Stay abreast of all gentlewomanly happenings and Club doings by signing up for our fortnightly newsletter. You wouldn’t want to miss out now, would you?

Nan Goldin

is taking down the billionaire 
family name behind America’s 
opioid epidemic. And it’s all on tape.

Text by Cristina Ruiz
Photography by Wolfgang Tillmans
Issue nº 27, Spring and Summer 2023

Nan Goldin, 69, made her name taking intimate pictures of her friends and lovers in New York’s East Village in the 1980s. Then she watched in desperation as many of them died of Aids. Four decades on, the rage she still feels from that senseless loss has helped to fuel her four-year fight against the Sackler family, manufacturers of a highly addictive opioid painkiller. Nan’s high-impact protests in prominent museums eventually forced those institutions to remove the family’s name from their walls. The story is told in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the Oscar-nominated documentary on the work of this extraordinary artist, photographer and filmmaker.

Nan Goldin was at the airport, on her way to Brazil, when she read an article in The New Yorker by the journalist Patrick Radden Keefe. It was October 2017, and the piece, entitled “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain”, was about the Sacklers, who amassed their vast fortune through the sale of the opioid painkiller OxyContin, manufactured and marketed by their family firm Purdue Pharma. The article detailed how, for years, some Sackler family members had offered incentives to doctors to prescribe the drug to patients, while misleading the public about its highly addictive nature. The family made billions while helping to fuel an opioid crisis which has killed hundreds of thousands in the United States. Simultaneously, they lavished a portion of their ill-gotten wealth on grateful museums, universities and libraries in North America and Europe, thereby immortalising the Sackler name in some of the world’s most hallowed cultural institutions.

“I became absolutely furious,” Nan, 69, tells me in December as she smokes a cigarette, perched on the edge of a grey sofa in her lofty apartment in the Clinton Hill area of Brooklyn. Her raspy voice is infused with rage even now, as she recounts the story from five years ago. “So I went to São Paulo to give a speech, and it was live-streamed to around 3,000 people. And I announced that I intended to do something. Sometimes you say you’re going to do something and then you don’t, but once I’d said it publicly I felt like I had to.”

The story of what Nan did next is told in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, a documentary by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Laura Poitras, made in close collaboration with Nan, which interweaves key moments from Nan’s life and career with footage from the anti-Sackler campaign she launched after her public pledge in Brazil. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September where it won the event’s coveted top prize, the Golden Lion, and has since been nominated for an Academy Award. Released in America last November and in the UK this January, the film will be available on HBO from the end of March.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed follows Nan and the activist group she set up – Prescription Addiction Intervention Now, aka Pain – as they stage protests at museums in New York, Paris and London to demand that the Sackler name be removed from gallery walls, that institutions refuse their money, and that the family help fund addiction treatment. For Nan, the fight was personal. “I survived the opioid crisis. I narrowly escaped,” she wrote in the January 2018 issue of the magazine Artforum as she announced her campaign to the art world. “My relationship to OxyContin began several years ago in Berlin. It was originally prescribed for surgery. Though I took it as directed, I got addicted overnight… I went from three pills a day, as prescribed, to 18. I got a private endowment and spent it all… When I ran out of money for Oxy, I copped dope. I ended up snorting fentanyl and I overdosed.” In January 2017, she went to rehab in Massachusetts and recovered. “I believe I owe it to those affected by this epidemic to make the personal political,” she wrote. “Most of my community was lost to Aids. I can’t stand by and watch another generation disappear.”

Two months after she declared her intentions in Artforum, Nan and her fellow protestors threw hundreds of pill bottles labelled “Prescribed to you by the Sackler family, OxyContin, #400,000 dead” into the pool in front of the Egyptian Temple of Dendur in the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They unfurled black banners emblazoned with slogans such as “Shame on Sackler” as Nan led her fellow activists and then members of the public in chants of “Sacklers lie, people die.” Later, she brought the Guggenheim Museum to a standstill on a busy Saturday afternoon as Pain released thousands of leaflets with messages including “Take down their name” from the top floor of Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda into the museum atrium. As the papers fluttered to the ground, Nan and her fellow demonstrators lay down on the floor as if dead while shouting, “Say it loud, say it clear, Sackler name not welcome here.”

