Written by Tom Augustine.
One of the first photographers that my partner ever introduced me to (and there have been many) was Nan Goldin. For Christmas that year, I got her Goldin’s most famous collection, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. On the cover, bathed in golden light, Goldin is curled up in bed staring at a man, his back half-turned to the camera, as he gazes out the window, smoking. It’s a loaded image, particularly in the context of the book, which elsewhere includes images of Goldin bruised and battered from a combative, abusive partner. Perhaps an odd thing for two young lovers to bond over, until you pore through the book, and are transported by the intimate power of the photos within. The images are raw, unfettered, and sublime; brazen in their sexuality, fearless in their willingness to display the lives of New Yorkers, including Goldin herself of all shapes and sizes, sexualities and identities, in a time when that was not so welcome a concept, as well as the world she had escaped from – a repressed, small-town suburban wasteland. As critic Mark Asch put it, Ballad was ‘a carousel slideshow, like a vacation album projected onto a wall for fidgety neighbours’.
Nan Goldin is, in every respect, a remarkable woman – an artist of fearsome ability and intellect, an activist of axis-shifting influence, a living reminder of a community of artists whose work changed the world, scores of which died during the AIDS epidemic. In later years, the ballad of Nan Goldin has shifted in tone. A victim of the Sackler family, the Trumpian hyper-capitalists responsible for the Oxycontin epidemic sweeping America, Goldin took it upon herself to shine a light on the way the rich launder their reputations through arts funding. The protests brought the Sacklers into the fore of modern opioid epidemic discourse, made them a household name. So much of Nan Goldin’s art is about bearing witness, and yet in Laura Poitras’ superb documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, we are asked to bear witness to her, the pain she has long endured and the extraordinary resilience of her spirit. The film is a remarkable document of both her life and her activism, placing the viewer directly inside the movement that led Goldin and other activists to stage attention-grabbing protests in metropolitan museums and art galleries across the United States.
One of very few documentaries to ever be awarded the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Citizenfour and Risk documentarian Laura Poitras’ biographical retelling of the life of extraordinary photographer and activist Nan Goldin may be her finest ever work. Weaving together Goldin’s astonishing imagery with her outspoken protests against über-rich Oxycontin peddlers the Sackler family, it is a startlingly relevant exploration of the limitations – and potentialities – of art under capitalism.
It’s an interesting shift for Poitras, who in recent years has become known as a trusted, outer-perimeter journalist to intrigue and spycraft at the government level. Her excellent documentary Citizenfour, chronicling the Edward Snowden leaks, placed Poitras directly inside Snowden’s inner-circle, capturing the danger that he was inviting. Later, her film Risk attempted a similar level of outspokenness and intimacy with Julian Assange, to less compelling results. If All the Beauty and the Bloodshed has shared DNA with these films, it’s in their willingness to speak truth to power in a far-reaching manner that often circumvents the wishes of the rich and powerful. Poitras is one of a handful of documentary-makers whose work is considered artful enough that it is shown alongside feature films at festivals, and often beats them handily when it comes to prizegiving. This notion of artistry, not just journalism, is perhaps what has ensured her works consistent access to broad audiences in spite of their fearless thumb-nosing at the structures of power. It is modern-day auteurism at its finest. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is urgent, certainly, but also more grounded than those earlier films, rooted in history and personal struggle and, tellingly, intense grief. It’s no surprise that it’s perhaps Poitras’ finest work.
The film routinely pauses the action to flip through Goldin’s images, turning Mark Asch’s sentiment of Goldin’s warped vacation slideshows into glorious praxis. The purpose of this is clear – these artists and members of the community, many of whom faced tragic deaths at the hands of corporate and governmental malfeasance, were people, with lives and souls and dignity. The film features vital members of the artistic community of New York from the 20th Century and today, including John Waters and Cookie Mueller (whose story is rendered in heartbreaking, mesmerising terms in a few sequences of this film). One of the most rewarding and remarkable elements of All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is its clinical deconstruction of the complicity of arts funding structures in perpetrating the many injustices of the world. The film makes sure to remind us of the many ‘Sackler Wings’ of art galleries and museums, where transgressive, profound, world-shaking art is housed within the finances of some of modern history’s greatest villains. This campaign is just as prevalent in the modern day as in the past – both in America and New Zealand. Look no further than the recent James Wallace trial, the fact that his actions were routinely swept under the rug because he was one of the few lifelines for arts funding in New Zealand. In America, Artforum editor David Velasco (who features prominently in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed) was just in the past week fired by the wealthy benefactors of that platform for voicing his opinion on the current conflict in the Middle East. This is the norm, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed suggests – to pursue art, and the opportunities of the art world, one must live in a constant state of unease, relying on the purpose and power of your artistic voice, but only up to a certain point.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is clear in its intention – to underline the fact that artists are frequently in dire circumstances, having to swallow their pride and often their morals in order to keep producing work – such is the value placed upon art, the vital spice of living, in a hyper-capitalist reality. But it is also a profoundly personal, heartfelt document – often humourous, frequently deeply moving. It is a purposeful work, certainly, but one that invites the viewer into the struggle, rather than shouting directly at them. This is not so easy to do in a film with an express political purpose and yet, the combined artistry of Goldin and Poitras make it look easy. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed premieres on Rialto Channel this month as part of their ‘Power of the Underdog’ series. I can think of no better banner-carrier than Goldin for this sentiment. It’s underdogs like her who change the world.
All The Beauty And The Bloodshed premieres Thursday 23 November at 8:30pm only on Rialto Channel as part of the month-long Thursday night event: “The Power Of The Underdog”.
All the Beauty and the Bloodshed
Movie title: All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (dir. Laura Poitras)
Movie description: One of very few documentaries to ever be awarded the prestigious Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Citizenfour and Risk documentarian Laura Poitras’ biographical retelling of the life of extraordinary photographer and activist Nan Goldin may be her finest ever work. Weaving together Goldin’s astonishing imagery with her outspoken protests against über-rich Oxycontin peddlers the Sackler family, it is a startlingly relevant exploration of the limitations – and potentialities – of art under capitalism.
Date published: November 2, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Laura Poitras
Director(s): Laura Poitras
Actor(s): Nan Goldin, David Velasco, Megan Kapler