Nan Goldin On the Changing Aesthetics of People with HIV

How Nan Goldin displayed the effect of AIDS across society through photography

Nan Goldin The Positive Grid
Nan Goldin “Positive Grid,”  2010

“In those days, people died really fast. I watched almost everyone I knew die.” – Nan Goldin

When Nan Goldin opened her show in Berlin in November 2010, the city was under her spell. Some 3,700 guests came to the opening, and the artist talk she gave the next day was probably the best attended in the Berlinische Galerie museum’s history. At the talk, a high-spirited Goldin who showed up late apologized to her fans saying “I don’t like to keep people waiting for me anymore. And the stress is on anymore.” She answered the questions, told Berlin anecdotes and was genuinely interested in people’s comments. When asked if she wanted to wrap it up she answered, “No, this is fun!”

Great, I thought to myself. Though Goldin is not exactly known to be forthcoming with the press, she’s in a good mood and will keep our appointment. The cancellation came two days later. When I explained to her assistant, however, that I mostly wanted to talk with Ms. Goldin about her work regarding HIV and AIDS, he assured me there might still be a chance to get through. And then it came. A phone call from Nan Goldin. “Meet me in Kreuzberg tomorrow. Here, Speak to Käthe [Kruse, artist and former member of the band Die Tödliche Doris], she’ll give you the address.”

Nan Goldin’s photos are, more often than not, portraits of her friends. “I know how to make someone look beautiful,” she tells me, “And I’ll never photograph anyone I don’t know. You have to know the person to really be able to photograph them. But I never show them pictures of my friends if they don’t want me to. My drawers are full of great photographs that I won’t show because the person asked me not to.” She admits having a Pygmalion effect on the people she photographs: “I can’t tell you how many people came out because of seeing my pictures, or underwent a sex-change and found their sexual identity. Through my photographs, they come to realize their true essence.”

Nan Goldin, Gotscho kissing Gilles
Nan Goldin, “Gotscho kissing Gilles,” Paris 1993.

“I’m bisexual so I can’t really come out as gay. When I’m gay I’m very gay. And when I’m with men then, you know, I’m with men. I don’t fall in love with people because of their gender.” – Nan Goldin

Sleek: Is that why your show at the Whitney Museum in 1996 was called “I’ll Be Your Mirror?” 

Nan Goldin: Everybody, including Lou Reed, thinks that the name came from the Velvet Underground song. Lou Reed even wanted to meet and give me permission to use it. But actually, the name came from a letter someone had written me saying that the picture I had taken of them was like a mirror to their soul.

Sleek: In that show, there were also a lot of photos of friends infected with HIV or dying of AIDS. And in your current Berlin show, theres a grid dedicated to your friend Alf Bold, former director of the Kino Arsenal and the person who first brought you to Berlin in 1984 to show your work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. When I look at these photos now, I can’t help thinking that they capture a certain image of AIDS that was widespread in the media and in people’s minds in the 80’s and 90’s but doesn’t exist anymore. The actual aesthetics of that disease have entirely changed. I’m only referring to the situation in so-called developed countries, of course, but people who die of AIDS or HIV-related complications just don’t look like that anymore.

NG: You know, no one has ever pointed this out. And I’ve actually never though about it myself, but it’s true. If I were to show you pictures of how some of the people from those older photographs look now, I don’t know if you could still tell they’re HIV positive. I understand what you’re saying about the pictures of Gilles and Gotscho. But I didn’t think of them as people with AIDS. I’d never show my friends only when they’re sick and dying. The pictures have to show their lives. That’s why the Gilles and Gotscho series include photos of them before Gilles got sick, or before we knew he was sick. It turns out that at the time I photographed them, they didn’t want anybody to know. Gilles passed without anyone knowing he was dying of AIDS.

Sleek: Maybe you did think about how HIV looks different now because you photographed some of the people again ten years later and as you said, it’s not clear whether they’re positive or not.

NG: I’ve done whole grids just on people with AIDS , called The Positive Grids. The people in those pictures are all infected. But a lot of them don’t want to be shown as infected anymore, and they call and ask me to take them out. Maybe they don’t want to be identified with that or make a political statement anymore. These were political people, mind you.

