Friday, July 17, 2009

Les Rencontres d'Arles 2009: Nan Goldin

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.


Stuart Alexander said...

Thanks for the review. I am glad I skipped it. The evening projection was painful enough. Shockingly bad, and that went on for a entire hour. I liked the music, far better than the usual pop music trash she uses but the lyrics were as embarrassingly bad and corny as the mini-melodrama you describe that took place in that black box in the church. I was surprised that the usually vocal French did not start heckling but it appears they swallowed it whole. Yecch!

Don said...

A version of this ran at Mathew Marks a couple of years ago. No doll in a bed, no church, and I don't recall a soundtrack else I've blocked it out (she really isn't very good at picking music; it always feels cliched.)

It felt like an attempt to explain to herself the "why" of her profoundly messed-up life and in the end was a bit simple-minded in it's reduction of her whole life to a response to her sister's death.

That said, I remember the imagery as harrowing and horrifying, both in it's emotional intensity and in it's sef-indulgence. (Yes, I see the contradiction there.)

I was quite shook up after it. And yet, I found after seeing it, that I was no longer very interested in her as an artist.

Massimo Cristaldi said...

Thank you for the report. Actually this is the second negative report I read from Arles. Sandro Iovine was also writing about it here:

Anonymous said...

Hey Nan, you just picked the black spot in the lottery! Let's all jump on the bandwagon. Can you hear the Colberg cry? "Stone her, stone her" (in tiny cycles of logic). We all know his fear of a public flogging.

In the whole of Parr's and Badger's I never read one vitriolic remark, yet I was still able to learn something. I could even tell what I didn't like - amazing.

It's easier to stir up the shit than it is to be interesting and positive, but consider the effects, if not only on yourself and your credibility. Some will remain just critics, though inwardly they want to be photographers. Some cannot see beyond the crap but its only their attempts at dominating what they think everyone else should like.

Mr. Whiskets said...

I admit that deep down want to be a photographer. Do you wish you were a writer? Or an intellectual?

thechrisproject said...

Small footnote: "Hurt" is by nine inch nails and was covered by Johnny Cash.

In regards to Anonymous, "It's easier to stir up the shit than it is to be interesting and positive" - to some extent, couldn't the same be said of Goldin's work?

a mind with no ceiling said...

I don't intend to add to the Goldin Bashing but she should indeed have kept this work to herself as a sort of personal cure and not pretend it had any artistic interest— incidentally I was told the actual cost of the installation, which is just too scandalously high for me to write here. (I know it's not an argument in itself, but it just adds to my amazement as to how much she blew it)

Clive Evans said...

My fist time in Arles and thought I'd go the NG projection as, having heard lots had never ctually seen the work.....the follwing day I was with two well-known and respected [revered?] photographers [both mentioned in your previous posts],both said they felt like leaving half way through.
Me too!
Sadly no-one seems to have seen "Shooting Barbie" an exhibition by French photograoher Vincent Guis at the Hotel Rhodania, in it a collection of Barbie and Ken dolls act out a depressingly familiar life of drugs violence and debauchery, ending with a battered doll with a black eye which Vincent calls "homage to Nan" -apparently he asked Nan to sign it for him-she would n't!
Great week though, Duane Michals and Brian Griffin my particular favourites.
I'll be back agin next year.
Clive Evans

Blake Andrews said...


Thanks for the honest review, Jeff. It's refreshing to see work get panned in the blogosphere, where the norm is for glowing reviews . I think it took a certain level of guts to put this out there on a widely read blog knowing you would take flak. My only question is, why did you sit through the whole thing? Didn't you have a pretty good sense of where it was going after 10 minutes?

Anonymous said...

Jeff, reading you is a relief.
Thanks to the lazy management, RIP in Arles have become a depressing moment. After that edition, I promised myself I'd never go there again unless there is a serious program - that was obviousy not the case this year, as every year since... since... Well...
And yes, Goldin did a terrible job. Not only she parodies herself in everything she does, followed by a pathetic bunch of decayed admirers, but the photography she promotes is a dead body. And, too busy with her self indulgence, she doesn't even see it, The best example of her blindness was that poor exhibition absurdly called "Ca me touche". It displayed interchangeable images by some photographers who can be called "good" or "very good" but who don't understand that the point isn't to punch the stomach, and I wonder how Goldin didn't even realize how useless all that was.
Leigh Ledare, for instance... The most shocking isn't the subject but the guy's belief that showing it without a concience of the medium will be enough. And he wasn't the only one.
Just terrible.

jeff ladd said...


I stayed because my curiosity got the best of me probably in the same way that I have never walked out on a movie that was tedious. I also hadn't known going in that it was 39 minutes and I was with someone and afterwards we both mentioned staying because we mistakenly thought the other was getting something from it.

I have experienced many things that start off badly and end well. I have liked some of her work in the past and was giving it the benefit of doubt.

It was a bit like watching an artistic train wreck.

Anonymous said...

Some artits whose lifestyle is also their talent should understand when it is time to stop pretending they're 25 and out of control. In NG's case, the time has come 10 years ago. At least.

The train wreck is lasting very long.

Stuart Alexander said...


The words 'We're all just s**t and pee" were featured rather prominently several times in the version performed in Arles. I don't find that terribly profound nor do I find those lyrics in the Johnny Cash nor the Nine Inch Nails versions available to me.

Doktor said...

very easy to bash Nan Goldin on the argument of self indulgence. Actually that was something I always felt about her work since I saw it first time more then 20 years ago. I haven't seen the Arles piece and assume it was prob overboard. But every artist has to deal with emotions and every great artist has gone overboard with them on some point. Nan Goldin deserves her spot in the art and photography world because she showed how to work with self indulgence in a meaningful way.

To the cigerate buts: I have been at an emotional low around a decade ago and I can tell you that a cigeratte but burn is really a mild form of expression when you really really feel pain. yes its a disturbing image - but if you have been familiar with Nan Goldins work before and are all of a sudden turned away by this I'm not sure if you're point of writing and criticism is a rather abstract one.

The one thing photography has to do is connect with life - meaning the life the artist encounters (or creates) in a direct way.

jeff ladd said...


I am not out to bash Nan or anyone. I don't take pleasure in criticizing this work, it was simply infuriating for me.

I have been interested in Nan's work before (have been from the late 1980s when I was in school and Ballad first came out) and would like to see something as inspired as what came twenty-some years ago - self indulgent or not. That has always been part of her work as I mentioned. That wasn't my complaint. It is bad work and I find the collaboration with others questionable.

Abstract in my points or reasoning for writing this? No, I don't see how I am being abstract at all.

Anonymous said...

To Doktor :
"every artist has to deal with emotions".
Yeah, why not?
But don't you think Goldin loves her (sacred) emotions too much?