Curator Anne O’Hehir highlights American artist Nan Goldin, whose work since the 1970s has had far-reaching social impacts and is included in ‘The Body Electric’, an exhibition drawing together photo and video work made by woman-identifying artists on the subjects of sex, pleasure and desire.
Historically, photography and, more recently, video have played a pivotal and determining role in the way sex and sexuality are seen in society. Images of women by heterosexual men for heterosexual men dominate this history, although many women artists have also sought to capture their intimacy, desire and sexuality and, at the same time, critique the assumed norm presented by their male counterparts. It is the work of these women that The Body Electric brings out of the shadows as part of the Know My Name initiative.
Without a doubt one of the most important contributors to this project has been the American photographer Nan Goldin, who has been working since the 1970s. In the 1996 book Nan Goldin: I’ll be your mirror curator Elisabeth Sussman described Goldin as ‘the impassioned historian of love in the age of fluid sexuality, glamour, beauty, violence, death, intoxication, and masquerade’. Three examples of Goldin’s intensely autobiographical, intimate photographic record of her life and loves are included in The Body Electric. The images are from her series The ballad of sexual dependency, a photographic diary made over fifteen years and featuring her friends and lovers — her ‘tribe’, as she calls them.
The series originally included over 900 images — presented as a slide show with an accompanying soundtrack (from Maria Callas to the Velvet Underground)— and is widely regarded as one of the most moving and affecting bodies of work in the photographic canon. It records Goldin’s immersion in the subcultures that made up the Lower East Side club scene of the 1970s and 1980s — a life of sleeping by day and photographing by night, a life of love and loss, joy and tragedy.
The wide success of The ballad of sexual dependency, beyond the accolades of the arts industry, can be attributed largely to its candidness. Although intimate, the series is never voyeuristic and never staged. The camera was simply always with her, and the moments she captured followed two cardinal rules: 1) not to change what she was witnessing and 2) not to shoot anything she wouldn’t be happy being photographed doing herself.
All of her work, Goldin tells us, comes from a place of love and empathy. It explores the tension between autonomy and interdependence in relationships — how difficult it is for men and women to find a common language. This is key to understanding the work as intended. A work never made from the perspective of an outsider, never about marginalised people. A work that asks, even demands, radical acceptance.
Much of Goldin’s energy is now spent spearheading a political campaign aimed at calling to account arts and academic institutions who are complicit in accepting money from the Sackler family, who she sees as irresponsibly fostering opioid addiction. Her activism in this area is reaping benefits, with many major public institutions turning away substantial levels of Sackler support. She also continues to caretake and speak about her life’s work, which she continues to reassess and re-present.
Anne O’Hehir is Curator, Photography, at the National Gallery of Australia.
The Body Electric is a Know My Name project supported by the Medich Foundation, and is on display now at the Gallery until January 2021.