THE BALLAD OF SEXUAL DEPENDENCY

 

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The 1980’s marked a drastic shift from the limitations of the previous decades: class boundaries faded, social conformity was critiqued and the American people felt a new sense of liberation from the hardships of war which had governed since the beginning of the 20th century. It was a time of a consumerist culture which was in balance with a surge of social reflection, discussion and creativity. It allowed the public and private spheres to intertwine; distorting the margins to which both were situated. These circumstances gave reason to Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985) exhibition: a visual diary of personal relationships that rejected the ‘new wave’ arts movement in New York City as it explored the struggles of intimacy in an attempt to understand a new era embellished by sexuality,  the AIDS epidemic and drug addiction.[1] Goldin’s diary generates a broader photographic discourse. Her work highlights the ways photography confronts gendered body language and its image whilst it explores the complexities of cataloguing the camera as the voyeur. This social documentary, therefore, is not just a result of Goldin’s reflective memory of personal relationships: ““I don’t want to be susceptible to anyone else’s version of my history. I don’t even want to lose the real memory of anyone again.”[2] Rather, it acts as a skeletal structure for the discussion of human interaction; the camera as an extension of the photographer that both contributes and documents a dialogue.

The diary represents the transcendence of relationships through her proximal viewpoints, the diary’s disjointed composition and snapshot and voyeuristic style. This reflects humanity’s search for connections despite the juxtaposition of gendered language. Goldin states she was influenced by Richard Hughes a High Wind in Jamaica (1929).[3] The novel discusses relationships as a paradoxical issue: it is both personal and universal. Goldin reflects this in her voyeuristic style. Goldin becomes a constant metamorphosis between acting the voyeur and a participant as the images are manipulated by the ideas of voyeurism yet Goldin is aware of her performativity. This suggests her work has distorted what it means to be voyeuristic; “Who is looking at whom, and for what purposes of power or pleasure.”[4] There are limited scholarly attempts to discuss the complex connection of invasive looking and everyday culture in order to identity Goldin’s voyeuristic attributes. However, it is clear there is a shift in her work from the photographer’s role of solely breaching the barriers between public and private to one where the photograph changes our perceptions of looking:  “Real memory, which these pictures trigger, is an invocation of colour, smell, sound, and physical presence, the density and flavour of life.”[5]

The following three photographs represent this continuing shift between the voyeur and the performer. Figure one exemplifies the fluidity of photographer performativity. Despite Goldin’s presence the voyeuristic nature of the photograph remains intact. It reflects the obscene nature of voyeurism: it is never ending. Not only does the photographer gaze upon the subjects, the performers gaze upon another subject. Goldin’s passionate gaze up to a resigned man alongside his gaze towards the sunset; a reflection of the dysfunctional decline of the relationship, highlights the struggle for autonomy and dependency within relationships.

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Figure one: Nan and Brian in bed (1983)

Goldin defies the stereotypical understanding of voyeurism in Figure two. “There is a popular notion that the photographer is by nature a voyeur, the last one invited to the party. But I’m not crashing, this is my party.” [6] Goldin’s self-portraiture of violence and domestic abuse does not embody the typical characteristics of voyeurism photography. Rather, she has manipulated this technique from a genre to that of a subjective metaphor. The photo is raw, unsettling but most importantly confrontational; it serves as a voyeuristic reminder to herself of intensities of the relationship in order to subdue her moments of nostalgia. It shows loss rather than a preservation.[7] The fact the abuser is not identified shows Goldin’s ownership of the image as a reflection of her own relationship with herself and her internal documentary in regards to her attempt to reawaken the memory of her deceased sister.[8] Additionally, the untitled perpetrator, who we know to be her ex-lover Brain, can be replaced by any identity, and therefore acts as a commentary on the issues of discussing, or lack of discussing, domestic violence. The portrait composition, her use of cosmetics to accentuate and take ownership over the harshly, red tinted bruises in comparison to the grey tinted background and the heavy flash technique implies an understanding that we as viewers all bear witness to the effects of violence and it’s complications:  Goldin has “pushed the boundaries of what normally people consider private,[9] coinciding with the second wave feminist movement which began to make the political personal and vice versa.[10]

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Figure two: Nan after being battered (1984)

Figure three uses mirrors as a voyeuristic technique. The mirror is traditionally used in voyeuristic photography as a platform to accentuate the relationship between the observer and the observed. However, the absence of the photographer’s reflection is eerie and accentuates the intimacy of the subject with herself: the voyeuristic gaze into her own reflection and a theme that was also apparent in figure two.

