There’s no one quite like Nan Goldin
Sexy, sleazy, wonderfully sad: Tate Modern’s homage to the photographer last Saturday showed why her work remains so powerful
Nan Goldin’s photographic work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a slideshow taking in pictures from 1983 to the present day. It’s different every time the photographer exhibits it, and on Saturday night it was given what is surely one of its most dramatic settings to date, the Tate’s massive Turbine Hall. The pictures of junkies, drag queens, and the sleazy New York demi-monde of the past were projected onto a massive screen in the centre of the hall, and given a musical accompaniment.
For the first half, dedicated to cross-dressers, music came courtesy of John Kelly, a New York-based actor, visual artist and singer who, according to this piece, launched his artistic career miming to Maria Callas records in the punk bars of New York circa 1979. He finished his set with a version of Charles Aznavour’s What Makes a Man a Man, a song whose narrative of a tragically lonely and unfulfilled drag queen could certainly grate in the wrong hands, but which became moving thanks to the grit and sincerity of both his performance and the pictures they were accompanying.
The second part was the evening’s main event – The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, accompanied by the singer/songwriter Patrick Wolf. In an eclectic career, Wolf has played with Leigh Bowery’s group Minty (aged 14), sung with Marianne Faithfull and more recently, frequently been photographed falling out of indie disco Smash and Grab accompanied by Peaches Geldof. This event saw him firmly on his best behaviour, and despite, at 23, being younger than the piece he was accompanying, Wolf didn’t seem out of his depth. His accompaniment provided many spellbinding moments, the best for me probably being his acapella rendition of Che Faro Senza Euridice?, from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Eurydice.
In many ways, Wolf’s input actually freshened up some work which has become slightly over-familiar, and gave extra emotional heft to shots that no longer seem so shocking or transgressive (though Goldin defiantly kept in the picture of two young girls that caused huge controversy last year). The Englishness of a folky song like Wolf’s Tristan somehow found a connection in these quintessentially New York pictures, and spoke eloquently of a connection between the denizens of the Lower East Side – now lost to drugs, Aids or gentrification – and London’s young generation of artists and club kids. Thanks to some enterprising soul with a camera, you can see Saturday’s show (in black and white) on YouTube here.