Oh, Snap!

At Moderna Museet, Nan Goldin’s unyielding world of images is given a luminous setting.

Nan Goldin, Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a taxi, NYC, 1991. From slideshow The Other Side, 1992–2021. © Nan Goldin.

Moderna Museet is not exactly famous for making unexpected artistic choices when it comes to contemporary photography. A solo show by Wolfgang Tillmans a decade ago and a retrospective with Annika von Hausswolff last year illustrate the concept of a safe choice. Now the museum has arrived at Nan Goldin, one of the most celebrated photographers of our time, not to mention the topic of Laura Poitras’s documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (2022), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival a few months ago.

Nevertheless, there are good arguments to be made for highlighting Goldin’s career. As an artist, she has never been shackled by photography’s rigid norms about how an image should be printed and displayed. Her cascades of snapshots have always been too unruly and personal to be broken out of their diaristic contexts. Like Tillmans, she is one of those artists with the ability to create meaningful wholes out of what at first glance can appear to be fairly plain photographs. But where Tillmans’s semi-anarchic way of printing and installing his exhibitions has been emulated around the world, Goldin’s way of assembling slideshows and films still feels unique to her. Her breakthrough work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1981–2022), is a magnificent example of photography’s spatial potential.

Thus, Moderna focuses on Goldin’s strengths with a show free of dutifully included prints. Instead, it consists of six slideshows and films with a combined length of two and a half hours. The works are presented individually inside small huts designed by the architect Hala Wardé and displayed with little regard for the feng shui of the museum’s main exhibition hall. 

At the press preview, it was revealed that the concept is the result of the museum’s decision to temporarily suspend long-distance transports of artworks for environmental reasons. Even the exhibition essay nervously excuses the absence of photographic prints by paraphrasing Goldin: “[she] contends that her slideshows are films made from stills.” This suggests a preposterously narrow view of art. After all, this year is the 60th anniversary of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (The Jetty, 1962), a film made almost entirely from still images. That the boundary between slideshow and film is blurred should be obvious by now.

Whether the exhibition design is the result of circumstance or careful consideration, this is a worthy Goldin retrospective for the 2020s. The moment I step into the space, its atmosphere washes over me. Scattered music loops escape from the small structures and merge into a sonic carpet reminiscent of the haunting soundscapes of the ambient musician The Caretaker, characterised by slowly disintegrating music samples; this fragmented sound experience reinforces the exhibition’s themes, which often touch on human memory.

Nan Goldin, Brian and Nan in Kimono (1983) From slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1981–2022 © Nan Goldin.

The entrance is flanked by the oldest and the most recent works in the show: on the left, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency; on the right, Memory Lost (2019–2021), an audiovisual account of Goldin’s detoxification from opioids. Between them is Wardé’s most impressive structure, an octagonal building housing the three-channel film Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls (2004-2022). 

Goldin first wrote about her older sister Barbara’s suicide in the introduction to the book version of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986). Nearly twenty years later, she explores the family trauma in this half-hour triptych film that forthrightly explains why, in 1965, an 18-year-old middle-class Jewish girl stretched out across a train track in Washington DC, and reflects on the impact it had on the life of a sister seven years her junior. “Drugs set me free,” Goldin says in a monotone narrator’s voice as reused stills from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency suddenly take over the three screens, “then they became my prison.” 

Nan Goldin, Heart-Shaped Bruise, New York City, 1980. From the slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1981–2022. © Nan Goldin.

Goldin’s reuse of the same photographs in different works demonstrates how the images are interpreted in terms of their context. The colour snapshots that make up The Ballad of Sexual Dependency capture the artist’s friends and lovers in moments of emotional openness. The sequencing and accompanying music dictate a mood that is unabashedly loving and mostly joyful – Goldin loved the wild decadence of her gang. When the same images are included in Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls, they represent a fragile escapism, whereas in Memory Lost they feel feverish and dangerous. Both those works also share a considerable amount of imagery from a rehab centre where Goldin spent a lot of time in the early 2000s. In the work about her sister’s suicide, the photographs are used in a way that infuses them with a sense of atonement. But the hopefulness is ripped away in Memory Lost as it relentlessly highlights the cyclical nature of relapse.

These starkly revealing works form the exhibition’s backbone, which makes the three remaining works feel somewhat disconnected. In terms of exhibition architecture, all the works are presented as equally important, but the slideshows Fire Leap (2010–2022) and The Other Side (1992–2021), in particular, lose out to the autobiographical focus. The themes of both these works are carefully delineated according to pictorial subject (children and transgender people, respectively), but at the same time they are not sufficiently specific. 

The Other Side includes one of the show’s most beautiful images, Nan and Joey on the bed, St. Mortiz Hotel, NYC (2006), a self-portrait in which Goldin lies underneath her friend Joey. It is an incredibly moving photograph, but the emotional impact is diluted when it is juxtaposed with nightclub images. The Other Side is a tribute to Goldin’s trans friends, but Joey gets a far more multidimensional portrayal in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. When shown together, The Other Side falls flat, despite its good intentions. A series of images of the magnetic model Teri Toye is more successful, due to its emphasis on appearances.

Nan Goldin, Picnic on the Esplanade, Boston, 1973. From slideshow The Other Side, 1992–2021. © Nan Goldin.

Goldin’s soundtracks are delightfully straightforward: Ida Cox sings “wild women are the only ones that really get by,” to a string of photographs of tough women, while Petula Clark’s upbeat ‘Downtown’ is associated with going out. And in Fire Leap, Goldin is even more facetious, synchronising David Bowie’s line from ‘Space Oddity’, “put your helmet on,” with a portrait of a little kid wearing a helmet. This unpretentious approach has always been a refreshing part of Goldin’s use of sound, which means it’s a big step that she collaborated with composer Mica Levi in Memory Lost and another newer work, Sirens (2019–2020). After more than thirty years of playlists, it’s a much-needed update. But despite a successful whistling tune in Sirens, Levi’s penchant for deranged strings sawing back and forth quickly gets old.

The exhibition’s strongest suit is undoubtedly the portraits. Viewers quickly learn to recognise the people depicted, which promotes an empathetic reading of the images. The more times someone appears, the more interesting they seem. Goldin also reveals much of herself as she returns again and again to what she finds beautiful in her models and friends: Greer’s wide smile, Cookie’s mesmerising charisma, Suzanne’s melancholy eyes. 

Nan Goldin, Untitled, 1982. From digital slideshow Memory Lost, 2019–2021. © Nan Goldin.

Goldin’s palpable fascination with how love makes you see beauty in flaws means that, regardless of the presence of violence and death, her images never feel cold or cynical. In this they differ from, for example, Larry Clark’s Tulsa (1971), where friends and drugs take centre stage, but where the artist always feels like a viewer rather than a participant.

The show is a solid retrospective that testifies to Moderna’s commitment to introducing Goldin’s practice. Yet, given her position as a pioneer in the snapshot genre, it is a shame that it has not sought to create a dialogue between her work and the artists she has influenced. The museum could have proven that its curators actively follow contemporary photography by showing more unexpected and unknown works alongside the show. While doing that, it could also have discussed the conditions for snapshot photography at a time when everyone carries around a massive image archive in their pocket. The presentation has an up-to-date design, but it is actually not that experimental. Rather, it’s a canonising tribute to an influential photographer with an unusual ability to reflect society around her. 

Nan Goldin Sirens, 2019–2021. Installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery Photo: Alex Yudzon.