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Figure three: Sandra in the mirror (1985)

The subsequent three photographs narrate the differences and complexities of gendered language, performativity and its role in understanding the voyeuristic nature of social, photographic documentary. Figure four is a site of voyeuristic, intimate and gendered discourses. The bed represents an intimate and highly personal space. It is simultaneously a place of passion, comfort and restlessness. The bed is a means to which the struggles in a relationship are defused or intensified through sex as a performance.[11] It explores the relation of man and woman: the paradox of opposites and their intense need for coupling. Figure four acts as a particular metaphor for gendered performativity. The close proximity of the two single beds mirrors the struggle for independence whilst craving the intensity of interdependency. It highlights the friction of fantasy and reality through the beds apparent alienation; showing only the memory of its use from the absent performers which reflects an overall sense of irreconcilable loss.

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Figure four: Empty bed (1979)

Figure five implements this idea of the bed as the most intimate and raw forum of relationships. As the identity of the performers is obscured we are focused on the collective identity of the couple. The construction of gender roles is questioned as an issue that is brought to a relationship by the individuals.[12] Goldin attempts to redefine the notions of gender performativity and its figurative language through the intertwined composition of the performers. The ambiguity concerning the biological sex of the performers removes the stereotypical ideas of gender when viewing the image. The focus is drawn to the images vulnerability and emotional intimacy which is balanced between both performers through the mirrored clothing, physical embrace and stillness.  The title indicates the performers’ sex: a man and woman that embellishes the notion “gender in much deeper than style.”[13]

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Figure five: Man and woman in slips (1980)

A significant theme of the Ballad exhibition that permeates throughout the history of photography is the issues and prejudices surrounding the male nude and society’s attempt to control the naked male body. The censorship of the male nude is driven from “the [apparent] power of the silent rectangle of paper.”[14] The photograph immortalises subjects and imposes no limitations to which a viewer my gaze: central to the pleasure of looking. Figure six, titled Bobby masturbating acts as  an exemplary piece for this recurring tension concerning male nudity. The photograph highlights the contradiction of attraction and anxiety, dominance and vulnerability. The 1978 Male Nude exhibition in New York broke the taboos which had limited previous works, most predominantly the depiction of male genitalia was most profound, contextualising the attractive seduction of figure seven. In contrast, as a representation of anxiety, the 1980’s AIDS epidemic gave greater value to the private and sexualised photograph as it centred around enjoyment without risk. The photographic forms of sexual sublimation counteracted the dangers of sexual contact.[15]

The male nude still generates debate amongst academics concerning its presence as an image of vulnerability or an assertion of dominance.[16] The self-exposure of the genitalia questions male identity as the penis is seen as a representation of a man’s inner self. The size, shape and its proportion are seen to embody undiluted aspects of masculinity due to its inability to naturally alter its appearance unlike the physical body: it is a constant reflection of one’s manhood.[17] Where the female body resembles “a territory across which male artists state their modernity and compete for leadership of the avant-garde”  the male nude is not used as an affirmation of female sexuality but rather as a rhetoric of social structures of sexuality in disregard to gender and an expression of relationships.[18] Bobby’s interaction with himself in figure six highlights this vulnerability as the photograph acts as an intrusive force on male power. The exposure of figure six echoes a shift in redefining the understanding of masculinity in photography born from the 1960’s gay movement.[19] The figure is not eroticised, but rather challenges the ideas of maleness and femaleness playing emphasis to the sensual rather than the sexual.

