Sue de Beer
Harry Dodge & Stanya Kahn
Luis Gispert & Jeffrey Reed
Erik van Lieshout
Stephen G. Rhodes
Ryan Trecartin & Lizzie Fitch
Walking out of Matthew Marks Gallery after having seen Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls for the first time, I overheard a man’s voice utter: “Never show your secret. That’s the first rule of art.” It immediately struck me how the shaking timbre of his voice fully betrayed his attempt to regain control over an experience that had obviously shaken him. His phrase recreated in an instant the topos around which Nan Goldin’s work structures itself. By uttering seemingly tried-and-true rules, he wanted to assert “paternal” control over a representation of an impossibility, the impossibility of feminine desire, feminine life, and feminine jouissance within the framework of control, law, and rule, which the “father,” and “his” symbolic order and institutions (from the family to the psychiatric ward, and from the recording technology of objectifying “documentation” to the teleological technology of the train) assert.
The three-screen projection Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls lasts thirty-five minutes and is accompanied by a multiple audio track, which assembles music that both associates with the images and presses beyond them, to the point of forcing the viewers feelings. Beyond that, there are sometimes recurring sounds—an approaching train, fighting voices, a man’s agonizing screems—as well as a voice-over narration telling the story of Goldin’s sister’s strained and straining relationship to her family and her committing suicide at the age of eighteen by throwing herself in front of a train. The sister’s story is told using family photographs from the 1970s—it seems the family has always had the impulse to double experience with exposures— as well as video documentation of Goldin’s own two spells in psychiatric institutions. In the voice-over, Goldin says that after the long awaited son was born and her sister had died, “I felt like I was expected to commit suicide as well.” One could say that with this video installation we are watching the work of one who has already died a death—who is speaking, showing, and producing from an “undead” zone.
Of the collectivizing nouns in the work’s title, the reference to the “Sister” is, on a first level, obvious. By telling the story of St. Barbe—a transitional figure between the worlds of heathenism and Christianity, a woman faithful to a spiritual “Father” who is punished by being beheaded by her own father—Goldin also gives us a hold on the “Saints.” It is, however, the last of the title’s references, seemingly odd in such a seemingly documentary project, that may hold the key to the work.
“The Sibyl, with frenzied mouth uttering things not to be laughed at, unadorned and unperfumed, yet reaches to a thousand years with her voice by the aid of god” (Heraclitus, Fragment 12). The sibyl, iconically represented by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, is a figure who has “accompanied” western history in multiple ways. It is symptomatic of her illusive yet insistent presence that the issue of how many sibyls there were was never solved. Even the sibyl’s status as reference opens up indecision. As François Rabelais said: “How know we but that she may be an eleventh Sibyl or a second Cassandra?” (Gargantua and Pantagruel, 3.16)
When we follow the work and its roots to this point, any reading of it in “documentary” terms, or as an “honest” way of “presenting” the “secret” of the artist’s art, falls apart. Far from being “personal” in the idiomatic sense of private, individual, or autobiographical, the work opens up a broken, fragmented cinemascope onto the issue of the suppression of feminine jouissance opposing the father’s demands, a logic of destabilizing desire opposing the needs of symbolization and unity, and of openness and infinity opposing the claims of countability and accountability.
Goldin’s piece opens a view onto the impossible place from which a woman artist starts to “speak” and to “produce”—to “work,” as it were. Neither free nor wanting to be free from the “paternal” means of representation and existence, of making visible and present—as evident in the intimately distancing gaze of her photographs of friends and fellows—she insists on showing the real space, or the space of the Real, from which women speak when not subsumed under the spell of the father. The beauty, the misery, and the truth of the piece lie in the way in which it does not propose a way out of it; killing the father, as God does for St. Barbe, is today not an option for this artist-Sibyl. For now, the only path is staying close to that space “between,” neither true to the world of institutions, to social inscription, or to being named, nor following the echoes of the siren’s song emanating from the same place; that is, not following this first symbolic death with the second. Between the “Father” and “Suicide”—faithful to both and identical to neither—Goldin opens for us the impossible place in which she lives and produces, as woman and as artist.
Lives and works in Paris
|2006||Fantastic Tales: The Photography of Nan Goldin, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, USA|
|2005||Monika Sprueth Philomene Magers, Munich |
Faces in the Crowd, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London
|2004||Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls, Festival d’Automne à Paris, La Chapelle St. Louis de la Salpêtrière, Paris|
|2001||Le Feu Follet, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; (touring) as Devil’s Playground to Whitechapel Art Gallery, London; as Still on Earth to Reina Sofia, Madrid; Fundaçao de Serralves, Porto; Castello di Rivoli, Turin; and Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw|
|2006||Das achte Feld. Geschlechter, Leben und Begehren in der Kunst seit 1960, Museum Ludwig, Cologne |
So the Story Goes, The Art Institute of Chicago
|2005||Speaking with Hands, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain |
Getting Emotional, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
Der Traum vom Ich, der Traum von der Welt, Fotografie-Zentrum Fotostiftung Schweiz und Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland
Nan Goldin, The Devil’s Playground (Berlin, 2003).
I’ll Be Your Mirror, ed. Nan Goldin, exh. cat. The Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, 1996).
Nan Goldin, The Other Side 1972–1992 (New York, 1995).
Nan Goldin and David Armstrong, A Double Life (New York, 1994).
Nan Goldin, et al. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (New York, 1986).