Nan Goldin, "Chasing a Ghost," Mar. 11-Apr. 22, 2006, at Matthew Marks Gallery, 522 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011
The photographer Nan Goldin has always walked a precarious line between brave self-examination and Oprah-style self-exposure. A life lived in public is apparently its own reward, but one can’t help wondering what prompts Goldin to continue to chronicle the now-familiar exploits of sexual obsession, drug addiction and the day-to-day triumphs of life on the fringes of society, especially since the underground club culture that was her original milieu has now been succeeded, in middle age, by a melancholy "rehab culture." Is she a victim of her own continuing success?
Goldin’s current show at Matthew Marks, "Chasing a Ghost," features several groups of new photographs, characterized by her signature saturated color, romantic vignetting and snapshot dishabille. Several nature scenes, including some beautiful skies, suggest a sense of the sublime contemplated through a veil of depression. The real attraction of the exhibition, however, is the 39-minute-long, three-screen multimedia work unspooling at a stately pace in the back room. Entitled Sisters, Saints and Sibyls, the projection consists of both stills and moving images accompanied by Goldin’s own narration as well as a musical soundtrack.
The projection begins with stills from illuminated manuscripts and paintings depicting the life of Saint Barbara, accompanied by choral music. According to legend, Barbara was so beautiful that she was shut up in a tower by her father, a heathen, who tortured and eventually beheaded her after she discovered the Christian faith. In a breathy, only partially audible narration, Goldin tells Saint Barbara’s story, and combines it with the life of her own older sister, who was also named Barbara, and who committed suicide at age 19 in 1965.
Black-and-white family photos from the ‘50s appear on the screen, illustrating Barbara’s all-too-brief biography. A bright and lovable child, she became moody and difficult at adolescence, and her parents reacted by placing her in institutions -- a not uncommon approach to delinquent teens in the 1950s and ‘60s. The tale ends when Barbara throws herself under a train at age 19, and the screens show train tracks stretching into the distance and a dead bird.
The mood is undeniably somber and affecting, though the tale is familiar -- part after-school special, part Girl Interrupted. The tone also owes something to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, especially in its use of music. After Barbara’s suicide -- marked by a prediction that Nan would follow in her footsteps -- we see a brief montage of Goldin beginning her own explorations of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, set to the soundtrack of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit. The story has a bit of a happy moment when she discovers her own "family" of drag queens and other demimondaines, though it is a short moment indeed.
Nan’s embrace of the cycle of drug addiction, rehab and relapse is depicted by stills of the type for which she is well known: Nan with the late Cookie Mueller in club bathrooms; Nan staring confrontationally at the camera, smoking cigarettes; Nan and others sprawled on beds in various states of disarray. Now that Goldin herself has become her main character, we are shown graphic depictions of the little horrors that make up her pathological narcissism. These images have a boozy, bruising beauty, which is no doubt a large part of their appeal.
The soundtrack grows increasingly maudlin and emotionally manipulative with songs by Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave. The climax of the projection comes when Goldin, clearly resident in some kind of rehab, is shown repeatedly burning her own bloated arm with cigarettes, deeply and without any feeling, as she stares into the video camera (echoing, too, the self-cutting her sister Barbara engaged in). The soundtrack here is Johnny Cash singing Hurt. This gruesome scene demonstrates Goldin’s mental illness framed, bizarrely, as a courageous artist baring her own damaged self.
The projection ends as Nan places flowers on her sister’s grave, enacting once again a role in her own melodrama. Will she climb out of her cycle of rehab and relapse? The epigram at the end of the projection, "to all our sisters who committed suicide or were institutionalized for their rebellious spirit," gives a ray of hope.
ORIANE STENDER is a Brooklyn-based artist and writer