Nan Goldin begins her recent book, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, with a sort of photo familiar to us all: the first page shows the photographer giving her boyfriend a cheery hug on the occasion of her birthday, with a caption giving the date and place. The last image depicts, rather more grimly, two painted graffiti skeletons embracing.
In between is an exhaustive survey of the world Goldin knows best: a modern urban bohemia, whether in West Berlin, London, or New York’s East Village, of bars and nightclubs, of drinking and getting high. Goldin photographs her friends and acquaintances (and herself) as they move through this world; we get to know her subjects as they reappear in new settings and combinations. The collection develops the feel of an extended family album, albeit an album of uncommonly immediate and intimate portraits, and of relationships that are brutal as well as touching.
For what Goldin documents, mainly, is love and sex. The bed is the most common piece of furniture in her work. Goldin’s subjects primp, kiss, hug, fight, have sex, and break up on beds; she shows us men and women alone, naked and clothed, as well as couples caressing, making love, and sitting apart, introspective and melancholy.
But the combined intimacy and harshness of Goldin’s photos extends beyond the bedroom. One of her most gripping images is a self-portrait, taken after a lover beat her. She confronts the camera, in the harsh glare of the flash, and spares us none of her pain. In David With Butch Crying at Tin Pan Alley, New York City 1981, a couple who have obviously been fighting pose for the camera: Butch makes an effort to smile through her tears, while David looks almost smug. Their expressions say, as soon as this picture is over, we’ll go right back to fighting again. Each of Goldin’s frames freezes a moment in a relationship, if not with another subject, then with the photographer herself; what distinguishes her work is the honesty with which she shows us strained as well as joyous moments.
Imagine, then, being bombarded by some 700 or 800 of these moments in quick succession–that’s what Goldin does in her slide show, also called The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. She began presenting her slide shows in 1979, when she was a photography student without a darkroom, adding a sound track a few years later. She has continually refined the show since, adding slides, reediting them, and changing the sound track.
The rush of images–each one projected for only two or three seconds–can leave viewers exhausted. “Complete strangers come up to me afterwards and say they’ve cried,” says Goldin. “I like it when people say they’ve laughed or cried.”
The slide show is a kind of catalyst for viewers’ responses to Goldin’s work. The postshow discussion reveals that reactions tend to be mixed: some viewers see her photos as merely a sort of pre-AIDS sexual geography of a certain punkish set of people; others feel personally addressed. And men, says Goldin, are more likely to react negatively than women. “The slide show is a more pointed commentary on sexual relations and gender identification,” she says, than the book.
Men are often offended because they feel Goldin portrays them as brutal and unloving. “The solitary male is shown with his tenderness and vulnerable sexuality,” she writes in her book’s introduction, “but when the men are together, they become tougher. There is a competitive, erotic, gaming situation displayed through fighting, drinking, proving their ability to withstand pain.” The males in Brian on the Bowery Roof, New York City 1982 and Mark in the Red Car, Lexington, Mass. 1979 seem more like tough, callous outgrowths of their urban, mechanical environments than like loving friends.
But the callousness of Goldin’s men does not prevent their sexual intimacy with Goldin’s women (and with other men, in images concentrated in the slide show but less evident in the book and exhibit). “There is an intense need for coupling in spite of it all,” writes the photographer in her introduction. “Even if relationships are destructive, people cling together. It’s a biochemical reaction, it stimulates that part of your brain that is only satisfied by love, heroin, or chocolate; love can be an addiction.”
Although The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is firmly rooted in Goldin’s own time and milieu, a documentary record of almost ethnographic zeal, the craving for love that finally binds the work together is neither new nor unique to that milieu. Bertolt Brecht’s lyrics from The Threepenny Opera put it succinctly:
Let him resist, he’ll not escape, not he.
That is the bond of sexual dependency.
An exhibition of selected Cibachrome prints from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency runs through March 12 at the Catherine Edelman Gallery, 300 W. Superior. The gallery is open 11 to 6, Tuesday through Saturday; for more information call 266-2350. A slide show will be presented Friday, March 11, at 7:30 PM at Columbia College, 600 S. Michigan. Admission is $5; call 663-1600, ext. 320, for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lewis Toby, Nan Goldin.