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A Bitter Pill

Nan Goldin

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022)

There has rarely been a more effective demonstration of how the personal can be political. Nan Goldin should be mentioned in the same breath as Sylvia Plath as artists who changed the world through their overwhelmingly emotional, deeply personal art. Ms. Plath was a poet, whose work was seen through the gendered lens of “confessional” and whose suicide has unfortunately permanently overshadowed her incredible talents as a writer. Happily Ms. Goldin is still alive, despite a life equally full of pain. She is most famous for “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” a photographic slide show set to music which debuted in 1986, depicting herself and her friends going out or staying in, having sex, taking drugs, being ill in hospital or other similarly private and intimate activities. (The best version is in the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, while a more British-themed version is in the permanent collection of the Tate in London.) It runs on a continuous loop and can be an overwhelming experience due to the rawness of emotion from the combination of sound and images that somehow floods the viewing room. Like a great movie, come to think.

But this documentary by Laura Poitras is only half a standard talking-head biopic of Ms. Goldin’s life and work – although it is a thorough and excellent primer of her career for someone who’s never heard of her. The main hook of the documentary is how Ms. Goldin decided to use combine her standing in the art world and her personal history of addiction to go after the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma which introduced OxyContin to the American market, made them fabulously wealthy and who used their wealth to make significant donations to art museums around the world. Protests against the Sackler presence in art museums (which some people directly call money laundering) began in 2018, in the Sackler wing of the Museum of Modern Art, but moved around the world in carefully designed actions with Ms. Goldin’s presence and the full-throated support of a network of anti-opioid activists, including many people who lost loved ones to opioid addiction.

The movie’s title is a direct quote from psychiatric notes about Ms. Goldin’s older sister Elizabeth, who committed suicide in the Baltimore suburbs age 18 in 1965. This was essentially the formative event of Ms. Goldin’s life, as her family’s inability to cope led Ms. Goldin into foster care – where she was first given a camera – and from there into the alternative communities in Boston and New York. By this is meant the worlds where the excluded, bullied, abused and often gay people formed their own supportive societies against the “normal” people who had forcibly rejected them. Ms. Goldin was a full participant in these communities, documenting everything from the inside. This is how photographic careers used to be made, by being in the right place at the right time (for example and by contrast, Annie Leibovitz owes everything to being in San Francisco when Rolling Stone was founded as the only woman on staff for a while; her early photographs of the raucous scene have congealed into her highly stylized celebrity portraiture and enabled her to coast on her reputation for some time now).

The celebrities in Ms. Goldin’s photographs – at the Toronto International Film Festival screening this critic attended, there was an audible gasp when Jim Jarmusch popped up – were there in spite of their celebrity, not because of it. Ms. Goldin was part of the art scene in downtown New York for a good two decades and if you were there too you were probably included by default. Her photos are interested in living moments, so while they might be posed they are not often staged (Sally Mann’s otherwise jarringly narcissistic memoir, “Hold Still,” has an important section on this). But the distinction between posed and staged doesn’t apply to the selfies Ms. Goldin took (before they were called that), especially the ones which documented her volatile relationship with a man named Brian, which famously ended when he beat her so badly about the face, in an attempt to blind her, her eyes were still bloodshot more than a month later. Around this time AIDS tore through her group of friends, turning her photographs from joyous living documents into elegies for the dead.

Unsurprisingly Ms. Goldin retreated from New York but did not stop working – not even a period of addiction to opioids after an operation dulled her creative drive. But this means that her anger about the opioid crisis is personal. Journalists including Patrick Radden Keefe are very direct in tying the opioid crisis to the Sackler family; and there is palpable anger from a great many people that the resulting wealth has mostly absolved the Sacklers from legal responsibility for what OxyContin has done to millions of lives. So the choice to protest the Sackler contributions to art museums is not just Ms. Goldin on a personal crusade; it’s seen by many people, presumably including Ms. Poitras herself, as the only possible way of holding the family to account. This hunger for justice is the movie’s final focus, which is of course only pragmatic as Ms. Goldin’s career isn’t over yet. It very well could have been though – it’s never easy to get institutions reliant on charitable contributions to go against the money. But Ms. Goldin’s commitment to authenticity and her direct analysis of how people live with pain – the driving focus of her entire career – meant that she was the only person in a position to do it. “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” manages to honor her life and her artistic career without being overwhelmed by her advocacy. It is, in every possible sense, a triumph.


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