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Thematic and Chronological Survey of Nan Goldin's Work in Berlin at the State Museum of Modern Art
Nan Goldin - Berlin Work. Photo: Jansch / Berlinische Galerie.

BERLIN.- Nan Goldin’s photographs are pictures of her life. Their unending wealth and shimmering colours show Goldin’s “family” – her friends, acquaintances, lovers. After leaving her parents’ house at the age of 14, she became part of a subcultural scene of drag queens, transvestites and homosexuals, first in Boston and then in New York’s Lower East Side from 1978 onwards. In 1991 she came to Berlin for one year on a grant from the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) and remained here, with only brief interruptions, until 1994. Since then, she has been returning to the city repeatedly.

The exhibition NAN GOLDIN – BERLIN WORK by the State Museum of Modern Art, Photography and Architecture presents 80 selected photographic works produced in Berlin between 1984 and 2009, as well as previously unpublished archive material from the artist’s own collection. Two tableaux of work, the so-called “grids”, supplement the photographs as narrative sequences, introducing key themes and figures from this period and so making a decisive contribution to the viewer’s understanding of Goldin’s image of Berlin.

Reference to the Berlinische Galerie is not only given because of the artist’s stay in Berlin. In 1996, the work “Self-portrait in my blue bathroom” (1992) was donated to the collection of the state museum. The exhibition therefore provides a link to the museum’s own collection and underlines its international character. On the one hand, NAN GOLDIN – BERLIN WORK brings together photos already shown and published elsewhere; on the other hand, it presents entirely new material.

The exhibition shows a thematic and chronological survey of work that Nan Goldin was able to realise during her lengthy stay in Berlin. Portraits, interiors, self-portraits, still-lifes and street scenes offer an insight into the life of a bohemian that goes much deeper than the customary clichés. With its snapshot aesthetics, her photography appears to place no emphasis on carefully composed and realised coloured prints. It exalts those people who usually play the part of outsiders in society and its visual culture, making them into the key subject of the image.

Berlin has always been a place to attract people outside the mainstream. The exhibition identifies the city’s special role as a place of creativity and transition against the background of the artist’s development over more than 20 years.

The Berlinische Galerie is offering extensive space to a contemporary artistic position in NAN GOLDIN – BERLIN WORK, once again linking the museum’s exhibiting activities under the new director Dr. Thomas Köhler and events in the art world today.

As well as emphasising the autobiographical aspect of her work, Goldin’s photographs are a form of documentation of underground culture. While Goldin’s early works are accessible and comprehensible only in accumulation, recently it has been possible to discern a focus on selfportraits and individual portraits. In the latter, she tries to come close to the inner being of the sitter using the camera. As a new sphere of experience, Berlin offered Goldin an opportunity to become immersed in the city’s art scene, taking portraits there. New, unusual shots were taken of her closest friends from New York. While Joey is no longer photographed as a “queen” in shimmering costumes but in intimate moments with her boyfriend Andres and experiencing Berlin’s night-life, Nan Goldin generates a new visual language with her portraits of Siobhan, which – with its considerable reduction of colours and formal focus on one person – generates a strict, contemplative pictorial form.

In her earlier self-portraits, Goldin often positioned herself in relation to other people. She presented herself during sexual activities or even staged her own body as a kind of “pin-up”. In addition, she demonstrated the physically destructive consequences of her “dangerous liaisons”. As a metaphorically charged pictorial element, the mirror is incorporated repeatedly into the composition of these self-portraits – used for self-analysis and introspection. Her selfportrait on the train (“Self-Portrait on the Train, Germany”, 1992), but also the horrifying selfportrait “Nan after being battered” evidence a phase when her private life was undergoing deep and radical change, and the geographical distance to the USA became equivalent to a search for personal transformation.

Goldin has examined and re-examined interiors many times. One constantly returning motif in her photographs are empty beds and hotel rooms. Here, it is not only reference to the bed as a piece of furniture with sexual connotations that is important, but above all the transitory aspect of a place where many different people stay one after another, but without being aware of each other. The cities to which Goldin travels can be rediscovered in her depictions of occupied hotel rooms, ranging from splendid suites in expensive five-star hotels to shabby dosshouses, crumpled mattresses in the communes of the eighties, and carefully composed settings in her own apartment. Some of the places she captures in her shots of interiors, like the Bel Ami brothel in Grunewald or the Lützow Lampe Bar in Schöneberg, seem rather like time-capsules today, having remained untouched by the universal processes of transformation in the 1990s.

Goldin’s snapshot aesthetics tend to disguise the fact that her eye is schooled in art history and she certainly composes images. Art-historical references, beginning with mirrors, paintings and various constellations within the picture, make it evident that her photos do not just come about in the heat of the moment. Some of the still-life images can definitely be described as “classical”, revealing Goldin’s sensitive handling of her subjects.

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