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  • Victoria Comstock-Kershaw


The intersection of protest and politics in art is nothing new - it's Goldin's addition of the perspective of personal experience that makes the PAIN Protests at the V&A so remarkable. writes Victoria Kershaw.

Goldin describes her latest exhibit, Sirens, as 'the diary [she] lets people read': "The work was always a direct offshoot of my life" she says. "I have a need to remember everything; the photography comes from that need. Photography provides the material for this diary." she says. It makes sense, then, that just as the Sirens photographic collection Memory Lost explores her own addiction to prescription pharmacies, her and Sackler PAIN's (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) stand-in at the Victoria & Albert Museum on November 16th on the protests the institutions' support of the billionaire Sackler family. The Sackler dynasty has been heavily implicated in the UK's ongoing opioid crisis, and Goldin's protest was a response to the V&A's director Tristram Hunt support and pride of the Sacklers’ financial sponsorship and support. So what role does Goldin's art play in her protest, and why should we care?

The intersection of protest and politics in art is nothing new - it's Goldin's addition of the perspective of personal experience that makes the PAIN Protests at the V&A remarkable. Sirens spans over 30 years of Goldin's notorious career as documenter of the post-Stonewall American LBGT community, but remains a deeply intimate look at her own life. Memory Lost in particular is both a departure from and an homage to Goldin's typical style of portraiture. It captures her struggles with addiction - burned mattresses, empty pill bottles, nude figures passed out on the floor - in a bitingly haunting fashion. She turns her camera away from the lovers and friends we are accustomed to seeing to expose an exceptionally powerful narrative: a recovering heroin user turned Oxycontin addict, a journey spanning from the 70s to today. Like addiction, the exhibit's layout is sprawling, confusing, repetitive, and harrowing; there is both a sense of regret and awe as the audience is led from found footage to answer-machine conversations to pharmacy doors beneath 'WE DO NOT STOCK OXYCONTIN' signs. The excitement and electricity of drugs is mingled perfectly with the shame and hurt of addiction, culminating in a raw and emotional experience.

There is, of course, still political weight to the die-in without the added narrative of Sirens or its' artworks - but I allow myself to look at the V&A die-in from an art critic's point of view (rather than that of a concerned activist) for the sole reason that it was presented with a far more metonymic approach to PAIN's message that their usual protests. In their previous activist activities, cold hard facts ahve been printed and touted throughout her protests - 200 dead a day, 400,000 in total - in huge black letters, usually of red banners. There is nothing subtle about the political outrage Goldin expresses through these protests: no metaphors, no gimmicks, which is rare for protests led by visual artists. The V&A protest deviates from this, offering a more allegorical approach to the 'Shame of Sackler' campaign. The die-in consisted of Goldin and her team occupying the Sackler courtyard at the V&A, surrounded by blood-stained American dollars and laying on the ground ad demanding that the V&A abandon the Sackler name.

Why Golding chose to indulge in artistic metaphor this time rather than her usual no-nonsense approach is, I believe, closely tied to her recent exhibit. If Memory Lost is an emotional confession, the PAIN Protests are a mirror of her own experiences. Sirens provides the pathos of Goldin's experience with addiction, whereas the logos is found in her protests. There are three elements at play here: the Sackler family's effect on Goldin, Goldin's addiction, and her artwork. None can exist without the others, all are affected by eachother; there is an artistic and political synergy between the three aspects of the experience. The cycical nature of the situation is both condemned and displayed through her activities in London, and it is this artistic and political alliance that makes her message the more powerful.

Image credit: Kate Brown, artnet news, Nan Goldin.

Sirens is on from November the14th of 2019 until January the11th of 2020 at the Marian Goodman Gallery.

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