Nan took her fight to Europe next, staging protests at the Louvre in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in a campaign that ultimately led to the almost complete repudiation of the Sacklers by museums. Most of the institutions targeted by Pain, and many others besides, eventually erased the Sackler name from their galleries and announced that they would no longer accept the family’s money. The achievement is remarkable: museums are inherently conservative, traditionally inscrutable and, despite their public pronouncements, little concerned with matters of ethics. Nan’s campaign, with its high-impact visual flourishes, skilful in attracting journalists – “The kids really knew how to use the media, which I didn’t really know at all,” she says – turned the issue of the Sacklers into an urgent public relations crisis for museums, whose primary concern is always to preserve their good name and reputation. It also helped inspire a new generation of activists who are now agitating to hold museums to account on the sources of their funding, among many other issues. “I’m happy that we were part of that conversation changing,” Nan says.

“There’s no intellectual theory behind my work. It’s all about the experiential, the emotional.”

As a photographer and artist, Nan is best known for The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a project she describes as a visual diary. She began working on it in 1980 when she was living in a dilapidated loft in the Bowery in Lower Manhattan. It is a sweeping journey through the joys and sorrows of Nan’s family – not the one she was born into but the one she chose for herself: her friends, lovers and wider community. There are drag queens and drug addicts, writers, artists, performers and strippers. It would be misleading to describe them as Nan’s subjects; she has never been a dispassionate observer of the people who populate her photographs. Instead, she lives among them. “There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party,” Nan writes in the foreword to the book version of The Ballad, first published in 1986. “But I’m not crashing; this is my party. This is my family, my history.”

The Ballad is a grand narrative of private stories that Nan has chosen to make public (more on this later). Her medium dovetails with her theme. The Ballad is exhibited as a slide show of photographs, accompanied by song fragments that serve as the de facto narration for the images on screen. Slide shows became a popular feature of suburban family gatherings throughout the States in the 1960s, and Nan’s family would occasionally gather to watch one. Years later, when she was at art school in Boston and had no access to a darkroom, she began experimenting with slides because they did not require one.In its complete form, The Ballad consists of about 700 images, which Nan has returned to again and again to re-edit the selection for her slide show. “I want to continue updating the record of my life,” she says. A new version was on display recently at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, in a wide-ranging retrospective of Nan’s work entitled This Will Not End Well, which opened last October and will travel to Amsterdam, Berlin and Milan. Venues in the United States and Asia are under discussion.

Designed in collaboration with the French-Lebanese architect Hala Wardé, the exhibition has been conceived as a “village of slide shows”, with distinct structures housing each of the six on display. There are no framed photographs hung on walls as individual works of art; it is the first show ever to present Nan solely as a filmmaker. “I started to think about this a few years ago,” Fredrik Liew, the chief curator at the Moderna Museet, tells me when I visit the exhibition in December. Liew was inspired by Nan’s November 2019 show at the Marian Goodman Gallery in London; there, he saw Sirens, a new video about the seductions of addiction constructed entirely from found footage, including scenes from 30 films. “At first I thought she had taken a new direction in her work, but then I realised that Nan had actually been more of a filmmaker than a photographer all along,” he says. “Using still images in projected sequences with a soundtrack, from The Ballad onwards – what is that if not filmmaking? It made me reassess her whole practice.”

Liew asked Nan if she would be interested in a show focusing on her work as a filmmaker. “She said she’d been waiting for the invitation for decades.” Though she has had major travelling retrospectives before – one in 1996 organised by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and one in 2001 assembled by the Centre Pompidou in Paris in collaboration with the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madríd – Nan tells me later that the Moderna Museet exhibition “is my favourite show I’ve ever had.”

Spanning more than 40 years of work, it is a fitting tribute to a unique artist, one who courageously puts her life, her history, her anguish and delights on public display. There is a rawness, honesty and vulnerability to Nan’s photographs and films that is exceedingly rare in contemporary art. “There’s no intellectual theory behind my work,” she says. “It’s not the way I think. It’s all about the experiential, the emotional.”

