There are a few, select objects that are intrinsic to my sense of home. Objects that, without which, I would feel a fraction less myself. Things that have followed me for years, bearing dust from various flats and houses, collecting traces of skin from various hands. My copies of Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and The Devil’s Playground are key players in this selection.
There is something about living with art that is not unlike living with a partner. When you choose them you are infatuated, obsessed even. You need them as close to you as possible, looking for hours and memorising every mark. But then, as you live with them day in and day out, for years, there are days when you can’t look at them at all; when a brush stroke that your eyes seared into to distract yourself during a fight is now tainted with a moment of violence. And then time passes, and you’re in love again, forgetting what it was that hurt you. I think this is why people will often say, “I like it, but I couldn’t live with it” in relation to art. It’s a different kind of relationship. When choosing to live with a work, you have to know that you can both weather the storm.
I’ve lived with Nan Goldin’s work for five years, but in a way, this relationship is easier than living with a painting or a print. I can leave the book strewn open for days if I really want to sense her world or, when the photographs feel too painful, the books return to their colour-coded shelves. The power dynamic between myself and the work is uneven in this respect, but equally, the work has affected my life so deeply that I need moments of release. Living with Goldin’s work means living with the meticulous documentation of someone else’s life; it carries the risk that you might get so involved with the experiences of a stranger that you retreat from experiences of your own.
I was first introduced to Goldin’s work through an art teacher at school. I must have been sixteen or so, and emerging from an adolescent sense of perpetual sadness. I loved her work immediately, coveting the richness of its colours, the intrigue of its subjects, the sense of witnessing lives unfold so far from my own. But mostly, I loved the fact that I was allowed to look at it. That I could sit by the computers in the art department, leafing through The Devil’s Playground, and drink in photographs of sex, laughter, loss and abandon, cataloguing each face in my memory. At that age, I missed the nuances in the work. I wanted the blurry nights and the sense of reckless possibility. I wanted to be watched.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was given to me by an ex-boyfriend on my twentieth birthday. I remember opening it just past midnight in my halls of residence, both drunk on gin, and feeling the promise of our relationship in my hands. It was as if this book epitomised the magnitude of what we had together, an expression of the ecstasy and frustration of first being in love that I loftily projected upon us.
My father gave me The Devil’s Playground for my birthday last year and in my eagerness to open it, I damaged the cover with a small cut running through the ‘D’ of ‘Devil’s’. But in a way, this is perfect, reinforcing my conception of the work as living. I often think about how my journey through Goldin’s work has been mapped out for me by men, significant men in my life, and I wonder what this means for me as a female receiver of these bibles of queer culture. These men were pivotal in my development into womanhood: one of them taught me how to be someone’s partner, someone’s lover; one of them taught me how to look at art, that I could look at art for most of the hours in my day; and one of them taught me the fundamentals of how to exist in the world. I wonder whether this has influenced my treatment of the work as informative, as having something to teach me. Or perhaps it means nothing at all.
There is a freedom and privilege in living besides and amongst the photographs, the possibility of brushing fingers over the faces of Brian, Suzanne, Valérie–Goldin’s world held between two covers. Her photographs make me greedy for connection. Both books chart relationships in a way that is continually generous. They evolve in your ownership. As I have amassed experiences, I have understood the photographs in ways that were previously unknown to me. I understand now the preciousness of community, of the same faces moving in and out of your life. I’ve lingered in empty rooms, lingered over bodies; I’ve seen death and lived. But still, I only relate to a fraction of the photographs, a fragment of a life. The images are equals: each occupying their identical space in the books, but the emphasis of the work alters with each opening. Like tarot cards, it is the photograph that you remain with that can teach you the most about your state. They map all manner of relationships, from the tangible community that holds one another, to the absences indicated by an ectopic pregnancy scar or a heroin spoon. Nan battered, Marina breastfeeding Elio, Bobby masturbating, or the banality of Brian having a smoke, waiting for something to happen.
Now so many of Goldin’s subjects, her friends, are dead. Many from AIDS-related causes. In this way, the books preserve. They allow the subjects to live on in their evolution in the viewer’s life. One of my favourite photographs from The Ballad is Cookie and Vittorio’s wedding, New York City, 1986. The couples’ hands draw me in most of all. Cookie’s are visible as they dab away tears, the faded tattoo on her left index finger, the nail slightly dirty and the lace fingerless gloves concealing her chunky rings beneath. Vittorio’s hand is suspended, spliced by the image’s frame. I hope that he will reach for her. In The Devil’s Playground, there is a poem by Cookie, The Birth of Max Mueller – September 25, 1971, and a photograph, Max at Sharon’s apartment under photograph of his mother Cookie, NYC, 1996. Max sits–his eyes looking away from the camera with his mother’s image suspended above him, her eyes cast in the opposite direction. They are held together in their mirroring of each other, an invisible cord between them as Cookie retreats in the image. Cookie and Vittorio both died of AIDS-related causes in 1989. With this mise en abyme of sorts in the image of Max, Goldin marks the endless state of motherlessness: the compromise of existing with only the trace of a person, their imprint onto film. There is a piece of life and death here, a document bound by her community.
Goldin described The Ballad as her “visual diary,” but it is a diary that projects. Over the years, I have memorised the photographs and kept them as imaginary acetates, ready to reframe situations in my own life through Goldin’s lens. There is an inclusivity in her work. Not only in the faces that appear again and again, and that you begin to recognise almost as your own friends, but in the hand she extends with her photography. The promise that there is a community for everyone, the reassurance that we all belong to someone. In living with and beside her work, we belong to her, if no one else. The final photograph of The Devil’s Playground, is a close-up of the carving on a gravestone in Lisbon: You Never Did Anything Wrong.
Tess Charnley is an independent writer and curator based in London. She has recently curated a group exhibition, ‘Experiment | Control’ at Blyth Gallery. She is currently working at several galleries in London and is completing her MA at Goldsmiths. Her research centers around art and culture in relation to the AIDS crisis and the life and work of David Wojnarowicz in particular. Instagram – @tesscharnley