Love, loss, and celebration in Nan Goldin’s latest exhibition

Sirens displays the beauty of belonging and the pain of loss side by side


By Letty Gardner


For the first time since 2002, famed American photographer Nan Goldin is exhibiting her renowned photographs at London’s Marian Goodman Gallery. Open until 11 January, Sirens exhibits Goldin’s important historical works alongside three new video pieces. Goldin’s photography, which intimately depicts the friends, loved ones, and subcultures she experienced upon moving to New York in 1978, is praised for its candid depiction of these otherwise private lives.


Sirens gives a personal insight into Goldin’s world, while also portraying the enthusiasm with which she was accepted into new, different, and sometimes dangerous subcultures. Drag, transsexuality, love, and fluidity are all celebrated here, displayed alongside issues of addiction, dependency, and isolation. Within Sirens nothing is erased, regardless of how overwhelming the subject matter. Reshaping her known work through its pairing with video art, the exhibition offers an energizing, joyous, yet often heart-breaking telling of Goldin’s story, and the people that wrote it. Goldin survived the ecstasies of New York but many of her friends did not, and this disconnect between the highs of NYC and the lows of loss continually affected Goldin and her work. A heroin user in the 70s and 80s, Goldin became addicted to OxyContin in 2014, and the continued struggle with addiction is focal to her photographs and video piece Memory Lost. Blurring the line between a documentary format and a deeply personal style of work, Sirens is about family and all the grief that comes with it.


Copyright: Nan Goldin, Courtesy: the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, Image: Thierry Bal

A vivid array of Goldin’s early photographs makes up the main exhibition. Often working with warm colours, rich golden hues, and domestic settings, the photos feel like a family album. Young drag queens get ready for their performances, girls dozily lie across their childhood beds, couples embrace. And yet, alongside this, there is evidence of addiction, domestic violence, and confusion. The constant contrasts give a chaotic feel to the exhibition, documenting the whirlwind of youth. Those close to Goldin appear repeatedly in her work. As an audience we start to recognise faces, making their suffering and grief all the more affecting. At their core, these are wonderful photographs.


Walk into any three of the gallery’s smaller rooms and you’ll be met with powerful video pieces reimagining Goldin’s earlier work and playing with previously unused formats. Salome and Sirens both rework biblical and Greek myths respectively and set them within the artist’s world. Salome is gripping and refreshing; Goldin uses three separate screens to retell the seductive story of Salome, the daughter of Herod and Herodias who danced for the head of John the Baptist. Famously retold by Oscar Wilde, in Salome, decadence, sensuality, and the body are all central themes. On one screen, a chaotic biblical storm destroys all in its path, on the middle screen, men point and stare in horror, and on the third screen, Salome dances. Playing with the traditional story, Salome switches from Metropolis’ dancing Brigitte Helm to a drag queen joyfully ripping off their clothes. The piece is set to a thumping disco track which exaggerates the pace and force of the visuals. Goldin’s sense of humour is present in Salome, while her use of kitsch and drama also praises the drag subculture that is central to her work.

Copyright: Nan Goldin, Courtesy: the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, Image: Thierry Bal

The Other Side brings visibility and remembrance to New York’s diverse communities. The piece moves like a photo album. Progressing in chapters, each section is sound tracked by a different song and we see Goldin flicking through and linking her images together. Faces reappear, friends experiment with new styles, couples fall in and out of love, and they all grow older with Goldin. Greer Lankton, for example, was a muse and close friend of Goldin. Lankton was an artist in her own right, and at age 21 transitioned from male to female. Her presence across Sirens suggests both an intimate relationship and shows Goldin accepting her loved ones as people, even as they transgressed the norms of the day. New York also provided the space where people could celebrate who they wanted to be, and Goldin’s work beautifully documented that.


Sirens focuses in on the intense feelings of connection between people. Goldin is adopted by different families; the drag community, trans community, or in Memory Lost, a community of addicts. Pieced together as a slideshow, sound tracked by Mica Levi, Memory Lost includes confessionals from those close to Goldin. Hearing the voices of the faces in the photographs makes the loss that is pictured more of a reality. The piece is an obituary and a message of thanks to those she loved and lost during her darkest times. In snapshots, Goldin’s friends are young, in love, experimenting, partying, and yet Memory Lost develops past this momentary high, documenting the grief of addiction.


Copyright: Nan Goldin, Courtesy: the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, Image: Thierry Bal

Cutting through all of this, the upstairs room of the Marian Goodman Gallery exhibits Goldin’s sky and landscape photographs. Taken during the early 2000s, these serene and ethereal works juxtapose with the loud, complex images of below. This room offers an abstract clarity, a calm after the storm, and a suggestion of the space that Goldin is in now.


Sirens is a beautiful exhibition that both celebrates and mourns those that Nan Goldin held close. Through its portraits, videos, and landscapes, Sirens vividly narrates the loves and losses of Goldin’s life, and is not to be missed.


Sirens is on display at the Marian Goodman Gallery until 11 January 2020.