This Saturday, October 8, devotees of photographer and activist Nan Goldin began lining up outside Manhattan’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center over two hours before the scheduled start time for her New York Film Festival talk, organized to coincide with screenings for the new film All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.
“The film, and Nan Goldin’s life, literally illustrate how the personal is political,” one festivalgoer who had seen the film on Friday told Hyperallergic. She found the story of PAIN (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), the advocacy group Goldin started to hold the Sackler family accountable for its role in propagating the opioid epidemic, instructive as an activist herself.
“A lot of times, as activists, we act right now but don’t know what the outcome will be,” she said. “This film gives us a whole bright future.”
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the new documentary film by director Laura Poitras, is a portrait of Goldin’s life and work and the centerpiece of the festival. In September, the film won the Golden Lion at the 79th Venice International Film Festival, only the second documentary ever to snag that top prize. Weaving together footage of organizing work that Goldin spearheaded as the founder of PAIN, slideshows of her photography, and her own narration of her life, it explores the multiple tragedies of Goldin’s life — such as her sister’s early suicide and the deaths of many of her friends during the AIDS epidemic — as well as the vitality of the artistic community she was a part of in her youth. It also follows the enormous and unexpected success PAIN was able to accomplish within a few short years in pressuring museums and institutions to drop their affiliations with the Sacklers, both financially and otherwise.
In line for the talk on Saturday, a group of friends flipped through Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, pointing out notable figures from the 1970s and ’80s downtown Manhattan scene that they recognized, such as Mark Morrisroe and Greer Lankton. They slowly considered the many photographs cataloging Goldin’s relationship with Brian, her lover for several years in the early ’80s, which culminated in violence and abuse.
Though The Ballad of Sexual Dependency exists as a photo book, Goldin sees the truest version of the work as a malleable slideshow, first exhibited in 1985 and shown many times since. Goldin is continuously editing, pairing to new music, adding to, and subtracting from the work. Some cited it as “life-changing” and inspiring for their own artistic practice. “It’s both very artistic and radical, and very ethnographic,” said one Goldin enthusiast familiar with the piece.
One festivalgoer who goes by Jody said that Goldin’s work has touched her deeply even though — and especially because — her own work as a photographer is very different from the artist’s.
“Her work has raised a lot of humanity and empathy into a side of New York at the time that was more marginalized — queer people and drug addicts,” Jody said. “I’m a photographer too, but I’m a little more hesitant to do people-centered photography.”
Natalia Escobar, a Colombian filmmaker who had just finished premiering her short film Aribada at the festival that afternoon, was thrilled to be able to catch Goldin in her short weekend-long visit to New York. She first saw Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency at Les Rencontres d’Arles — an international photography festival held in the south of France which was among the earliest venues to screen the work in 1987 and which has screened it several times since.
“They had this amazing arena, and they showed all of her photos really large with very loud sounds,” Escobar said, reflecting on the staging of the work. “She’s an icon of New York to me.”
While all were interested in seeing the film, only some were able to given how quickly tickets sold out. A filmgoer who went by Lila and attended the New York Film Festival screening of Poitras’s new documentary the evening prior said she “started crying within like 90 seconds.” The opening scene of the film plays footage from PAIN’s intervention at the Temple of Dendur at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018, when around 100 protesters carried signs that read “Shame on Sackler” and “Fund Rehab” while littering the reflection pool with prescription bottles.
In December last year, The Met finally removed the Sackler name from most exhibition rooms that carried it. The documentary closes with footage of PAIN activists celebrating their win at the museum that day.
“The in media res choice was just really moving, especially because the Temple of Dendur is abstractly such a beautiful space, but it’s being funded by the Sacklers,” Lila said. “Like, yes! This is wrong! It was time to get their name off.”