Je est un autre: Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”

Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1979-96 (detail). Nine-carousel projection with approximately 700 slides, soundtrack, and titles, dimensions variable. Edition no. 1/10. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, purchase with funds from The Charles Engelhard Foundation, the Mrs. Percy Uris Bequest, the Painting and Sculpture Committee, and the Photography Committee, 92.127. Copyright Nan Goldin, image taken from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Now, I know that the last time I wrote about a video work I said that I don’t really like video art…and I also know that this is my third time writing about video art…which sounds a bit odd coming from someone who claims to be lukewarm on video art in general. I still stand by that, video art is not my thing, but I love finding reasons to be excited about things that are not “my thing” because it usually means they are exceptional and unique. When really good art makes me question my opinions and contradict generalist statements, then that there is REALLY GOOD ART. Nan Goldin’s video, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, is a really good work of art. It is a deeply personal photo montage curated between her and her friends in the 80s and 90s and set to a sound track that ranges from the Velvet Underground to James Brown. To begin with, the references are layered and heavy. The title, honestly my favorite title for anything I have yet to encounter, is taken from The Threepenny Opera, written by Bertolt Brecht, Elisabeth Hauptmann,[1] and Kurt Weill. Especially telling for the current political climate in the states, the “play with music” “offers a socialist critique of the capitalist world.”[2] An interesting choice by Goldin, as many of the photos document a pivotal moment in the art world where the art market (capitalism) began to take serious notice of the contemporary art world (not inherently capitalistic) and the art market bubble began to grow (I mean really grow, people still speak about the 80’s art market in hushed, nostalgic tones). It also, tellingly, chronicles the descent of many of her friends and lovers into the ruin of the AIDS epidemic, which is not only devastating on a historic and emotional level, but can be read as a pretty heavy symbolic reference to the slow and painful death that the broader public (read socialism), and in this particular situation artists, bore because of the excesses of capitalism.[3] It moves in a classic bell curve from innocent youth and low income living, to striving for success and enjoying life, to finding success and celebrating/partying heavily, to the emotional and psychological effects that success and heavy partying can bring (drugs, indiscriminate [and unprotected] sex, distrust), to the final decline, decay, and destruction of the situation and, in this case, physical body. I do not for any reason believe that Goldin’s choice of title[4] was arbitrary or taken purely because it sounds good. I believe she attached meaning to it and it is well-deserved to really read into it and think about what it means, empathetically. On a side note, Brecht is an excellent poet/writer from World War Era Germany:

And yet we know:

Hatred, even of meanness

Contorts the features.

Anger, even against injustice

Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we

Who wanted to prepare the ground for

friendliness

Could not ourselves be friendly.

– Bertolt Brecht, “To Those Born Later” (excerpt)

Onward, though, to the video. On view at MoMA through February 12, 2017, it is exhibited (fittingly) just after the horror that happened in Orlando. It reminds us of the history of the other, specifically the gay other, in American history. Set in a period that my generation has only known through a mythologizing narrative, it opens a window to what another reviewer called “NY’s last bohemia”: a generation and a time destroyed by AIDS. The montage follows a group of people desperately seeking to escape or live through drugs, sex, and friends. Flitting, through images of smiling friends, brooding lovers, self-portraits of the artist with a black-eye from her boyfriend, unprotected sex, drug use, parties, weddings, and finally funerals, the ballad is a journey through tumultuous times. It is equal parts funny, wistful, sad, and horrifying. I urge you to stay till the end, even though you will see nudity, aggression, and needle-based drug-usage, it is necessary to see the full album (preferably from start to finish) like a pilgrimage in order to understand an important part of how we came to today. It tells more than a story, though, it speaks to an often glazed-over reality that has impacted so much of modern day American life in too many subtle ways to count. At the end of the montage, the sequence moves abruptly from images of people – friends and lovers – to empty beds, and finally coffins and graves. It achingly reflects the sudden devastation and loss brought about by AIDS, a genocide still felt today in how it has colored our perception of love, freedom, and sexuality perhaps unchangeably.