Nan Goldin, Gilles' Arm
Nan Goldin, “Gilles’ Arm,” Paris 1993

“Cookie Müller. I photographed her until she died. She died the same day the Berlin Wall came down. After that, I started photographing empty rooms.” – Nan Goldin

Sleek : I think that with the relative success of the antiretroviral therapy, if people don’t “show” anymore and can avoid the social stigma that goes along with the virus, they prefer to do that. The social stigma is still a big issue.

NG: People your age think it’s my generation’s disease. I teach at Yale, I taught at Harvard, and my first class is always about AIDS. I teach them about Safe Sex. The idea that it’s ok now because there’s medication is ludicrous. The medication has terrible side effects. People shouldn’t forget that. No one would want to live on these drugs. And there’s depression too. A lot of people who never suffered from depression before, suffer from it now because of the virus. Even though the people I expected most to give up when they got infected have become the most active politically. I think a lot of people came out about being positive to help others overcome the phobia and stigma. I was on the fringes in terms of political action but I was the caretaker for a lot of people when they died. In those days people died really fast. I watched almost everyone I knew die.

Sleek: Is that why you became more politically involved after all?

NG: I was accepted as a photographer within AIDS activism groups. A lot of the people at Act Up were very anti Nicholas Nixon. He went to hospitals as a documentary photographer to photograph people with AIDS. His was not like my work; it was about the disease itself. For me, it was about the people being lost, in all their complexity. Particularly my work about my closest friend [and long time subject] Cookie Müller. I photographed her until she died. She died the same day the Berlin Wall came down. After that, I started photographing empty rooms.

Sleek : Also that same day the show you curated about AIDS opened at the Artists Space in New York.

NG: I was living in Boston at the the time and I assumed there had been a lot of shows about AIDS. Of course that’s what I wanted to do an exhibition on. Unbeknown to me, I was the first person to do it. The show was called »Witnesses Against Our Vanishing«, which is not the best title I’ve ever come up with, and I invited 12 people, some of whom had already passed, like Peter Hujar who was my god as a photographer. Some actually died during the exhibition. That’s when I realized how important it was to show people in all their complexity. I showed pictures of Cookie’s marriage to Vittorio Scarpati, and then pictures of her with Sharon, who was her long-time lover [before she married Vittorio]. Sharon actually took care of Cookie when she was dying of AIDS [after Vittorio’s death]. And then someone said, “I didn’t knowshe was a lesbian.” That’s when I realized that you have to show the vast experience of the human life.

Sleek : Why do you think people hang on to such limited limited definitions?

I’m bisexual so I can’t really come out as gay. When I’m gay I’m very gay. And when I’m with men then, you know, I’m with men. I don’t fall in love with people because of their gender. Its funny, two of the leaders of Act Up, a man and a woman, were having a long-term affair, and they didn’t want anyone to know. It was not accepted to be bisexual at that time.

Sleek: Back to the show at Artists Space: you mentioned it was censored?

NG: David Wojnarowicz wrote this incredible text for the show, “Fat, fat cannibals in black skirts” about Cardinal John O’Connor who was a pederast – it was a very radical piece. The woman who ran the space at the time asked him to censor it. So he took out one “fat” from the title. I don’t think I understood at that time what power that text had. It became huge. So that woman thought it was necessary to take it to the head of the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] just so that they would “know about it and accept it.” That’s ridiculous. I think she was just using it to further her career. So we received national attention. People started to come out in favor of this. It made front-page national news. But then the Berlin Wall came down and that was front page. Still, 15,000 people came to the opening at this small Artists Space. Out of this evolved a small group that started the Day Without Art initiative. Some of the people involved were curators at the MoMA, some were just people like me with big mouths. But it was a great group and we did the first actions which we called “Days”. Our first action was to cover all the statues in museums with black cloth, and a few years after that we were able to get all the lights in major buildings in New York to be turned off at midnight on December 1, like the Empire State Building. It was huge. And then the painter Frank C. Moore who came out of that group started Red Ribbon.

 

“I asked David Wojnarowicz when he was on his death bed if he believed in the conspiracy theory that the government intentionally gave this disease to gays and drug addicts and people outside the system, and he said it didn’t really matter, because whether or not the government actually gave the disease to people, the fact that they ignored it for 12 years had the same effect” Nan Goldin

 

Nan Goldin, Gilles and Gotscho embracing
Nan Goldin, “Gilles and Gotscho embracing,” Paris 1992

Sleek : What would David Wojnarowicz say about Pope Benedict XVI permitting the use of condoms among male prostitutes?

