Nan Goldin: Stories Retold

Exhibition Review, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

by Bill Davenport

Nan Goldin: Stories Retold, curated by Alison de Lima Greene, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston adds a new layer to work already about memory. Her breakthrough photographs from the late 1970's and 80's are reconstituted in large grids and as projected video. Even the Ballad of Sexual Dependency, her signature slide show, has been re-edited.

Nan Goldin has made a career of documenting her troubled life and her troubled friends for the horrified enjoyment of us regular folk, escaping simple voyeurism by making herself the subject. Other people she photographed were chosen for their close relationship to her. "I'm not crashing;" she once said, "this is my party." Her work puts us on edge by showing us a festival of freaks and challenging us not to gawk.

Throughout the show, there's a disappointing feeling that she's mashing and remixing old work to squeeze new life out of past glory. In X-Rated Grid, individual photographs are dated 1976­1999, while the work as a whole is dated 2000. Other pieces have similar, complex dates that make it hard to discern how Goldin's viewpoint has changed over a thirty-year span. Tokyo Spring Fever Grid is a sprawling travelogue of the Tokyo sex industry featuring Nobuyoshi Araki as jolly, gray-mustachioed tour guide. More distant, and more exploitative, it's not Goldin's party. And the grids format doesn't have the unfolding impetus of a slide show or even a book. Stories repackaged, but not re-imagined.

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency broke boundaries in the mid-eighties and still looks great. With snapshot subjects and bad lighting and lurid color, they captured moments in the best Cartier-Bresson tradition, but the moments were of such fragmentary significance that most only became meaningful in context, presented by the hundreds in slideshows. The most often reproduced image, Nan and Brian in Bed, is atypically complete, making for an excellent book cover, but more akin to Cindy Sherman's filmic role-playing than Goldin's reality TV.

For there is a layer of self-conscious theater in Goldin's pictures. Goldin and her subject are larger-than-life characters, reading Baudelaire, reclining into a feather boa, draping themselves in eccentric party outfits and exaggerated makeup. Interesting friends and attractive lovers give heroin addiction a Hollywood glamour. Goldin's strength is in her empathic ability to show their desperate couplings and postures as simply more raw-edged versions of the struggles for love and identity we all experience.

The new counterpart to Goldin's seminal Ballad of Sexual Dependency is Sisters, Saints, and Sibyls, 2004, a 3-screen DVDprojection. It's a 39-minute monologue. The first segment tells the story of Santa Barbara, illustrated with stills from medieval manuscripts. She was locked her in a tower to preserve her virginity, then beheaded by her father. The second segment is a maudlin account of the troubled life and eventual death by suicide of Goldin's older sister, Barbara. Goldin belabors the parallel between the two, dedicating the piece to "women who have been persecuted for their rebelliousness." and underlining her feelings about her parents' treatment of her sister with the whispered, repetitive chant "motherfuckers, motherfuckers... "

Dry images accompany the story: empty hallways, empty railroad tracks, and dreary institutional buildings that Goldin revisits like picking at old scars, akin to the self-inflicted cigarette burns Goldin flaunts with something disturbingly like pride in the last segment of the piece - still hair-raising after all these years.

This exhibition is on view at MFAH from November 17, 2007 through March 30, 2008.

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