In Rencontres d’Arles Goldin’s Sisters, Saints and Sibyls, or SSS (itself an interesting abbreviation when reduced to initial capital letters) combined moving image with stills, both recent and from family albums, to recount the story of her sister Barbara Goldin who committed suicide by throwing herself under a moving train on 12 April 1965.
Goldin says that the work “is a tribute to my sister and to all rebellious women struggling to survive in society”. Further, her declared intention is “to explore, through three narratives, the experience of being trapped, both literally and figuratively; the story of Saint Barbara, beheaded by her father for having found liberation through her discovery of spirituality.
“The story of my older sister who was locked up in various psychiatric institutions during most of her adolescence for having rebelled against the extreme conformity of her times, society and family.
“The story of my own time spent in a psychiatric hospital, firstly to escape from the trap of addiction and later to be treated (abusively) for depression.” (from press pack)
But not everybody was convinced by the approach. On more than one occasion overheard comments included “Why should we (audience) pay for their (Goldin et al) therapy?” But isn’t this missing the point? If you don’t want to see this type of work, then don’t go and see it (and pay for it). Freud hoped that his system of ideas – psychoanalysis – would not fall into the hands of professional psychiatrists but that ‘ordinary’ people would be able to use his theoretical frameworks or ‘metapsychology’ to perform self analysis. In some of the shows, it was photography as confession and as therapy, though the success of the latter is questionable.
The function of the confessional, delivered in sealed off spaces to the priest in the Catholic church, has been replaced by the psychiatrist, and in the last four decades, by the photographic exhibition. Fitting then that SSS was housed in a magnificent church where spiders webs could be seen clinging to the dusty windows above Goldin’s personal photo collection, and where the projection was shown in a closed off space at the nave allowing us the viewer to worship at the feet of exposure – both photographic and personal.
Goldin: “For years I hated photography. I believed anyone could do it… I have always felt that I was being lazy, using photos as my major art form while what I really wanted to do was make films, an art form that incorporated photography, narrative, literature, and music.
“Film is the great influence on my life, my greatest field of knowledge, what I most respect and learn the most from. That is the reason I make slide shows, which are similar to films made out of stills.” (from press pack)
But first we had to ascend the stairs to a viewing platform from where the theatrical elements of the show could be most fully appreciated. Screened in two dimensions in the three-dimensional space of a former church, Goldin had created a tableaux comprised of a bed in which a life-sized Victorian-looking doll was laid out covered to her midriff by a sheet. On the bedside table next to the mannequin were a variety of objects; a bedside table lamp which was switched on, an ash tray with cigarette butts, cans of beer, a telephone.
Was this Goldin in bed responding to her sister’s death? Was this sister Barbara or Saint Barbara? Was it a stand-in for every women who has been institutionalised? Whatever it suggested, the stillness and corpse-like figure pulled my gaze back down to the bed, on those occasions when I had to overt my eyes because I couldn’t look at the screen. Goldin showed us her self harming (with cigarettes?) to such an extent that the marks on the surface of the body represented a battle ground – the skin on her forearm seared by the red hot glow. Goldin’s personal war zone. At times, I could barely look. Unable to reach out to the pain and suffering displayed before me, my experience of the work felt voyeuristic making me uncomfortable and immensely sad (for reasons I won’t go in to here).
However, the show was powerful – and theatrical and dramatic, with its booming thunder and lightning strike (which struck down Saint Barbara’s father and also represents the force of nature with which she is associated) – but the whole project felt devoid of hope and the second half, which centred on Nan, could perhaps have been a separate work so that the projection ended on her sister. The photographic process allows for the confessional, certainly, you ‘Show and Tell’, but whether it is therapeutic – and for whom? – is highly questionable. If there is a purging in making public drug addiction, self harming, suicide, mental health issues, then why does it seem as though Goldin is caught in a self perpetuating cycle of sadness? Photography of, and by itself, can only help access the troubled psyche, to heal it takes far more. At the end of the screening, I waited for the credits searching for a speck of hope, and then there it was and I nearly missed it. Mention of a foundation which has been set up by Goldin in memory of her sister.
Then there was the soundtrack. As I remember, I heard Nick Cave’s The Weeping Song, and a song by The Cocteau Twins or singer Elizabeth Fraser, as well as Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt. As the credits appeared I looked for the names of the songs, and a credit for Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails singer and songwriter) who wrote Hurt but I didn’t see mention of him. Cash covered it brilliantly (2002), just before he died, but it was Trent Reznor who wrote the song (album 1994 The Downward Spiral). Credit where credit is due – especially as music and songs are so integral to Goldin’s work. So here’s a bit more about the song:
From wikipedia entry on Nine Inch Nails:
“Reznor said that when Rubin first asked if Cash could cover his song, he was “flattered” but worried that “the idea sounded a bit gimmicky.” He became a fan of Cash’s version, however, once he saw the music video.
“I pop the video in, and wow… Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps… Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn’t mine anymore… It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.”
During professional week, I saw Goldin in the Place de Forum – the square where people hang out – and asked if I could interview her. This was her response:
“My world isn’t about photography. I’m an artist.”
Then she asked me about the type of magazines I write for and if I worked for The Guardian or Le Monde? I shook my head and said photography magazines.
“No, I don’t do interviews with photography magazines.”
Next time, perhaps…
This is Episode Two of my Arles three-parter. For Episode One, just Follow Me.