In addition to the documentary and retrospective, a vast, nine-volume box set devoted to Nan’s work will come out this summer, published by Steidl. Eight volumes will reproduce her slide shows in their complete versions; the ninth will assemble key writings about her art. There will be no text alongside the photographs, only the lyrics to the songs that accompany the slide shows. “The design is beautiful,” Nan says. “It’s my dream.”

On the mantelpiece: a bell jar of empty OxyContin bottles used in Pain protests; a portrait of David Wojnarowicz, photographed by Peter Hujar in 1981; the Golden Lion award presented for All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, a gift from its director, Laura Poitras; and a sculpture by the American artist Greer Lankton.

For the past seven years Nan has lived on the top floor of an eclectic Victorian house on a broad, tree-lined avenue in Brooklyn. Her apartment is bright and airy: the ceilings are high, the walls are white, and light from the large windows floods into the kitchen and living room. There are patterned orange-and-black Berber runners from Morocco in the entrance hallway, and further down, just outside the kitchen, a whiteboard leans against the wall. Affixed to it are 18 photographs of Nan’s late, beloved cat, Gaja, arranged in a grid: Gaja in the sink, sleeping on the sofa, peering out a window. She was named after Gaja Barbaresco, a wine produced in Piedmont, northern Italy – “the best wine of all time,” Nan tells me. “There’s no other cat in the world,” she says when I ask her if she might get another.

In the living room, a large lime-green carpet covers the rich wood floor. At one end is a garden of potted plants and flowers in front of the three sides of a bay window. Two taxidermy yellow songbirds sit in a floral arrangement among them. Everywhere you turn, there are strange and wonderful objects collected by Nan on her travels or bought at auction. There are porcelain plates, votive offerings from deconsecrated churches and a pink-and-purple Murano glass ashtray that Nan bought 20 years ago which she uses to tip the ash from her cigarettes into as we speak.

A taxidermy coyote sits howling at the moon in one corner of the room. “I have a lot of taxidermy animals,” Nan says. “It’s nice to have animals around. In Paris I have a full-bodied lion.” This unusual collection is now considered “politically incorrect”, she acknowledges, but she stresses that she’s “never been responsible for the death of any animal.”

The walls are decorated with black-and-white photographs, including a 1972 image by the late, great Malian photographer Malick Sidibé showing a row of five men seen from behind, wearing identical dazzling patterned outfits. A bell jar containing dozens of the pill bottles Nan used in her Sackler protests sits on the carved wooden mantelpiece. Next to it is a statuette of a winged golden lion in a plush red velvet box: the prize awarded to Laura Poitras for All the Beauty and the Bloodshed at the Venice International Film Festival in September and given by Laura to Nan. Although the film is expected to win the Academy Award for best documentary in March, for Nan it’s already secured the top prize in the industry.

Behind the scenes, the Oscar campaign for the documentary is in full swing. “Oh God, Hollywood,” Nan says. She goes on to tell me the story of her recent trip to promote the film. “They brought me out there to meet all these people. I had no idea who any of them were, and they were all like, ‘It’s so amazing to meet you,’ but they had no idea who I was either. It made me crazy.” One bright spot: Nan met the film director Jordan Peele. “He is amazing. I love Nope [Peele’s latest horror film]. I’ve seen it three times,” she says before explaining her theory about the identity of the alien monster at the centre of the story. “What’s interesting is that the way to survive the monster is not to look at it. The film is about looking and not looking. Someone suggested the alien might be a metaphor for a camera.”

Despite her disdain for the machinery of Hollywood, Nan says she will “probably” go to the Oscars and probably wear Prada when she does. “They’ve dressed me for the last four years.” Today she is wearing black Prada trousers and shoes and a black Elena Dawson blouse. “I don’t wear black all the time any more, but historically I have.”