NG: The Pope permitting the use of condoms is kind of an improvement but who knows if it will have any effect. In 1994 I was in Manila and photographed these young boys who were working at a sex show. It was so fucking sad. And they didn’t use condoms because they said they couldn’t possibly get AIDS because they weren’t gay. But they were working as male prostitutes. And then, what about female and transsexual prostitutes? Not that they [in the Catholic Church] would care, as they mostly have sex with those boys. I asked David Wojnarowicz when he was on his death bed if he believed in the conspiracy theory that the government intentionally gave this disease to gays and drug addicts and people outside the system, and he said it didn’t really matter, because whether or not the government actually gave the disease to people, the fact that they ignored it for 12 years had the same effect. Nobody had any idea how it was spread when we first heard about it, it was 1979 and there was an article in TIME Magazine called »Gay Related Cancer«. And we were laughing at it! In the beginning we thought it was caused by poppers. We thought it was caused by bacon! I mean, we knew nothing, there was no information. People would drink their own piss – that’s the kind of treatment that was available. You should read David Wojnarowicz. He is by far the most radical writer about AIDS. When he died, people had a funeral on the streets spontaneously. He was so beloved. I think he had more effect on AIDS in New York than anybody else

“I’ve never known a queen who called herself “Trans-Gender”. Gender studies and all the crap, to me that’s for intellectuals to get jobs at universities” – Nan Goldin

Sleek : Are you still politically active?
NG: Whenever I have a show at a blue chip gallery, I insist on having a small edition for about 300 dollars each, that people like myself can afford. I give the money to GMH Medical Center and research. Or to poet John Giorno’s organization. He gives money directly to individuals with AIDS. When Cookie was dying, he paid the rent. But what’s it like in Berlin?

Sleek : There are a lot of groups who are active here, but the issue is ignored in the media except for when it’s World Aids Day or when something sensational is happening. This year there was a German pop singer who  was tried for having unprotected sex with several partners and not telling them she was positive.

NG: I was actually told by a doctor that women have a very small chance of infecting men. He told me he was writing that women could infect men nevertheless, so that someone would take responsibility. He believed that if men were under the impression that women couldn’t infect them then they wouldn’t care about it while having sex with women.

sleek : She claimed doctors had told her that the risk of passing on the virus was “practically zero”. The media coverage wasn’t pretty and all the time I was wondering about the men – why didn’t they protect themselves? Why did they assume the woman had to insist on it?

NG: The worst thing that ever happened to me regarding AIDS, was with a German feminist magazine called EMMA. They asked me in ‘93 to use the pictures I’d taken of Cookie in an issue on AIDS, in particularly the picture of her and Vittorio getting married. So I asked to see the article and I read it and it was full of mistruths. It was a real sort of Stalinist feminist article. So I said sorry, you can’t publish my pictures with your article. So they dressed up their Art Director as Cookie and somebody else as Vittorio and put a photo of that on the cover. Now I’d sue them, but in those days… I got fucked over by so many journalists that I’ve trusted.

sleek : There is a project in Berlin called “Stimmen in der Stadt” [voices in the city] which addresses the issue of HIV disappearing from the media. Seven individuals living with HIV, but not necessarily showing it, share their stories and talk about their daily struggles. There is one woman, a transsexual lady, who suffered from severe diarrhea for ten years. It made her lose the hormones she was taking, so she started looking more and more like a man. For a long period of time, the virus also took away her sexual identity.

NG: Oh, poor baby! I went through the process of sex change with a lot of people. My understanding of female identity was shaped by queens. I’ve never known a queen who called herself “Trans-Gender”. Gender studies and all the crap, to me that’s for intellectuals to get jobs at universities. My new work deals with shifting states of mind, different states of being and shape shifting. I have one grid that looks a bit like a mammogram; it shows a friend going through the process of sex change.

Nan Goldin Gilles and Gotscho
top: “Gilles and Gotscho in my hotel room,”Paris 1992
bottom: “Gilles in his hospital bed,” Paris 1993
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