“Nan Goldin is doing great things in dark times”

Laura Poitras (Jan Sturmann)

Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras typically focuses on what she calls “individuals facing abuses of power, particularly in the context of the United States,” such as Julian Assange or Edward Snowden, the subject of her Oscar-winning film Citizenfour. Her new work, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, which documents what some might consider a mere subculture photographer, could be seen as a slight change in direction. But even though the film has already won a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and is now in line for an Oscar, that would be to underestimate his latest subject, Nan Goldin, as an artist and, particularly in the last decade. . more or less, an activist.

Goldin, 69, is one of the great revolutionaries. Her seminal book and slide show (her preferred form), The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, was like lightning when it was first shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1985. Unlike her predecessor Diane Arbus , with whom she is sometimes grouped (which she is not very fond of), Goldin’s way of chronicling New York life was to focus her camera on her own life, pointing its unwavering lens at drag performers, club kids , drug addicts and scammers that made it up. group of friends to show them partying, fighting, breaking up, dreaming, bonding with their kids, getting high, and having sex in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

With his astonishing candor and heady mix of rawness and tenderness, his images instantly became the benchmark for the spate of confessional photography that followed. Since emerging with The Ballad, which remains his best-known project, Goldin’s work has been exhibited in galleries from the Tate Modern to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Albertina in Vienna, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

But in recent years it has begun to create seismic changes elsewhere as well. In 2017, Goldin created PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) to protest the branch of the Sackler family involved with Purdue Pharma, which manufactured and distributed Oxycontin (a substance that, when Goldin was prescribed for a wrist injury, caused the led to his own opiate addiction) and his attempt to clear his name by sponsoring art spaces. The impact on the art world is startlingly visible: since Goldin began his campaign, the National Gallery, the V&A, the Tate, the British Museum and the Serpentine, along with the Louvre, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum, have removed Sackler’s name from their buildings, while the National Portrait Gallery turned down a £1 million donation from Sackler at the time of fundraising for their £35 million capital project.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed follows Goldin’s activism. It begins with the Situationist protests Goldin organized in the world’s most famous galleries, where she and her allies dumped thousands of fake prescriptions into the silent lobbies of the Guggenheim or the Met, while filling the fountains and water features with pill bottles.

Nan Goldin during protests against the opioid crisis

Nan Goldin during protests against the opioid crisis

“When she and I first sat down, she had already done some of the big protests,” Poitras tells me. She had read about them in the newspapers. She had seen the Met and the photographs. I was excited. I was thrilled that Nan was using her position of power in the art world to push for accountability. She touched a nerve for me. And I had no idea that she was filming. So when we sat down to talk about something else, she was like, ‘Oh, I’ve been filming everything, I’d love to ask you a few questions,’ and I just said, ‘Anything. Anything you need.’ If she had said that she wanted me to charge the batteries for the cameras, she would have done it”.

Someone else was found to charge the camera’s batteries, and Poitras became involved in a project that would document the protests, while also telling the extraordinary story of Goldin’s life and art. “Of course I’ve known Nan Goldin’s work since I’ve been an artist,” says Poitras. “I met her work when she was in art school, many years ago. In the late eighties she lived in San Francisco and had a roommate who was from Boston and she was a photographer. She had one of the first copies of [the book of] The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which was first published in 1986.

“And you know, it’s so radical, so innovative. This woman artist, so cinematographic, so intimate, sexuality. You could feel the intimacy. Her work has always resonated with me as an artist filmmaker. Although I do it in very different ways than Nan does, I am a person who uses a camera to express my relationship with the world.”

In addition to tracing Goldin’s tireless activism, All Beauty and Bloodshed also delves into the artist’s own heartbreaking story: her sister’s suicide, for which she places much of the blame on the expectations of their parents’ middle class; physically abusive relationships; a stint as a sex worker…none of which, in Poitras’ film, Goldin avoids. The audio interviews that are presented are the result of hundreds of hours of conversation.

“We did it every Saturday for a year and a half. I would go to his house, we would procrastinate for hours, order food, watch a movie, knowing that we had to work and record for a few hours. Many of the themes in the film are intense and heavy, it takes time to develop them.”