Nan is combative, challenging questions she doesn’t like, and she speaks her mind plainly and openly. Occasionally, she swears. “I say ‘fuck’ and ‘damn’ all the time, but my language doesn’t fly so much these days.” She notes that younger generations are far more polite than her own. Nan is also remarkably self-effacing. Despite her incredible body of work, her track record as an activist and her extraordinary life, she confesses that when she first met Laura Poitras she was intimidated. The filmmaker’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary, Citizenfour, was about the whistleblower Edward Snowden, and Nan worried that her own story would not be sufficiently interesting. “I was terrified. I thought, I have no state secrets; I’m not important enough as a political entity. But Laura found a way to make my story important.” As Nan tells me about her collection of objects and pictures, she lingers on a black-and-white image of David Wojnarowicz, a painter, photographer and writer who died of Aids in 1992, aged only 37. The picture is by Peter Hujar – “The greatest portrait photographer of the 20th century,” Nan says – who also died of Aids, in 1987, and it takes pride of place above the mantelpiece. From this vantage point, Wojnarowicz stares out at the room, his gaze intense, his torso bare, his right hand holding a cigarette in front of his mouth.

In All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Wojnarowicz is resurrected through powerful footage unearthed by Poitras and her team. (“They were really good archivists; they found a lot of stuff that I didn’t have any idea existed,” Nan says.) In 1989, Nan was invited to curate a show at Artists Space in New York; she asked 23 artists and photographers to make works about living with Aids. Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing was the first exhibition on the subject held in the city. Wojnarowicz wrote an essay for the catalogue. In it, he denounced Senator Jesse Helms for his homophobia and described Cardinal John O’Connor of New York as a “fat cannibal” and a “creep in black skirts.” The National Endowment for the Arts cancelled its funding for the venue, ostensibly because of the show’s “political” content, and Nan’s exhibition became national news.

In Poitras’s documentary, Wojnarowicz sits at his kitchen table reflecting on the turn of events. “How can they ignore the political aspect of Aids? Is the fact that I’m dying of Aids in 1989, is that not political? Is the fact that I don’t have health insurance and I don’t have access to adequate health care, is that not political?” he asks, his voice seething. Later, we hear Wojnarowicz’s funeral eulogy for Cookie Mueller, the actress and writer, who was one of Nan’s closest friends. She died of Aids-related pneumonia just six days before the opening of Nan’s Artists Space exhibition. “I find myself experiencing something akin to rage… [we are] perfecting the rituals of death rather than a relatively simple ritual of life,” Wojnarowicz lamented.

“When I first installed Sisters, Saints & Sibyls in Paris around 75 people fainted.”

Nan was born in 1953 in Washington DC to Hyman and Lillian Goldin. She grew up in suburban Boston as the youngest of four children. The defining tragedy of her childhood was the suicide of her beloved older sister, Barbara, aged 18, in 1965, when Nan was 11. She tells the story in Sisters, Saints & Sibyls, a three-screen video at the heart of her Moderna Museet retrospective. As family photographs of Barbara flash on the screens, Nan narrates. “Barbara was a precocious child who walked at seven months and started to talk at about a year. My mother insisted she speak in full sentences. She stopped talking altogether when she was one and a half years old.” When Barbara was two, their mother “was referred to a psychologist for help in handling the child”; their father lost interest when Nan’s older brother Stephen was born in 1948 and “became the focus of my father’s full attention”. (The Goldins’ third child, Jonathan, was born in 1951.)

When Barbara turned 12, the real trouble with her mother started. “They were always fighting, and there was a lot of violence in the house,” Nan says. “My father stayed silent on the side.” Barbara became an accomplished pianist. “She used to play Moonlight Sonata at midnight when she had to babysit for me. She liked to mother me,” Nan remembers. “She used to wash my hair. We ran away together to join the circus when I was five. My sister taught me to watch the sun set.” Nan adds, “I was her confidante.”

When Barbara was 14 and started to spend time with boys, she was sent away to a school for wayward children 300 miles away. She was never to return to the family home. Over the years she made multiple escape attempts. A nurse’s notes in Barbara’s hospital record, which Nan asked her father to obtain in 2004 when she was working on Sisters, Saints & Sibyls, recount one of these occasions. “Ms Goldin was returned to the hall by means of a car when she attempted to escape from the Ford building. She stated at that time: ‘I’m going home but I don’t have a home. I don’t have anything or anybody.’” While on day release at 18, Barbara stepped in front of a commuter train and killed herself. When her parents were given the grim news, Nan recalls overhearing her mother telling her father, “Tell the children it was an accident.”

