Instituto Cervantes. With special thanks to Shane Akeroyd and Mr & Mrs David Weil.