Were there any topics that Goldin was hesitant to discuss? “Nan is just as raw and honest as she is in the photos of her. If you meet her and she has something to say about something you wrote, you’ll find out about her. She is very direct. So the interviews were immediately… the first interview, there are big chunks of it that are in the movie. I wanted to take it very slowly, and there’s a kind of intensity. I wanted to go into great detail in each of the different phases of his life.”

Goldin’s time as a sex worker in New York was the only topic, not previously discussed, on which there was slight hesitation. “Before we did the interview, she said, ‘I think I should talk about it.’ But we were going back and forth: if you’re ready, we’ll do it, and if you’re not, we won’t. Up to you. I always gave agency to her in the process, like, if she had decided, you know, I don’t think she can share that with so many people who are going to see this movie, she would have respected that.

“She should have agency and feel comfortable sharing,” Poitras continues. “And it’s important to say that the reason she’s sharing it is because there’s a lot of stigma around so many issues, like sex work, that’s why she wanted to talk about it. Because of the stigma. To destigmatize it for others. And that is true in other parts of the film. “

What surprised Poitras most about his subject? “Honesty, raw honesty. The fact that she was willing to be so brave with the film and the process. But she didn’t want her to be salacious in any way. She was fine, but what is the reason for this? Particularly when someone talks about such painful experiences, there has to be a purpose. And again… these interviews destigmatize things that are kept secret: that literally destroys people when they don’t seek help because they are worried and ashamed about something. So it’s about abolishing that and then putting the shame where it belongs. In this case, it’s on the Sacklers.”

Nan in the bathroom with a roommate, Boston, 1970s

Nan in the bathroom with a roommate, Boston, 1970s

The nomination for All Beauty and Bloodshed is Poitras’ third Oscar nomination; the first was in 2007 for My Country, My Country, about the war in Iraq; the second, which became a victory, was in 2015 for Citizenfour. I wonder how Poitras reflects on the making of his film Snowden, a decade later.

“Doing it was pretty scary. Certain periods were particularly frightening, when he wasn’t sure we’d all make it through. None of us are in jail and yes, the movie itself probably gave me a level of protection because people respected it. Without international support for journalism, we would have been in bigger trouble.

“I wish more countries would have stepped up to offer him asylum,” she says. “They could have. There are many powerful countries in Europe who are grateful that Edward Snowden exposed what he did, and I wish they would have stepped up to give him asylum.”

She feels the same way about another of her previous subjects. “The Julian Assange case is really terrible right now. You have the United States trying to indict a journalist and jail him for the rest of his life. I mean that’s terrifying. The UK, Ireland, Europe should stand up and defend Julian Assange, because if he is sent to the US, all journalists are in danger.”

How do you feel about the political situation in the United States in general? “It’s frightening. And I don’t mean that in a partisan sense, I mean that in a failed government sense. We don’t have a functioning government, we don’t have health systems, we put money into the military, we have these horrible political parties that run on money on both sides. Which then allows situations like the overdose crisis to get out of control. People found out about it thanks to great investigative journalism in the early 2000s, and the government did nothing. They stayed away.

Self-portrait with a scraped back after sex, London 1978 (Nan Goldin)

Self-portrait with a scraped back after sex, London 1978 (Nan Goldin)

“So you have a death toll that is increasing… every year it is 100,000. At the beginning of this film, Nan sang 100,000 dead. In the end, there are 400,000. So the situation in the US, all the money we’ve poured into these failed occupations, it’s going to mean generations of suffering. And from an international perspective, the American empire has created so much devastation.” Poitras is also not a fan of Biden. “It is very disappointing that people in Washington are lining up to take on Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders had a real real boost. I think he was the best candidate we’ve seen in a long time, and it didn’t happen, so…”

We continue. We talked about how great it would be if young people who have never heard of Nan Goldin would be encouraged to further investigate her work and adopt her outlook on life after watching the film.

“I hope so,” says Poitras. “I often do interviews and there is a lot of talk about bloodshed, but maybe not enough about beauty. I just think there are so many parts of this film that are really relevant to young people today, and that it really celebrates people who are artists and do things by their own rules. It is a very dark political panorama that we are experiencing, the failure of governments. But there are individuals who are doing great things. Nana is one of them.

All the beauty and bloodshed is already in theaters

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