“Nan Goldin is doing great things in a dark time”

Laura Poitras (Jan Stürmann)

Laura Poitras (Jan Stürmann)

Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras tends to follow “individuals who are facing abuses of power, especially 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 could be a subculture photographer, could be seen by some as a mild change in direction. But even though the film has already won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and is now in line for an Oscar, her latest subject, Nan Goldin, is underrated. as an artist and, especially in the last ten years. or so, an activist.

Goldin, 69, is one of the biggest game changers. Her debut book and slide show (her preferred form), The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, was like a lightning strike when it was first shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1985. Unlike its predecessor Diane Arbus, with whom she is. sometimes herself (much to her displeasure), Goldin’s way of criss-crossing New York life was to turn her camera on her own, endlessly focusing her lens on the drag artists, club kids , drug addicts and hustlers who made her up. show them a group of friends partying, fighting, breaking up, dreaming, bonding with their kids, taking drugs and having sex in the late seventies and early eighties.

With their startling intensity, and their commanding combination of rawness and sex, her pictures immediately became a benchmark for the flood of confessional photography that followed. Since emerging with The Ballad, which remains her most famous 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 she has begun to create seismic shifts in other places as well. In 2017, Goldin founded PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) to rail against the branch of the Sackler family associated with Purdue Pharma, which manufactures and distributes Oxycontin (a substance that, when Goldin prescribed it for hand injury, caused by her own opioid addiction) and their attempt to clear their name by sponsoring art spaces. The impact on the art world is very visible – since Goldin started her campaign, the National Gallery, the V&A, the Tate, the British Museum and the Serpentine, as well as the Louvre, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum, all achieved. the Sackler name from their buildings, and the National Portrait Gallery rejected Sackler’s £1m donation at the time of fundraising for its £35m capital project.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed follows Goldin’s action. It begins with the stager protests that Goldin organized in the world’s most famous galleries, where she and her colleagues would drop thousands of phonemic prescriptions into the smooth stockings of the Guggenheim or the Met, filling the fountains and water features with pill bottles.

Nan Goldin during the protests against the opioid crisis

Nan Goldin during the protests against the opioid crisis

“When she and I sat down for the first time, she had already made some of the big objections,” Poitras tells me. “I would go on about them in the papers. I saw the Met, and the photos. I was delighted. I was delighted that Nan was using her position of power in the art world to push for accountability. It hit a nerve for me. And I had no idea she was filming. And so when we sat down to talk about something else, she said, ‘Oh I’m filming everything, I’d love to ask you some questions’, and I said, ‘Anything. Anything you want.’ If she said she wanted me, for example, to charge batteries for cameras, I would do that.”

Someone else was found charging the camera batteries and Poitras came up with 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 for as long as I’ve been an artist,” says Poitras. “I came across her work when I was at art school, many years ago. In the late eighties I was living in San Francisco and had a roommate from Boston who was a photographer. She had one of the early copies of it [the book of] The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, first published in 1986.

“And you know, it’s so radical, so cutting-edge. The female artist, so cinematic, so personal, the sexuality. You could feel the intimacy. Her work was very enjoyable for me as a film artist. Although I do it in very different ways to Nan, I am someone who uses a camera to express my relationship with the world.”

As well as tracing Goldin’s relentless activism, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed examines the artist’s own story, which is harrowing: her sister’s suicide, which she largely blames on her parents’ middle-class expectations; physically abusive relationships; a period as a sex worker… none of which, in Poitras’ film, goes back to Goldin. The audio interviews in question are the result of hundreds of hours of conversation.

“We did it every Saturday for a year and a half. I would go to her house, hang out for hours, order food, watch a movie, know we had to do some work and record for a few hours. Many of the themes in the film are intense and heavy, it takes time to sort them out.”

Were there any topics that Goldin was reluctant to discuss? “Nan is as raw and honest as she is in her photographs. If you met her, and she had something to say about something you wrote, you would hear about it. She is very direct. So the interviews were immediate… the first interview, there are big parts in the film. I wanted to take it very slowly, and there is a kind of intensity. I wanted to go into detail in each of the different stages of her life.”

Goldin’s time as a sex worker in New York was the only subject, not previously discussed, that there was some hesitation about. “Before we did the interview, she said, ‘I think I should talk about it.’ But we went back and forth: if you’re ready we’ll do it, and if you’re not we won’t be. Your own Council. I always gave her agency in the process, because, if she had decided, you know, I don’t think I can share that with as many people who are going to see this film, I would appreciate it on that.

“She should have agency, and be comfortable sharing,” Poitras continues. “And it’s important to mention, the reason she shares with him is that there is so much stigma attached to so many issues, like sex work, and that’s why she wanted to talk about it. Because of the stigma. To remove the stigma for others. And that is true in other parts of the film. “

What surprised Poitras most about his subject? “The honesty, the raw honesty. It’s just that she was willing to be as brave as the film and the process. But I didn’t want it to be salacious in any way. It was fine, but what is the reason for this? Especially around someone talking about such painful experiences, there has to be a purpose. And again… these interviews remove the stigma of keeping things secret: that destroys people when they don’t seek help because they’re worried and embarrassed about something. So it’s about putting an end to that, and then putting shame where it belongs. In this case, it’s on the Sacklers.”

Nan in bathroom with roommate, Boston, 1970s

Nan in bathroom with roommate, Boston, 1970s

The nomination for All The Beauty and the Bloodshed is Poitras’ third Oscar nod; the first was in 2007 for Mo Tír, Mo Tír, about the war in Iraq; the second, which turned into a win, was in 2015 for Citizenfour. I wonder how Poitras reflects on the making of his film Snowden, ten years later?

“It was quite scary to do. Some periods were particularly scary, where I wasn’t sure if we were all going to be okay. None of us are in jail and yes, the film itself probably gave me a level of protection because people respected it. Without international support for journalism, we would be in deeper trouble.

“I wish more countries would have offered him asylum,” she says. “It could be. There are many powerful countries in Europe that are grateful that Edward Snowden revealed what he did, and I want them to succeed in providing him with asylum.”

She feels the same way about another of her previous subjects. “The Julian Assange case is really terrible right now. You have the US trying to indict a journalist, and imprison him for the rest of his life. I mean that’s terrible. The UK, Ireland, Europe should stand up and protect Julian Assange, because if he is sent to the US, every journalist is at risk.”

How does she feel about the political situation in the US in general? “It’s scary. And I don’t mean that in the partisan sense, in the government sense of failure. We don’t have a functioning government, we don’t have health care systems, we pour money into the military, we have these terrible political parties that are run by money on both sides. Which is why situations like the overdose crisis can get out of control. People knew thanks to the great investigative journalism of the early 2000s, and the government did nothing. They stood by.

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

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

“So you have a death toll that’s getting… it’s 100,000 every year. At the beginning of this film, Nan sang 100,000 dead. At the end, there are 400,000. So the state of the US will involve generations of suffering, all the money we have put into these failed professions. And from an international perspective, the US empire has created so much destruction.” Poitras has no fans of Biden, either. “It’s very disappointing that people in Washington are coming together to oppose Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders had real momentum. I think he was the best candidate we’ve seen in a long time, and it just didn’t happen, so…”

We move on. We talk about how good it would be if young people who have never even heard of Nan Goldin are moved to explore her work and take her perspective on life, after seeing the film.

“I hope so,” says Poitras. “I often do interviews and there is a lot of talk about the bloodshed, but the beauty may not be enough. I 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 doing things on their own terms. It’s a dark political landscape we’re living through, the failure of governments. But there are individuals who are doing great things. Nan is one of them.”

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is in cinemas now

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