Nan Goldin is running late. On a Thursday evening in the Theresa Lang Center, in a New School building on West 13th Street, the crowd—close to a hundred people—is growing restless. At the front of the room at a long plastic table, the other panelists have assembled: Benjamin Walker, the moderator and host of WFMU’s “Too Much Information”; author Lynne Tillman, whose petite frame is overwhelmed by an explosion of dark curls; French philosopher Ruwen Ogien, whose wisps of gray hair are messy and front-swept; French professor of aesthetics Carole Talon-Hugon, whose jet-black hair is combed back and secured with a leopard-print scarf; and a neatly dressed woman who is later revealed to be Talon-Hugon’s translator. A laptop on the table is connected to a large projection screen hanging above the stage. A folder is open on the computer, and file names are visible; the JPEGs have titles like “skinheadshavingsex.”
Goldin is probably best know for The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a collection of her photographs documenting her life and the lives of her friends—homosexuals and junkies, the poor and the marginalized—in the New York of the late seventies and early eighties. In one, titled “Nan one month after being battered,” Goldin faces the camera straight on; she’s wearing bright red lipstick, and her left eye is filled with blood, the area below it bruised a sickening brown. When Goldin arrives around 6:40 P.M., I find myself checking the face of the woman now walking toward the front of the room against my memory of the photograph. Her career is both remarkable and frightening for having provided everyone in the audience with that image as a point of comparison. She sits down and is immediately, endearingly apologetic.
This roundtable on (self) censorship is part of the second season of Walls and Bridges, a year-long project in three ten-day series. With funding from the Conseil de la Création Artistique and curatorial support from the Lyons-based organization Villa Gillet, Walls and Bridges aims to facilitate dialogue between French and American artists, thinkers and philosophers who normally wouldn’t come into contact with one other. A noble goal to be sure—though, as the evening progresses, it becomes clear that there are some preexisting barriers between several participants that mere proximity cannot erase.
Goldin, whose experience with censorship is deeply personal, recalls the many difficulties she had releasing Ballad. Her father wrote letters begging her not to publish it, convinced that readers would conclude from the photographs that the family was responsible for the suicide of Goldin’s sister. Goldin’s boyfriend at the time, Brian, was also against publication, sure that the images would prove that he had battered her. As Goldin was careful to point out, they don’t: there are images of her bruised face, but Brian is never identified as the abuser. “I wanted it,” she explains, “to be about every man and every relationship and the potential of violence in every relationship.” Nevertheless, the book was originally released without five images of him. These photographs appear, one after another, on the screen above the table. “Brian after coming. That’s the strongest one,” she says of a photograph of a naked man curled around a telltale wet mark on a blue sheet. Her work continues to shock: during a 2004 exhibition, “Sisters, Saints and Sibyls,” shown at La Chapelle de la Salpêtrière in Paris—not coincidentally, the first French insane asylum—three hundred and fifty people fainted. Salpêtrière is now no longer used as a venue to display art during the Festival d’Automne, which commissioned Goldin’s show.
All of her stories, even the ostensibly funny ones, have a dark undercurrent. She wasn’t allowed to enroll at RISD in the seventies because they “didn’t let drag queens in.” This gets big laughs, especially when she reveals that the issue was resolved (and the rule subsequently changed) when a professor with whom she’d had sex argued on her behalf.
One of the last photographs Goldin shows is of two prepubescent girls, sisters. The older one is dressed up, one leg encased in sparkly blue tights, dancing; the younger one, naked, lies on the floor between her older sister’s legs, looking up, her lower half exposed to the camera. This, Goldin says, is the picture that gets her in trouble now. It’s about “worship of the older sister,” she says. “It has nothing to do with nudity.” Later, she asks the audience if they think the photograph is pornographic; only one person raises her hand. The image remains on the screen, hanging awkwardly over much of the rest of the discussion.
Goldin’s question to the audience about the potentially pornographic nature of the photograph sparks a discussion, largely between her and Ogien, about the nature and value of pornography. Ogien seems most concerned with removing the stigma from the term itself, comparing the effect of a pornographic film to that of a horror movie—one titillates, one terrifies—but Goldin, who worked for a time at a bar in Times Square, remembers how the industry destroyed her friends. “I know what is the business of pornography,” she says. It’s a fundamental disjunction: between the French philosopher, who speaks of the idea of pornography, and the American photographer, who knew women who modeled for pornographic magazines and watched them become junkies. It’s an old and clichéd divide: the French, on one side, always theoretical, and the Americans, on the other, appealing to personal experience.
When the panel ends, a crowd quickly forms in front of Goldin’s chair. A young woman approaches, a book of Goldin’s photography outstretched. Goldin asks whom she should make the dedication out to, and the woman blushes and demurs: “Just your signature, and New York, and the date, to remember this moment,” she says. “I will remember my name.” Goldin dedicates the book “To a beautiful woman.” A slight, nervous boy, with lank, dirty blond hair approaches her; he’s empty handed and explains that just wants to meet her to tell her she’s inspired him to study photography. Her smile in response is wide and transformative.
“I think the wrong things are kept private” had been her refrain throughout the panel. “By showing the world these things”—the things in her photographs; the violence, the illness, the love, the desolation—“you can really help people.” Watching the shy young man walk away, it’s hard not to agree.
Miranda Popkey is a contributing writer for The Daily. She is on the editorial staff of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.