For over 30 years, Nan Goldin has been capturing her experiences on camera and showcasing them in the form of slideshows and prints, which speak of an abundant lifestyle of all-night parties, stolen moments in the backs of cabs and stretching out on white linen sheets in sepia, smoke-filled bedrooms. However they are displayed, her pictures never amount to a neat proposition but a collection of hazy stand-ins for disappearing memories.
Goldin has described ‘Sirens’, her first solo exhibition in London for 17 years, as ‘paying homage to my beautiful friends’. We recognize her stars – from Ivy to Cookie to Greer – and many of the works in the show are from her earlier repertoire. The Other Side (2019) is an extended and updated version of a slideshow initially produced in 1993, redeployed here to assert its relevance in contemporary gender discourse. It’s a journey that follows the lives women and drag queens: preparing their going-out makeup, riding on the backs of bicycles and performing in clubs.
In one sequence in The Other Side, Marianne Faithfull’s ‘Crazy Love’ (2004) accompanies stills of different people embracing, with the music timed perfectly to the images. In many of Goldin’s photos, we’re often looking at people who are no longer alive. As Susan Sontag wrote in her introduction to Peter Hujar’s Portraits in Life and Death (1975): ‘Photographers, connoisseurs of beauty, are also – wittingly or unwittingly – the recording-angels of death.’ The idea of being a ‘recording-angel of death’ was to become prophetic. By the mid-1980s, both Sontag’s and Goldin’s immediate circles were dying in droves of complications related to drug-addiction and AIDS.
Salome (2019) is an exuberant three-channel video re-telling the biblical story of Salome – the stepdaughter of King Herod, who danced for the head of John the Baptist – to John Robie’s pounding electro hit ‘One More Shot’ (1982). Memory Lost (2019) exposes the dichotomy of drug-addiction, the thrilling highs and crushing, often fatal lows. It is a haunting evocation of a transient experience, combining spoken personal testaments with burnt, blurred and creased snapshots of barking dogs, racked-up lines of cocaine and landscapes captured from moving trains. A vitrine near the entrance to the space is a conspicuous addition of activist accoutrements, including bottles of OxyContin, referencing Goldin’s recent dependency on, and subsequent actions against, the drug.
A collection of black and white prints from the 1970s, set against black walls around the perimeter of an oval-shaped gallery, have the most profound impact. Subjects appear incandescent, not always aware of the camera, while the monochrome evokes an era before the AIDS epidemic tore through this community. In Ivy on the way to Newbury St., Boston Garden, Boston (1973), Ivy glances mischievously over her shoulder with two mink stoles thrown around her neck. The title puts us on first-name terms with the protagonist, as if she is someone everyone knows. By simply stating her first name and destination, Ivy's journey becomes instantly romanticized.
The different bodies of work in ‘Sirens’ feel independently but not collectively coherent. Upstairs, a series of large prints is so disconnected from the rest of the display that the gallery has made a sign assuring visitors that it’s the same show. Life doesn’t happen linearly and, like the slideshow works, the exhibition seems to mirror the rapid and evanescent nature of experience. In a similar vein, there are equally incredible fragments of beauty that pay homage to lost friends and lovers.
Main image: Nan Goldin, Picnic on Esplanade, Boston, 1973. Courtesy: the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris and London