A fragment of footage of Nan in rehab in London, decades later, appears on screen. She is burning her arm with a cigarette. The limb is more wound than flesh, the visible expression of Nan’s lifelong anguish at the loss of her sister. The narration has ceased; music and lyrics take its place. As Nan slowly, deliberately mutilates herself, Johnny Cash sings his heartbreaking rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ 1994 song “Hurt”: “I hurt myself today / to see if I still feel. / I focus on the pain / the only thing that’s real.”

It is extremely hard to watch. By this point, most of the viewers in the gallery at the Moderna Museet, myself included, are weeping. “There were two more minutes of me burning myself, but I edited it out,” Nan tells me later. “It became relentless. When I first installed Sisters, Saints & Sibyls at the Salpêtrière in Paris [in 2004] around 75 people fainted. They had to have a doctor there.” When Laura Poitras saw the work, she was, she tells me over Zoom, “devastated for days. I had already been working on my film, but seeing Sisters, Saints & Sibyls completely altered its direction. I asked Nan if she’d be open to speaking about Barbara in the film. I think her drive to document comes from loss and the denialism that surrounded her sister’s suicide. And absolutely, fiercely, making sure that the truth could be presented and never denied again.”

Three years after Barbara died, Nan was herself banished from the family home and placed in foster care. “It was the Jewish adoption agency on Beacon Hill,” she recounts in Poitras’s film. “I must have been 14. The woman of the house straightened my hair. She wanted me to be a WASP, basically. I remember the first winter I projectile-vomited all over my room. I must have been terrified.” At 15, she moved into a commune, enrolling in the Satya Community School, an alternative educational establishment in nearby Lincoln, where students were free to decide whether they wanted to go to class. Most days Nan and her friends would go to the cinema instead. But it was in Lincoln that Nan obtained her first camera, when teachers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology secured a donation of Polaroids for the students. “Satya saved my life,” Nan remembers in the film. “I was shy beyond social phobia – crippling shyness. There were like six months that I didn’t speak at all. I think my sister’s suicide had silenced me.”

After Satya, Nan moved to Boston, where she attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and began experimenting with slides. She lived with transgender friends, documenting their lives in a series of photographs she named The Other Side, after a drag queen bar. The images capture her friends’ flamboyant public personas and their intimate domestic moments: two men and three drag queens eat cake and laugh while sitting on an esplanade; another friend sits lost in thought in front of her mirror, applying her make-up. In 1978, after obtaining her MFA, Nan moved to the Bowery. For a time, she worked as a stripper and then a sex worker to earn money to buy film. She discusses the experience in All the Beauty and the Bloodshed. “I think at this point in my life I should talk about it. Because of the incredible stigma around sex work… Sex work isn’t negative in itself, but it’s no party. It’s one of the hardest jobs you can have.”

Nan was a teenager when a teacher at Satya Community School in Lincoln, Massachusetts, gave her a Polaroid camera. She has documented her life and the people in it ever since. Her first slide show – an antecedent to The Ballad – took place at the Mudd Club in Lower Manhattan. The year was 1979, and it was at Frank Zappa’s birthday party.

“I want to continue updating the record of my life.”

It was over several years in New York that Nan created The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, “the biggest, most substantial, sustained work I’ve ever made,” she says. The slide show begins with a photograph of wax effigies of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor from a now-defunct wax museum in Coney Island that Nan visited as an adolescent, followed by an image of her elderly parents. The juxtaposition is about “the dream of romance, which is not a particularly positive dream,” Nan tells me. What follows is a series of photographs of great intimacy: people embracing, in bed, kissing, having sex; Nan’s boyfriend Brian sitting naked on the toilet smoking a cigarette. Then, great suffering: Nan’s bruised and swollen face with two black eyes and shattered orbital bones after Brian beat her viciously when their relationship reached its brutal conclusion; disease; death. “The Ballad is about the ambivalence of all close relationships and how much people suffer from the way they’re sold what love should be, what relationships should be,” Nan says. The people and places are specific, the themes universal: people drinking, taking drugs; birthday parties, weddings, pregnancies; parents, children. A boy dressed in blue jumps off his bed, a red Superman cape trailing behind him. A group of friends play Monopoly. Andy Warhol and Keith Haring at a bar. Debbie Harry. John Waters.

