Nan Goldin and Thora Siemsen had only known each other for a few months when they decided to quarantine together during the pandemic. “I was very lucky Thora came into my life when she did,” Goldin told T Magazine in April. “I hadn’t photographed a person in years. I was more inspired by the sky, or by going into my archive of tens of thousands of slides to make new pieces.” Visitors to Memory Lost, Goldin’s first solo exhibition in New York in five years, now on view at Marian Goodman Gallery, will count themselves lucky too.
The portraits are a grounding moment in an exhibition that’s vast in size and scope, recalling a mid-career retrospective more than a single gallery show. Two slide shows — “Memory Lost” (2019-2021) and “Sirens” (2019-2020) — stills from “Memory Lost,” portraits of Siemsen, and a series of landscapes and skies fill the space, along with a newly edited update of The Other Side (1992–2021), her book documenting the lives of her trans friends in the early 1980s, and drag queens in the 1990s, hung on the gallery’s third floor. The opportunity to move back and forth between slideshows and photographs, between movement and stillness, however, helps with absorbing the sheer amount of work on view.
The portraits of Siemsen are certainly worth the effort of navigating the show. Goldin’s choice of angles, poses, and depth of field reveal a level of intimacy that usually comes from years of, if not friendship, then at least long-term collaboration. In “Thora at my vanity,” (2020) Siemsen is shot from the back, naked, kneeling at the mirror, her spine and body curving in concentration. After a year when some of us may have tried to avoid mirrors, and perhaps even skimped on grooming, Siemsen makes such styling seem serene, welcoming even, a way to get all of us back into bodies and out of our heads. In “Thora on my black bed,” (2020) hair falls casually across one of Siemsen’s eyes, rendering her a modern (brunette) Veronica Lake. She looks both impossibly cool, and enviably relaxed.
The slideshows are excavations of addiction, digging into both the exquisite highs, and the damage caused when those highs become increasingly unattainable. Depicting the euphoric side, “Sirens” gathers found footage from numerous sources — the 1972 Italian film Salome, along with works by Kenneth Anger, Lynee Ramsay, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Federico Fellini, among others. Here, Goldin presents a cast of characters in various stages of ecstasy. While the artist’s taste is excellent, further complimented by a mesmerizing score by Mica Levi, the slideshow mostly left me antsy to return to Goldin’s own images.
If “Sirens” is the euphoric high, “Memory Lost” is the brutal comedown. The second slideshow features images from Goldin’s archive, including some of the artist herself at the height of her Oxycontin addiction, an experience which inspired her to start the advocacy group PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). Through their multiple protests and campaigns, PAIN has pushed for more progressive drug policies, and called for accountability from companies like Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin, and their owners, the Sackler family, who got rich off the opioid crisis. (For years the family hid their culpability behind philanthropy, particularly with donations to art museums.)
The slideshow depicts the suffering that inspired PAIN’s advocacy. Images of friends — some now gone — also appear, in the throws of various stages of their own addictions, interspersed with travel photos from Egypt to Italy. Levi’s eerie score, as well as additional music from CJ Calderwood and Soundwalk Collective, includes voicemails from an unnamed caller asking “are you awake?” “Were you sleeping?” “Were you able to sleep?” “Did I wake you up?” The central question hanging over all of these being “are you still alive, are you still you?” Those voiceovers are a harrowing complement to the images they accompany and echoed in my mind long after the slideshow was over.
Down the hall from “Memory Lost,” a group of its stills hang in a narrow hallway, all on aluminum prints. These captured moments feel furtive, like Goldin pressed the shutter just before the subject noticed. “The Crowd, Paterno,” (2004) depicts a crush of people at an unnamed event, their bodies stretched and twisted by the extensive flash and motion blurring. A chaotic scene, it still made me long to be in a crowd again. In many of these stills, even the inanimate subjects appear to be in motion, like the building in “Falling buildings, Rome” (2004), which looks like a wave is running through it.
Other highlights of the show are Goldin’s images of skies and landscapes, captured over 30 years of traveling. The artist coaxes unexpected shapes and textures out of sky and sea, such as in “Sunset Like Hair, Sate, France” (2003), where clouds resemble spiked fingernails, stretching their way into disintegration. “Lavender Landscape, Buncrana, Ireland” (2002) entices with its hazy glow but even more compelling is how clear and defined the ripples on the waves are, the texture of the wind on the current. Goldin makes the visual tactile, and it’s thrilling to see that on these wide, unframed canvases.
Through its emphasis on breadth, Memory Lost offers viewers an opportunity to trace the arc of Goldin’s career, to note which themes and subjects have stayed consistent and how her approach has evolved, particularly during the years when she moved away from portraiture and towards the natural world. Taken altogether, the exhibition teeters on the edge of being too much for one person to hold but the chance to observe and make those connections more than makes up for it.
Nan Goldin: Memory Lost continues through June 12 at Marian Goodman Gallery (24 West 57 street, Midtown, Manhattan).