Nan Goldin’s War on OxyContin

The cult photographer takes aim at controversial big-pharma family the Sacklers.

Left: “Self-portrait high Berlin 2016 I survived the opioid crisis”. Right: P. A. I. N. – Prescription Addiction Intervention Now #painsackler

Over the weekend, Nan Goldin staged a protest at the Sackler Wing of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to campaign against the art world’s continued association with the Sacklers – the family linked to the manufacture of the prescriptive opioid, OxyContin.  Leading the demonstration, Goldin shouted: Shame! “As artists and activists we demand funding for treatment: 150 people will die today, 10 while we are standing here, from drug overdoses”. Accompanying Goldin’s rallying cry,  100 or more supporters threw pill bottles into a moat surrounding the Egyptian Temple of Dendur in protest. 

Taken from the latest edition of SLEEK, we take a look at her activist campaign.

“My Satyricon night in Berlin accidentally on ketamine Sept 2016”

Berlin’s Eighties were different to any other European city’s. London was bursting at the seams with a burgeoning art scene that made celebrities out of impoverished twenty-somethings, a phenomenon that transformed the British capital with galleries and mega-museums like the Tate. Meanwhile in Paris, the Centres George Pompidou (which had opened in 1977) was gaining widespread popularity, with major exhibitions by Jackson Pollock, Pierre Bonnard, Wassily Kandinsky and Cy Twombly, and in Spain, Madrid was starting to reclaim its post-Franco identity. But Berlin was fragmented: still physically and culturally divided between East and West, there was no mainstream art hub or commodifiable scene.

It was in this climate that Nan Goldin found her artistic sea legs, documenting the subcultures of the German capital. Everyone from sex workers to transgender friends made their way in front her lens. Through these photos she also became one of the first photographers to document the victims of domestic violence.

Left: “Prescription OxyContin Berlin 2014 That’s how it started”. Right: “Amanda in face mask Berlin 1993 I hope no social police will turn her in. So far so good”.

Berlin gave with one hand, but took with the other. Four decades on (in 2014), Nan was prescribed OxyContin – a slow release version of oxycodone, a semisynthetic opioid with effects allegedly comparable to heroin – after developing tendonitis in her wrist. Within weeks she was addicted, despite, she says, taking the pill exactly as she was advised.

Three years later, and Nan is now 10 months sober. How’s she celebrating? With the brutal campaign “Shame on Sackler”, through which she’s attacking the Sackler family, who were the principle owners of Purdue Pharma when the company began distributing OxyContin in 1995. In 2015 Forbes revealed that they have gone on to make $35bn in sales from OxyContin since the drug was launched. The family are also some of the most prolific art philanthropists in the world, and through their foundation have donated funds to the Serpentine Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum, among other initiatives. Nan’s explosive campaign is lifting the lid on their part in OxyContin’s history amid one of the worst opioid misuse crises in US history. (In 2015, the American Society of Addiction Medicine estimated that 2 million people had a substance use disorder involving prescription painkillers.)

“SP in Berlin 1991”


This isn’t the first time Purdue Pharma’s dealing with OxyContin has been put under the spotlight. In 2007 the company pleaded guilty to misleading the public about the risks associated with taking the drug, paying a legal settlement of $601 million. Nan’s latest photographs show the battle for justice outside the courtroom for those trapped and addicted to drugs.

In these images she presents bottles of pills scattered on a carpet and self-portraits in which the artist stares at herself unnervingly in a mirror. Goldin’s campaign is a Berlin story, but it’s also the archetype of her body of work. In her photographs she’s always been interested in those who exist on society’s margins – people who haven’t been given a counterculture pass.

Shame on Sackler:

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