Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, arguably her magnum opus, is currently on view at The Museum of Modern Art. The slideshow of nearly 700 images is set to a wide-ranging soundtrack of pop, classical opera, and rock & roll music. The images are of the artist, her circle of friends, lovers, and acquaintances that Goldin affectionately refers to as her ‘tribe’ from the 1970s and 1980s.
Her images are so immediate that you feel as if you are there, in the dive bars and bedrooms of her gritty, real world. By creating The Ballad, Goldin documents the events of her own life and the lives of her friends through images that tell deeply personal stories. Her photographs capture unnerving episodes of addiction, drug abuse, domestic violence, and illness, while simultaneously embodying moments of joy, comedy, youth, ecstasy, and beauty. Goldin wrote that “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the diary I let people read. The diary is my form of control over my life. It allows me to obsessively record every detail. It enables me to remember.”
There are three rooms dedicated to the display of her photographs. The first includes an installation of materials from Goldin’s archive, early promotional objects for the first iterations of the work, and a mock-up of the book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. The slideshow has been shown on many occasions since Goldin first created it in 1980. Originally, she changed the slides by hand for an audience comprised of mainly her subjects.
In the second room there is a selection of prints from the MoMA’s collection that constitute some of Goldin’s most evocative images from the film. They show the artist and her subjects grappling with the realities of physical and emotional abuse, while simultaneously indulging in moments of lust and tenderness. Some standouts include “David and Butch Crying at Tin Pan Alley, New York City,” “Rise and Monty Kissing, New York City,” and “Nan and Bryan in Bed, New York City.” Each of these images feels fiercely candid and intimate, as if the viewer was intruding on an intensely personal moment.
The third room is the slideshow itself, which runs for about 45 minutes with a short intermission. The images are grouped loosely around visual themes, like people in front of a mirror getting ready to go out, uninhibited sex, New York bar culture, drag queens and performers, the weddings of young friends, parenthood and young children, drug addiction and, ultimately, death. The film is scored to an array of musical genres including an aria performed by Maria Callas, the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You,” Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” and James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World.”
In the age of social media and advertising, where you can be bombarded by images that are photoshopped, filtered, and staged, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency presents the raw, unedited truth of what Nan Goldin and her subjects experienced in the New York of the 1980s.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is on view at the Museum of Modern Art on the 2nd floor Contemporary Art Galleries through February 12th, 2017.