The main curator this year at Arles was Nan Goldin who invited many people to participate in the exhibitions. Stepping aside from books for a moment I need to address the main installation of her own work. It took place in a former church where upon entering, one was faced with a set of black stairs leading up to a scaffold and into a balcony-shaped darkened room about 15 feet off the floor and facing out at three projection screens. A dim light shown down on an installation of an actual bed upon which was a nude form that was supposed to be Nan partially covered by a blood spotted sheet. Next to the bed was a night-table covered with cigarettes, papers and cans of diet Coke. The dummy was embarrassingly amateurish and laughable in its realization. So much so that I had a moment where I just wanted to leave but the slides started and the the descent into Nan's personal hell intervened. The story was about her sister Barbara Holly Goldin who committed suicide at 19 and Nan's own later battle with drugs, depression, and dysfunction all narrated in her sluggish monotone.
This was not work from Ballad but mostly photographs from the Goldin family albums aside her more recent work and videos describing her trips to rehab and self-mutilation with burning cigarettes on her arms. Along with the projected photos and narration, Goldin and her collaborators on the slideshow decided to include sound effects to add to the experience. Unfortunately there was NOTHING in this installation that did not reek of trivial art school melodrama - from the use of religious imagery and paintings that opened the show, to the bad videos that littered the screens. The most infuriating of all is that Nan's incompetence at creating anything beyond cliche was actually an offense to the memory of her sister whom she obviously loved and wanted to tribute with this work.
Depression and suicide are very complex issues which in her hands were completely boiled down to their lowest common denominator. This was a piece that used the loss of a life to push obvious buttons and trigger emotion through shock tactics. At times I almost laughed out loud at the points when she was trying the hardest. The soundtrack reenacted argument between mother and daughter (Mother: "You fucking little slut"... Daughter: "You bitch I hate you!") and a father's desperate howl after learning of the death of his daughter amounted to nothing a badly done radio play.
The most obnoxious aspect from which I lost all respect for her and her collaborators were the photos and videos of Nan's self-mutilation by burning her arms with cigarettes. Obviously these people who assisted on the making of this slideshow could care less about her as if someone I cared about came to me asking if I would film or photograph them driving burning cigarettes into their arms I would have the ethics and morals to say NO. I won't partake in documenting self-destructive behavior especially when my participation could be mistaken for encouragement. And just to head off people claiming that these were shot by Nan herself, some were not and certainly the hand-held videos weren't either. If that weren't enough she decided it best to flog her own dead horse with a soundtrack over the images of Johnny Cash's cover of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt. The Nan Goldin music video of self destruction and idiocy.
At the end, a triptych of overexposed flowers waving in the wind with a photo of her sister's grave in the middle frame and a dedication to all the people who suffer from depression or have committed suicide amounted to a poor public service announcement. This was quickly followed by a roll of credits. CREDITS! Every memorial needs them. Their presence alone robbed this "piece" of the ounce of power it had since it quickly directed the attention of the viewers towards its play-acted triviality. In identifying so strongly its construct, it leaves little at stake for those that actually stayed for the entire length.
Why she feels the need to expose all of her internal pain and suffering may actually derive from a true place such as it did when she was working on Ballad, but I feel a forced strategy at work here that is pointlessly self-indulgent. Her work is a diary of sorts so self-indulgence is acceptably part of the mix but with this later work she seems to have left the circle of collaborators which was so integral to fuel her instincts to document.
Just to be clear, it isn't my difficulty with facing what she is trying to evoke nor a desire to conceal the world's pain but simply her methods are not sound. The difficulty of her current work was that 22 years ago it seemed to be at the forefront of a new direction for the medium but the continuance has never been as white hot as in Ballad. In my opinion, much of her later work greatly tarnishes the former and this 39 minute slideshow / installation does the worst service to her oeuvre.
For all this I say it is truly sad to see that life is so difficult and painful for Nan Goldin and I wish her refuge somehow. Perhaps the trappings of fame add to a desire for acceptance through exposing that pain and this is why she insists on showing us her misery. For us viewers we should ask why is it necessary for us to pay attention, it certainly isn't for the photography which currently is haphazard, repetitive and mostly superfluous when parked next to Ballad. What I saw directed on the screen was an unsophisticated melodrama which cost me 39 minutes of my life and left me no desire to ponder any deeper questions that might have arisen out of this spectacle. The Nan Goldin dummy should have warned me to dash for the exit yet I stayed and will be forever weary of peeking into her disaster of a life.