Sisters, Saints, Sinners

Published in Doris

Art Criticism

Nan Goldin, Sisters, Saints, Sibyls, 2024, Installation view. Artwork: © Nan Goldin. Photo: Lucy Dawkins. Courtesy Gagosian

Barbara Goldin died by suicide in 1965, at the age of eighteen. She was two years older than me. I recognise her life and that of her younger sister, the artist, Nan. Although they lived in America and I in England, the description of growing up in “the banality and deadening grip of suburbia,” the stultifying, proper and prosperous atmosphere chronicled by the novelist of Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates as “a kind of blind desperate clinging to safety and security at any price,” is something to which I can relate. 50’s America was not a place for women. After their brief excursion during World War II as truck drivers and Rosie the Riveters working in factories and shipyards, women were returned to the kitchen and childrearing. For clever girls, for rebellious girls, this was a straightjacket. Subversion meant necking in the backseat of a smoke-filled cinema with unsuitable boys, jiving to the hot sticky Rock n’ Roll of Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. Sex was illicit, dirty and only for those who were married and, without question, only between men and women. Being respectable, being modest, not attracting unwelcome attention were what was expected. As the poet Sylvia Plath wrote “….everybody [was] either married or busy and happy and thinking and being creative and you felt scared, sick, lethargic…. You saw visions of yourself in a straightjacket, … a drain on the family, murdering your mother….”

Nan Goldin’s parents were Jewish. Aspirational. Perhaps frightened of not fitting in with their WASP neighbours. Sisters, Saints, Sinners (2004-22), Nan’s film – shown in a dark 19th century Welsh Chapel in Charring Cross Road – is arranged as a triptych (the painterly form traditionally used for altar pieces). It starts with the story of St. Barbara who, reputedly, was locked away to preserve her virginity, converting to Christianity in defiance of her pagan parents, only to be tortured and executed for her troubles. Nan Goldin’s images of her sister’s namesake are used to explore her troubled life. The slides, shown like an art history lecture, are followed by grainy black and white stills that chronical the Goldin sisters’ adolescence; a seemingly idyllic suburban life. There’s a neat bungalow with carefully tended lawn, parties and proms, beds decorated with bright occasional cushions and a teenage scrapbook on the floor titled ‘Joyful Memories.’ But all this is subverted by the soundtrack in which we hear someone sobbing and Barbara’s ‘mother’ hysterically hurling insults like slut and whore. Immediately we are wrong footed. Asked to question what constitutes the truth.

Trouble between mother and daughter began in 1958 when Barbara was twelve. Her defiance soon led to her being labelled mad and bad and sent to a psychiatric detention centre. She was accused of “Acting out, open defiance, sexually provocative behaviour, association with undesirable friends, loud and coarse speech.” Her confused sexual identity didn’t help, nor her association with an older black man. There are echoes of Plath’s autobiographical, The Bell Jar, with its distant father and hysterical perfectionist mother. Appearances had to be kept up but a voice-over to the film adds another doctor’s report: “There is much evidence that it is not Miss Goldin who should be in hospital, it’s Mrs. Goldin.” Plath, Diane Arbus, Anne Sexton. There’s a roll call of women who similarly suffered and whose lives ended in suicide.

Barbara was eighteen when she threw herself – like that famous literary heroine, Anna Karenina, – under a train. There are shots of the tracks, of a fast moving Amtrack train and of an unknown figure walking through trees. Is that supposed to be Barbara or Nan reliving, remembering, retelling?

Barbara’s suicide was the pivotal moment in Nan’s Goldin’s life that prompted her own rebellion. She ran away to find her own tribe; “I wanna be evil, I wanna spit tacks.” Everyone has long bushy hair, is hanging out, sometimes being creative, sometimes smoking spliffs. Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash form the musical backdrop. But Nan suffered too – addiction, self- inflicted wounds – we see her arm covered with cigarette burns, the bars on the windows at her rehab centre, it was, it seems, art that saved her. We watch her age, change physically, become more confident of who she is. She grows into her life in a way that Barbara was never able to do. Without actually saying so, the film is about endurance, about transformation, about the choice of choosing creativity over death. It does not shy away from catastrophe and melodrama but shows that there can be a way out for the brave, for those who fight against the psychological odds and somehow prevail over despair. Implicitly, art is shown as the salvation; something bigger beyond the self.

Sisters, Saints, Sinners seen in the dark ecclesiastical space of 83 Charing Cross Road is an intense, raw experience. Like Sylvia Plath and other sensitive and creative women of her generation Nan Goldin had to negotiate a narcissistic, controlling mother who thought she knew best. The alternatives for such a child are binary. To aim to be the perfect, self-sacrificing daughter until her identity and autonomy disappear or to be a rebel. Daughters of narcissistic mothers are projections and extensions of their mother’s self-involved psyche. Barbara and Nan found themselves trapped within such a manipulative relationship. Perhaps as the elder of the two Barbara had to fight all the harder. Maybe her sacrifice paved the way for her younger sister Nan to turn, as Freud says, ‘misery into common unhappiness’, to become a successful artist.This film is Nan Goldin’s powerful homage to her.

Nan Goldin in her Brooklyn, New York apartment, 2023. Photo: Jason Schmidt. Courtesy the artist and Gagosian

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