The Ballad was first shown in nightclubs and artist-organised shows in New York. In 1985, it was included in the Whitney Biennial, a prestigious survey of contemporary American art in New York, but that was “a one-off event”, Nan says, and the work was displayed as a series of photographs, not a slide show as she intended. “It was not until I joined the dealer Matthew Marks that it started to get installed seriously,” she says. Marks picks up the story. “The painter Peter Cain is the first person who talked to me about Nan’s work,” he tells me by email. “It was probably in 1992. Shortly afterwards Richard Serra told me he saw The Ballad at the Jeu de Paume in Paris and thought it was very impressive. My gallery had only been open about a year and I was still looking for more artists to work with. I remember thinking if two such different artists both thought her work was interesting, then she must be good, so I wrote her a letter and asked if we could meet.” In 1993 Marks organised his first exhibition of Nan’s work, displaying her photographs alongside those of her great friend the late David Armstrong. It was the first in a long string of shows Marks devoted to Nan; the most recent took place in Los Angeles in 2021.

As Nan came to prominence in the 1990s, the art world was enamoured of an entirely different kind of photography: the staged, highly theatrical mises en scène of Philip-Lorca diCorcia; the digitally altered, sweeping vistas of Andreas Gursky; the minutely constructed models of Thomas Demand, captured in such a way as to seem real. Artifice was king. By turning the camera on her own life and community, Nan pioneered an entirely different kind of vision: intimate, highly personal, sometimes gritty, always truthful.

As her reputation grew, Nan lived in Europe: London, Berlin, Paris. Guido Costa, an Italian photography dealer and publisher who befriended Nan when he invited her to show her work in his Neapolitan gallery in the mid-1990s, remembers those years. “Until 2015, Nan lived mostly in Europe,” he tells me by phone. “She bought a place in Paris in 2000, then another one in Berlin in 2011. For many years we went on holiday together, in Sicily, Puglia, on the island of Stromboli. She loves Italy. We saw each other constantly. Nan built a sort of tribe of people around herself. They shared a distinctive approach to life, and they created their own self-sustaining economy, too. They made art, they showed it, they sold it. Nan has always been an extremely generous person. Since she started to make money, she has shared it; her funds sustained this group of people. Sometimes people left, new people arrived. Nan has a unique capacity to build communities.” In Poitras’s film, Nan remarks, “The relationships that have mattered most to me, probably my whole life, are my friends. I only escape because of my friends.”

Today, Nan’s favourite work is Memory Lost (2019 – 21), her most recent slide show, which closes This Will Not End Well. The work is about depression, drug addiction and withdrawal and is, she tells me, “the most ambitious I’ve made since The Ballad.” Two composers, Mica Levi and Soundwalk Collective, created the score, which incorporates numerous messages left on Nan’s answering machine by friends and acquaintances, including Marianne Faithfull, in the 1980s. “I just save everything.” They relay stories of buying drugs, getting high, crashing out for days, going into rehab, suffering the agonies of withdrawal. Meanwhile, many of the photographs projected on screen are blurry. “It’s not literal, that’s why I love it,” Nan says. The slide show closes with the words of Gabor Maté, a doctor in Vancouver and a pioneer in the field of addiction treatment. When he asks addicts why they take drugs, he says, they tell him: “‘They give me a sense of connection, a sense of control. They soothe the pain, relieve the stress, make me feel less isolated.’” So “what the person is looking for in the addiction is totally sane, totally desirable, totally human.” And that, says Nan, is “the ultimate statement I want the piece to be about. I want it to destigmatise people using drugs. That’s one of the goals in showing it. But that’s not why I make it. I make it to understand myself. I make it for the people I love.”