In two exhibitions by Jenny Holzer and Nan Goldin currently on display at the Tate Modern we are presented by two collections of socially politicised artworks, but that which veer between the deeply personal and the impersonal in their presentation.
Nan Goldin’s exhibition features The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, an intensely personal collection of photos which immortalise her memories of the culture and community in which she lived in 1970s and 1980s New York. In contrast, the messages and statements that form Jenny Holzer’s work, exhibiting through the Artists Rooms scheme, originate from a variety of sources, including personal accounts, yet are presented in faceless, impersonal formats, from benches, to plaques, to neon signs.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is unique in that it provides an exclusive insider perspective to the community in which Goldin lived. In this collection, Goldin presents what she refers to as her ‘diary’, depicting the family of friends and lovers which she created for herself after leaving home aged fourteen, following the suicide of her older sister, Barbara. Goldin curated these photos in a slideshow, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which groups her photos into broadly thematic sections set to music.
The Tate’s exhibition introduces us to Goldin’s work in a room featuring enlarged prints of her most iconic photos which outline some of the integral themes and figures of this collection, and highlight the intensely honest way Goldin uses her camera. For instance, Goldin’s aim to document for herself all the details of her personal life—even the most painful—is seen in “Nan one month after being battered”: a self-portrait of Goldin’s bruised face following an assault by her then-boyfriend. This contrasts the more peaceful “Self-Portrait on the train” which represents a more stable phase in Goldin’s life following a period in rehab to recover from drug and alcohol addiction. As such, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency explores the entire landscape of Goldin’s life.
Following on through, the exhibition displays the photobooks of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, which feature an introduction from Goldin detailing the motive of her work alongside a selection of images from her slideshow. In the final room, where The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is screened, the overwhelming sense is again of something so intimate and personal. Goldin’s slideshow almost feels like a precursor to Instagram, publicly displaying the photos which represented her life in screenings to audiences, often populated by those who featured in them. Yet, the major difference between Goldin’s photos and the images that we now see on our social media feeds is that Goldin’s non-judgmental documentation of herself and those around her is utterly candid, even the posed photos. This is a documentation of life, rather than the creation of image.
Through the screening, we live through every element of life within Goldin’s community, watching the series of faces through every event, from the parties and the clubs, to the weddings, the births and the funerals. A series of photos of empty rooms attracted particular attention, for a moment separating these vivid characters from the physical environment in which they lived.
The trust and openness within Goldin’s group is most clearly seen in the nudity of many of the photos. Goldin captures her friends sitting posed naked staring directly into the camera, couples entwined in sex and oral sex, sitting on the toilet, in bed, and staring up through bathwater. Goldin’s ability to capture such intimate moments is astonishing, and arguably the most powerful element of her work. She hides nothing, also revealing the darker underbelly of her world, showing the drug culture in teaspoons of cocaine and a series of disembodied arms injected with needles, and the remnants of violence in a series of women marked by physical abuse.
While we see the moments in which Goldin’s community has the most life, from the parties to the pregnant bellies and the new-borns, she captures the ends of these lives with the same openness. Her slideshow finishes with representations of both the physical and metaphorical death of her community, photographing a series of tombstones, some coupled with engravings of ‘Husband’ and ‘Wife’, and even the open coffins of her deceased loved ones. Thus, in The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Nan Goldin captures an infinitely personal account of her life and community in 70s and 80s New York, intimately tracing its existence from its most intense moments of life, to its death.
Jenny Holzer’s exhibition begins with almost the reverse of this, presenting a vast number of diverse statements (not necessarily reflecting any of her own views) in an installation from her first text series, Truisms. Holzer’s work is largely comprised of slogans and messages that are presented in styles that riff on the constant bombardment of words and images thrown at us on a daily basis, and this is immediately evident in this first installation, with the four walls of the room covered in alphabetised lists of maxims and epigrams that repeat around the room, ranging from the cynical, to the political, to the philosophical. Surrounded by these reams of miscellaneous statements, Holzer forces us to question the way we digest the words and messages that constantly surround us, particularly in a media-driven world where every billboard, website, and poster constantly plies us with information. Holzer’s early work metastasises this, imprinting her art in accessible, public formats: on t-shirts, condoms, electronic signs, and posters. Similarly to Goldin’s work, Holzer presents in an nonjudgmental format here, but while the personal nature of Goldin’s work makes the viewer’s opinion largely irrelevant, Holzer instead makes her work personal to all—as advertisers attempt to do—by pushing us to question and evaluate our own beliefs, and how we have come to them.
In the other four rooms of Holzer’s exhibition, her work becomes more politically charged with targeted messages. Many of the examples of her work here share accounts of those affected by conflict. For instance, a circle of five marble benches were each engraved with excerpts from the poems of Polish author Anna Świrszczyńska who wrote on her experiences as a nurse and member of the Polish Resistance during the Second World War. The use of benches links to their traditional use of commemorating loss, while the slight difficulty reading the engravings perhaps implies the way that most would rather not see the suffering of others in the passing routine of daily life.
A number of neon sign installations contrast the permanence of these beautiful marble benches, with their flashing colours demanding attention. The electronic sign, “They Left Me“, illuminates accounts from Syrian refugees. These traumatic personal stories are told in a faceless format, representing the way that Western societies often detach the individual from such experiences in a desensitised manner. Holzer’s installation makes a comment on the ease of ignoring these messages, echoing the easily disregarded scrolling news headlines on tv news. Interestingly, while demonstrating the impersonal way these experiences are reported, Holzer gives viewers a personal experience, as each visitor will have a slightly different encounter depending on which messages is scrolling at that time.
A final favourite in the Holzer exhibition was “I’ve Just Been Shot“: an army sleeping bag embroidered with the account of a British military nurse holding a soldier as he died. Again, Holzer has perfectly selected her medium, with the slumped sleeping bag imitating the weight of a corpse, and its faceless, impersonal quality indicating the innumerable masses killed in warfare.
In Jenny Holzer and Nan Goldin’s exhibitions, we encounter a series of personal experiences, told in two different ways. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency allows an in-depth insight into Goldin’s personal life, while inversely, Holzer’s art attempt to give each viewer a different personal experience, through sharing the experiences of others while forcing us to question ourselves. While wildly different in form, both exhibitions give us an overwhelming, but insightful personal experience, in relation to both ourselves, and to others.
Words by Katrina Bennett.
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