Perhaps the most pitiable image in all of Dante’s Inferno is the wood of suicides. Here, in hell’s Seventh Circle, between a river of boiling blood and a desert of burning sand, is a dense, pathless forest where the souls of the suicides are encased within gnarled trees and fruitless bushes. Odious Harpies—monstrous birds with claws and female faces—race through the wood tearing the trees limb from limb, causing them to bleed. Cries and wails echo in the sunless, starless air.
Throughout her career, but especially in her latest and most wrenching work— Sisters, Saints, & Sibyls, the 39-minute three-screen lamentation that is a duel memoir of her sister’s suicide at the age of 19 and her own mortifications of the flesh and battles with addiction—the photographer Nan Goldin has been one of the great living suicides of recent art history. Her legendary slide show of more than 700 images set to music, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” begun in the 1970s and carried out through the 1980s, is the great Book of the Dead of the period—a love letter to a generation caught in a disintegrating death ray, cursed and blessed, drawn like moths to a flame, first to each other, then to desire, then addiction, then stalked by AIDS and overdose.
Literary critic Charles Baxter wrote that novelist Malcolm Lowry captured “the way things radiate just before they turn to ash.” At her best Goldin does this too. At her worst, which has often been the case since the mid 1990s, Goldin is a parody of herself, someone going through the motions, taking pictures that however raw and primitive still look like made-for-TV versions of Nan Goldin. As a result, her art slowly became less believable; the pain and desire at its core turned into caricatures.
Now, at 53, Goldin has produced a hypnotic tour de force, dedicated to “all our sisters who have committed suicide or who have been institutionalized for their rebellion.” The first time I saw Sisters I was shaken. It took me a half hour to readjust to the world. Anatole Broyard wrote about illness and suffering being, “not a disaster or an occasion for depression or panic, but a narrative, a story.” In Sisters, Goldin has done this as well as anyone since Lowry in Under the Volcano.
Sisters begins with images of illuminated manuscripts and Goldin reciting the legend of the third-century St. Barbara, whose well-off father imprisoned his daughter in a tower because he was afraid that she would be corrupted by a man. After Barbara surreptitiously received a Christian lover and was converted, her father turned her over to the authorities, who tortured her and then allowed the father to behead her himself. He was killed by a bolt of lightning soon thereafter. This is a near perfect allegory for what happened to Goldin’s sister Barbara.
Born May 12, 1946, Barbara was institutionalized at the age of 14 after kissing boys at the movies and having a black boyfriend. After repeated institutionalizations Barbara obtained a day pass from the National Institute of Health (where she was an inpatient) and on April 12, 1965, walked several miles, laid down on some train tracks and was beheaded by a passing train. In Sisters we hear Goldin reciting this tragic story in a flat, nearly dead voice. Then we see her visiting these same tracks. In one frightening scene you can see her shadow (with her trusty camera in hand) on a speeding train. It’s so close the engineer blasts his horn.
The first half of Sisters tells Barbara’s sad story with family photos and filmed sequences of various institutions and homes. Goldin then says that Barbara’s psychiatrist predicted that Nan would kill herself someday. The three screens go dark and she announces, “I left home at 14 and found my own family.”
After seeing pictures of Goldin’s new family of friends, freaks, and lovers, an inexorable downward spiral forms. “Drugs set me free,” she flatly says. “Later, they became my prison.” Sisters makes all of Goldin’s work much clearer. Not only do we now we know why the cover of her 1996 Whitney retrospective featured a picture of Goldin on a train in Germany, we know what she may have been thinking about. Sisters revitalizes what Goldin had weakened. It fills in the gaps and makes her story much bigger and more heavyhearted.
The height and depth of Sisters is when Johnny Cash sings Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” Here, Goldin is seen in several institutions, looking zonked out, obviously in trouble, on the rocks, her arm bandaged, covered with self-inflected burns, her eyes glazed over, poised on the precipice of death. Her friends can only look on. Goldin is giving us the moment before she will turn to ash.
Goldin’s remarkable gift is that regardless of her own condition she has the uncanny ability to rouse herself from whatever state or stupor she’s in and capture the life and death going on around her. This gift has allowed her to make an astonishingly vulnerable work of art. It might even save her life.