Broken Images and Blurred Memories: Nan Goldin’s ‘Memory Lost’ 

Alex Haydn-Williams 15 February 2020


‘If each picture is a story, then the accumulation of these pictures comes closer to the experience of memory, a story without end.’

Nan Goldin, Introduction to The Ballad of Sexual Dependency

I took an embarrassingly long time to realise what it was about. I figured that I knew Nan Goldin: the slideshows of nakedness and generosity; the bohemian faces in colourful rooms; the camera as a tool of compassion, not alienation. I’d gone back to her exhibition at the Tate this summer countless times; I’d read and annotated and re-read the catalogue; I’d written an article about her for this paper. But early in January, in an intimate, projector-lit room just off Piccadilly Circus, something disconcerting was happening.

The photographs of Italian nights and green deserts and Goldin’s friend and partner Suzanne didn’t seem too different to The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, her 1985 masterpiece. That slideshow, which has ended up defining her career, was about her life, and about love, and friendship; about sex, and, unsurprisingly, dependency. Sometimes the images of Memory Lost, her newest video piece, conveyed that same innocence, that bohemian joy. But then the music plummeted into anxiety, and the slideshow turned into a nightmare witnessed from beneath the waves.

Image Credit: Alex Haydn-Williams

These photos were blurred and tired: interior shots of drab, boarded rooms, skinny people weeping in non-places. In place of the Ballad’s soundtrack — all Velvet Underground and Maria Callas, cool and camp — was a whirring; and an unsettling whistling; and voices. They were different voices, all telling the same story: of odysseys through mental Saharas; of comfort in a pill; of a total eclipse of reality. The images were singing a lament, made of Goldin’s own memories: but they were disparate, plotless. Here were lines of cocaine across the hardback edition of the Ballad. There was a naked swimmer, body whited out in blue waters. And then came a single photo that explained all the others. A sign in a pharmacy window: “WE DO NOT STOCK OXYCONTIN”.

It all became obvious: the images were broken and discontinuous for a reason.

Goldin isn’t just a photographer. These days, she’s an activist as well.

Oxycontin is one of the painkillers at the heart of the US opioid crisis: a drug that doctors, paid by the manufacturers, pushed relentlessly to anyone suffering from any kind of pain condition. It’s highly, highly addictive: another well-known opioid is heroin. People suffering from acute pain are already extremely vulnerable; making a heroin-like drug their only escape is criminal. More than 218,000 Americans have died from overdoses on prescription opioids since 1997 — prescribed by the doctors who were supposed to be helping them. The statistics are horrendous. 46 deaths a day. A disproportionate number of them amongst the elderly.

Within the last couple of days, an eighteen-billion-dollar settlement offer from the pharmaceuticals industry was rejected by states, because eighteen billion wasn’t enough to make up for the damage these companies have caused. But they’ve found a much cheaper way to repair their reputations, in any case. Nowadays, the surname Sackler is probably familiar to you from news about lawsuits and criminal cases against their family’s company, Purdue Pharma, which produces — and pushes — Oxycontin. But before the headlines, you might have seen the name on a plaque above a learning centre, or a new wing, or an exhibition hall at the V&A, or the Louvre, or the Met, or the Guggenheim, or the Tate, or any of the hundreds of cultural institutions that the Sacklers have donated to.

Those buildings are built on blood money, plain and simple; the presence of the Sackler name is an insult to everybody that the family has killed, or made an addict to their product. But, in large part thanks to Goldin’s activist work with her group Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (PAIN), increasing numbers of institutions are refusing donations and taking the plaques down: the National Portrait Gallery refused a million-pound donation from the Sacklers when she threatened to cancel her planned exhibition there if the money was accepted. Goldin does all this because she was one of those thousands of addicts — it’s an extraordinary act of solidarity.

So is Memory Lost. Those voices speaking over Mica Levi’s synthesisers and whistles are speaking about their experience of addiction to Oxycontin. And when you realise that, their words break your heart. One says that the blurring embrace of painkiller was like ‘Mom’s arms’. Another talks about walking through a desert with no end. By soundtracking broken images from her past and present with their stories of submergence below reality, Goldin melds her addiction with the addictions of others. It sets her awful struggles in their context: an individual’s pain, but also an act of violence inflicted on the bodies and minds of vulnerable millions.

Like the Ballad, it’s an act of love and generosity. But unlike the Ballad, it’s not a diary, or a record of a single experience. It’s still about memory: but now it’s a collective memory, a single pain shared by countless individuals.

Photography’s often thought of as a particularly personal medium, predicated on the sight of a single eye and the artistic vision of a single, reified I. With her latest work, Goldin redefines it. The power of the images in Memory Lost doesn’t come from subject, but from aesthetics: when we look at her blurred skies, we pay attention to the blurring, not the skies. These broken images conjure up the mind of the photographer and addict who took them. And, looking at them, we weep and understand, because we don’t empathise with numbers; we empathise with stories. Goldin lays herself bare, and allows others the space to do the same, so that her viewers can understand the real pain behind the headlines, see the individuals under the surface of the blood-stained billions.

It’s an empathy that only art, with its ability to relay and multiply a human consciousness, could elicit. And the removal of the Sackler name is something only activism could achieve. Goldin’s activist-art practice, then, is a new kind of art, and a new kind of activism. Behind the viewfinder in her home and among the banners in the protest, Goldin’s immortalising her own memory, and protecting the memory of all the others who she’s suffered with. She’s overcome addiction and is angry; hers is still a story without end. The Sacklers better watch out.