PARIS — I used to abhor Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (1979–1986), her famous 45-minute operatic show of 800 color slides set to a choppy 80s pop music soundtrack. I first formed this opinion after seeing it at the Whitney Museum in 1985, and then by looking at the book in 1986. I never reconsidered my opinion, not even after spending some more time with it in 2003 at her little retrospective at Galerie Yvon Lambert in Paris (one of Paris’s top galleries that will be closing soon). I felt then that her photographs merely plagued me with clichés.
“The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” is so well-known it would be redundant to describe it here. In general the work is a series of photographs in available light that crashes together no-wave, post-hippy macho bawdiness with female tenderness. The feel of the times is closer to the greaser 1950s (the trendy retro period back in the early 80s), rendered as an informal pose. The photographs are taken with cunning ease, so they seem to question the very possibility of separating a person’s perceptual image from immediate presentation. Their casual quickness pretends to establish a measure of genuineness of that person.
Having lived and worked myself in the late 1970s and 80s in downtown New York City, I found her private photo journal made public to be gawky and invasive to the point of exploitative. I also found it banal, with its themes of domesticity, drag queens, drug use, and sexuality. And I hated her glamorous heroin-chic depictions of heroin use by her little band of tragic young people. This kind of delectation was all to close to home.
I knew that the feeling “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” produced in most people, then, was a lie. “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” perpetuated the illusion that one is looking in at the center of a key fascinating world. The truth was that there was no key outlandish circle of gorgeous troubled skinny bohemian young people. There were hundreds of them. Thus the feeling of secret intimacy her work attempts to transmit is a falsehood.
But a lot of time and space have passed, so when I dropped back in at Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain for a look at the new hanging of their Vivid Memories show, I found that my view of “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” has considerably changed.
Comfortably seated through the 45-minute span, the work extended itself to me in a new way. It offered me a new reflective synopsis. I now saw and felt “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” as a tomb. As a nostalgic visceral requiem charged with memories — mostly of people I knew back then – and my own associations with a lost Lower East Side community. Now everything I saw in it was laced with feelings of loss and death.
There are of course small pleasures to be found in her depictions of cheap squalor and carelessness, when her photographs function as a filtering mask between the viewer and that world. They are the only remaining presence of that world of colorful, seedy, kitsch.
So “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” addresses both the joyous possibilities of artifice and the burdens and sorrows disconnection provides; of the rifts between world and image, and the self and other. Sex, drugs, AIDS and death become cultural icons here, the paraphernalia of daily life transformed into weighty images of bereavement.
A series of nostalgic emotions played themselves out over the course of the entire slide-show; I recognized a good number of acquaintances and places from that time and place. The overly familiar jerky musical track montage bound her images even more firmly to that very particular sense of the 80s, and that increased the nostalgic effect tremendously. Intimacy and human connection becomes a matter of nostalgic resemblances now.
These resemblances, and hence the ghostly presences they offer, are contingent on photography’s ability to freeze and liken. Happily, we ourselves are full of non-continuities and mental omissions.
Vivid Memories continues at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain (261 Boulevard Raspail 14e, Paris) through September 21st.