Laura Poitras and Nan Goldin: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
To come out the other side. There are two sides, inside and outside. Outside is when you can talk about it, and reaching the other side must feel like a reawakening, and a recognition of the loss represented by the void of what was on the inside. An entire lifetime can contain voids, thankfully, so that we can speak from the other side of the void.
Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is one of those historical events which arrives like an unexpected gale, but is seen as inevitable and necessary immediately upon arriving. Put another way, it is an essential document of its time; an historical account of the 80s would be incomplete without The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. I didn’t hear much of Goldin after the wake of Ballad, and really only thought of her again with the viewing of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, a new documentary film by Laura Poitras and Goldin. I’d read about Goldin in relation to recent political protests, but I’ll be honest, I wasn’t following that news closely. Blame it on the firehose of bad events of the past few years.
This film is extraordinary. It reveals Goldin’s bout with opioid addiction, and builds to a redemptive arc with the successes of political actions against the Sackler family, guilty of promulgating the spread of opioids for financial gain. Interspersed in the film are passages into Goldin’s family tragedies, her escape as a young woman into New York, and her development as an artist. By building a portrait of Goldin while documenting the fight against the art-washing by the Sackler family, the film thrums multiple resonances between biography, art, and politics.
Goldin recounts the void during her time of addiction, of days passing just feeding the void. Her survival past this time leads her to found an advocacy organization, PAIN (Prescriptive Addiction Intervention Now), and to begin her fight against the opioid epidemic and the Sackler family. The film shows the grassroots organizing of the group, the meetings to rehearse actions, and the dramatic interventions at the museums which had the Sackler name on their gallery walls. One witnesses the fear and uncertainty of the activists, fighting against one of the richest and most powerful families in America. Goldin had had a history of prior activism during the days of ACT UP and the AIDS crisis, and that would have better equipped her than most in this fight. But the outcome of the new fight was very uncertain, and you witness the incredible relief and joy as the tide begins to turn against the Sacklers.
The film depicts well both the quotidian nature of political organizing, and the tension of the participants during the actions. That real popular change requires both mundane political work and massive, collective courage. There is no question of operating within the usual parameters of aesthetic display and reception. A well-intentioned artwork which points a finger at a problem, or the artist statement which merely signals its political engagement, would not cut it. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a testament to the difficult activism which brings institutional change. Inseparably, it is a moving chronicle of the artist at its center.