wojnarowicz

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (One day this kid…), 1990. Photostat, 30 x 40 1/8 in. Edition of 10. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the print committee 2002.183. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wajnarowicz and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York, NY. Image from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Orlando, a new string of hate in a decades long war against the gay “other,” makes me think about the irreversible damage that the AIDS epidemic had among the gay community and the lasting weight that the Reagan administration’s indifference has had upon the stigma associated, to this day, with gay men and women, specifically to gay sex. Many Americans associate gay sex (gay love) as dirty, unclean, and sinful. This correlation was strengthened and perpetuated by the AIDS epidemic, thought by many to be a gay disease, even a punishment. According to an article published on the San Francisco Chronicle’s webpage, Reagan’s communications director, Pat Buchanan, called AIDS “nature’s revenge on gay men” and the Rev. Jerry Falwall said “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” To this day homosexual men cannot donate blood, even though AIDS knows no gender, no sexual preference, no age or color, for many it is still tied closely to one group. Insidious and subtle insinuations like this, especially when indoctrinated into law, inform a subconscious distrust and alignment against the “other” in societies like ours which are so heavily based upon an “us vs. them” mentality. These subconscious ideas that homosexuals are different, dirty, and wrong can only lead to outbursts of conscious rage when they fight for, and thankfully finally win, equality in life, love, and status. These outbursts grow more and more dangerous escalating from threats and insults to hate crimes and massacres, and they will not stop until we admit that it is the small semantics in daily life and law that allow the development of such drastic hatred. The AIDS epidemic, the time it took for the Reagan administration to admit it as an epidemic, and the words of hate so often spoken threaten to tear down the fight for equality and the sense of community that many have spent so much time developing: “We’d spent so much effort building the gay community, and we thought it all would disappear…that brand of homophobia lasted because Ronald and Nancy Reagan enabled it”. Indifference is just as threatening as outright hatred; it is used to push the onus of responsibility away from the individual or governing body in a plea of ignorance. However, this is not a solution. It is all of our responsibility to protect the basic human rights of our fellow man: homosexuals, people of color, women…everyone. It is not enough to say I am doing no direct harm, we must stand up for each other, lend our support, lend our ears and attention and, at the very least, listen to understand not solely to respond.

Moffett

Donald Moffett, He Kills Me, 1987. Offset lithograph. 23 1/2 x 37 1/2 in. Edition unlimited. Published by Donald MOfett. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Gift of David W. Kiehl in memory of artists and artworkers who died of AIDS, 2012.160. Copyright Donald Moffett. Image from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

I look around me today, at all of the supportive posts, pride events, and beautifully written articles that celebrate the victories of equality, both big and small, and I have faith that we are moving forward, that true equality is as possible as it is necessary. But, I also see a slow erosion of the memory of past horrors and how they continue to color our perceptions and beliefs. AIDS is still an active and terrifying disease, despite the medical leaps that have been made in eradicating its threat…that is still evident. What isn’t mentioned, however, is how long it took for AIDS to even become a topic of conversation, how long it took before anyone in power took notice and truly pushed for change and concern. Indifference and trivialities led to this topic being silenced and shunned for years, thus allowing the health, safety, and welfare of the gay community, and all others affected by AIDS, to become inconsequential. This indifference, and the laying of blame and shame on the gay community for this horrible disease can be directly related to today’s acts of hatred. AIDS was not a punishment laid on the gay community, it did not and does not affect only the gay community, they are not dirty nor are they disease-ridden for their life choices. We must all remember the long hard fight for the beginnings of awareness as much as we remember the continuing fight for equality. Just like a great dam can be brought down by the tiniest of cracks, so too can our perceptions be influenced by seemingly inconsequential oversights and flippant words. Why can gay men still not donate blood? Why is the word “gay” still used as an insult? Why, when we speak of NY’s lost bohemia, do we see it bathed in the golden glow of nostalgia? Why don’t we all remember the horror as well as the freedom? The AIDS epidemic shook NY’s bohemian youth out of their age of innocence and into the harsh reality of pain, indifference, and disease. NY hasn’t been the same and the gay community across America suffered a blow that is all too often left on the silent sidelines as a taboo topic. It is through art that I have learned to question this silence. The art created by those diagnosed with, or close to those diagnosed with, AIDS has taught me to open my eyes to the hidden history of individual suffering and strength.

Nan Goldin’s montage, its painful end following too quickly from a frenzied, bright beginning, asks that the viewer see all sides of this past. By drawing us in with family album style images of friends and lovers that invoke feelings of nostalgia for a past that many of us never knew, it can then subvert these feelings, brushing up against the darkness of the truth of loss and pushing us to realize and remember that memory all too often glazes over the unhappy memories in search of the happy ones. It is important that we know everything that happened, the bad along with the good, so that we may move forward with full knowledge of what happened and an attempt to understand how these wounds left scars that continue to inform our actions today, regardless of whether or not we were there. As Georg Simmel said: “It is not our task either to accuse or pardon, but only to understand.”

 

 

 

 

A closing note, Obama announced the Stonewall National Monument, a site of a historic LGBTQ uprising, as a historic and nationally recognized step-forward in the fight for equality: https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/06/24/president-obama-designates-stonewall-national-monument

 

[1] I also want to mention that Hauptmann’s name has been left out of everything MoMA has written on this work; they only reference Brecht and Weill. Is this just an oversight or is it subtle sexism from an institution often called out of favoring white, male, European/American artists? The lack is questionable, especially given that this is an exhibition focusing on a female artist. However, Hauptmann’s role was to translate John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, from which the German opera was adopted, so she did not take part in the actual writing of the piece, though she worked with Brecht and Weill and played a major part in their understanding of what the opera began as, and thus, what it became. Source: Wikipedia.

[2] According to the above footnote mentioned, relatively reliable source on Wikipedia.

[3] For example, the massive depression we fell into over the real estate bubble bursting.

[4] Here it is important to note that the title was chosen after the pictures were taken, in retrospect, and that she continues to edit the piece since its initial debut in 1985.

 

Finally, the title is a quote of Arthur Rimbaud from a letter to Georges Izambard in 1871: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/11/17/arse-poetica

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