Monday, January 5, 2009

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency at the Museum of Modern Art

This morning, under the misapprehension that the holidays were over, I decided, after the gym, to go to MoMA when it opened.

As a working stiff I forget about the nature of holidays for others (students, etc.). January 5 is still not a dull-normal day of the calendar year.

Pushing through the throngs at MoMA I gave up my initial intent, which was to look at the surrealist objects in the collection, simply to browse around where the least crowds were. I am rereading Andre Breton's Nadja - I thought the objects at MoMA would inform my current reading.

Breton's Nadja is a madwoman who offers to the author a quixotic re-arrangement of logic, in which she attains profundity, outside any societal conventions, outside the absolute tedium of the quotidian world. Breton's fascination with Nadja also includes his sectarian collusion with chance & coincidence. The book is illustrated w/ images of Paris, which denote sites & characters in the book: are we in a work of fiction wherein all could be fabricated, or what is this blurring of document & subjectivity?

I initially saw the slide show of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency sometime before it was published - I'm guessing 1983-1984 or so (terrible at years) in the backroom at Maxwell's in Hoboken, a bar across the street from the Maxwell Coffee ("good to the last drop") plant. Friends of mine lived upstairs.

At that point it was a somewhat obscure project. Nan Goldin came with 2 slide projectors, a dissolve unit for the projectors, & a boom box for the soundtrack on cassette. This was very ad hoc & potentially amateurish, which is exactly its strength, as well, as a piece of work.

My memories of the show at Maxwells are vivid but unspecific; the screening this AM at MoMA distorts my fragile, indistinct recollections. One of the curious aspects of The Ballad is that it is open-ended. It is updated periodically. MoMA acquired the Ballad in 2004 - in the credits there is a copyright date of 2006. What I saw today included images not in the initial Ballad, but also later work which can be seen in other books & catalogues, such as The Other Side, Love Streams, Vakat, The Devil's Playground. What I saw more of which I don't remember so well: guns, needles, pregnancies, babies, bodybuilders, famous artists, graves.

One perverse thought to occur was that the images of the empty hotel rooms (seen primarily in Vakat) are the most potent in their repression of the direct human activity in such spaces, which is made evident in the absence of people/characters/actors & yet evident in their lack - a sense that something has happened. This has an uncanny feel to it which is not part of Goldin's usual agenda. One of the simultaneous delightful & disturbing aspects to Goldin's photographs is that they are not meant to be artistic per se - they are very confrontational in terms of addressing issues of visibility, & also complicating it - these are emphatically not glib images which encapsulate existences. There is no decisive moment & no entry into any formula for "what is." The slide shows Goldin creates veer from the vernacular cliche of the family narrative into what is much more extraordinary & special. This is a kind of validation for what is seen, as proof positive of what goes on.

I am on the fence considering the updates & revisions of the Ballad. What was shown initially was a very precocious, tough document of a young person, in which everyone was young & feisty (except for the parents), & acting out a bit. In the update, one can see some of the same characters older, & also many who are not: in the credits I counted 27 names in "In Memory of" which gives the spirit of the initial Ballad a much more melancholic if not despairing tone to what was already an equivocal evaluation of being & relationships. What I remember in my dotage about my initial encounter w/ The Ballad, in the back room of a bar in New Jersey, was its sense of immediacy & its interrogation of the private photo - that there was something to say about need, compulsion, desire, impulse. This is entirely outside the realm of the art world - I think what she deals with in her work is outside gallery rhetoric, even though that is where it resides. One could question whether it becomes repetitive, or whether it could lapse into self parody. & I am curious as to the position of the anonymous viewer in looking at this work: how to evaluate it, how to comprehend it. As prints, or a book, the Ballad exists in a containable, distinct form, whereas as a projection it has a performative time-duration which is much more demanding. The Ballad has been an important interference in the trajectory of modern art/photography. I am curious how it looks to those who have not seen it before - I count myself out on this as I feel as if I have lived with it somehow, in my adult years, in various kinds of familiarity. When it first appeared the general culture was less totalized in media - now there is an endless stream of media in which disclosure & confession are kitsch & meaningless. TV-internet-news-entertainment are always speaking to us privately. Personal drama is now a kind of public performance & as such seems less direct or sincere somehow - it is too coiffed, too poised, too anticipated. During the projection at MoMA there were snickers at times at moments I found peculiar: during the sequence of hypodermic needles, for instance, or images involving various bodily fluids.

The Ballad was published as a book close to the same time that Twin Palms published Ken Schles' book Invisible City, which was also shot mostly in the East Village/Lower East Side of NYC, at approximately the same time as the Ballad, & involving loosely the same age-group as well as locale. Invisible City is made of of full-bleed black-&-white images. The photos are not diaristic per se but involve a journey of introspection - this is as much about the urban as it is the personal. The work is done with great craft & is informed with a great deal of knowledge about photography, photo books, urbanity, & design (which was by Schles). It follows great books such as Robert Frank's The Americans, William Klein's New York, the books of Daido Moriyama. The Ballad followed the publication of Larry Clark's Tulsa & Danny Seymour's A Loud Song, but with its use of color slides, it's machine-like lack of handicraft, it presented a photography informed as much with the home amateur slide show, although it is so unlike such material too.

One of the more curious efforts I have seen by students is to try to imitate Nan Goldin's style - what is usually presented are extremely uninteresting party pictures, about social fun & potentially excessive habits. Side by side w/ Goldin's images one realizes how harsh & emotional her images are, & how strongly they are actually composed. The slides can look haphazard in a projection (the earliest images have what seems to be shifting colors) - as prints they appear much more rigorous & painterly.

On a personal note I must state that I was young & living cheaply in the Lower East Side at the time. For me both books touched on the world around me, even if my experiences were not exactly similar. Both looked familiar.

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