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Figure six: Bobby masturbating (1980)

Goldin’s redefinition of the voyeuristic, her commentary on gendered performativity and her exploration of the male nude traces humanity’s need for intimacy, pleasure and desire whilst using the nude as a focused discourse for the complexities of being naked: physically, psychologically and metaphorically captured by the camera. Goldin reiterates her “desire is to preserve the sense of peoples’ lives, to endow them with the strength and beauty I see in them. I want the people in my pictures to stare back. I want to show exactly what my world looks like, without glamorization, without glorification.”[20]

[1] Goldin, N., Heiferman, M., Holborn, M. and Fletcher, S. (1986). The ballad of sexual dependency. New York, N.Y.: Aperture Foundation. The work will be subsequently referred to as Ballad

[2] Ibid. P9

[3] Henighan, T. (1966). Nature and Convention in A High Wind in Jamaica. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 9(1), 5-18.

[4] Vicente Todoli’s (Director of Tater Modern) Forward to Phillips, S., Tate Britain Tate Modern, & San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (2010). Exposed: Voyeurism, surveillance and the camera. London: Tate Publishing

[5] Phillips, S. (2010). The unseen photographer. In: S. Phillips, S. Baker, P. Brookman, C. Squiers, R. Woodward and M. Gili, ed., Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, 1st ed. London: Tate Publishing, pp.19 – 22.

[6] Goldin, N., Heiferman, M., Holborn, M. and Fletcher, S. (1986). The ballad of sexual dependency. New York, N.Y.: Aperture Foundation. P6

[7] Ibid P145

[8] Ibid. P8

[9] Dubin, S. (1992). Arresting images. London: Routledge. P210

[10] Phillips, S. (2010). Voyeurism and Desire. In: S. Phillips, S. Baker, P. Brookman, C. Squiers, R. Woodward and M. Gili, ed., Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, 1st ed. London: Tate Publishing, pp.55 – 59

[11] Dubin, S. (1992). Arresting images. London: Routledge. P210

[12] Blessing, J. and Halberstam, J. (1997). Rrose is a rrose is a rrose. New York, N.Y.: Guggenheim Museum.

[13] Goldin, N., Heiferman, M., Holborn, M. and Fletcher, S. (1986). The ballad of sexual dependency. New York, N.Y.: Aperture Foundation. P7

[14] Metz, C. (1985). Photography and Fetish. October, 34, p.81.

[15] Cooper, E. (1995). Fully exposed. London: Routledge. P183

[16] Ibid. p184

[17] Ibid.

[18] Pollock, G. (1988). Vision and difference. London: Routledge. P54

[19] Cooper, E. (1995). Fully exposed. London: Routledge. P185

[20] Gibbons, J. (2007). Contemporary art and memory. London: I.B. Tauris.

Bibliography

Blessing, J. and Halberstam, J. (1997). Rrose is a rrose is a rrose. New York, N.Y.: Guggenheim Museum.

Cooper, E. (1995). Fully exposed. London: Routledge.

Dubin, S. (1992). Arresting images. London: Routledge.

Gibbons, J. (2007). Contemporary art and memory. London: I.B. Tauris.

Goldin, N., Heiferman, M., Holborn, M. and Fletcher, S. (1986). The ballad of sexual dependency. New York, N.Y.: Aperture Foundation.

Hughes, R. (1999). A high wind in Jamaica. New York: New York Review Books.

Metz, C. (1985). Photography and Fetish. October, 34, p.81.

Phillips, S. (2010). Exposed. London: Tate Pub. in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Phillips, S. (2010). The unseen photographer. In: S. Phillips, S. Baker, P. Brookman, C. Squiers, R. Woodward and M. Gili, ed., Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera, 1st ed. London: Tate Publishing, pp.19 – 22.

Pollock, G. (1988). Vision and difference. London: Routledge.

Richardson, N. (2005). Conversations with contemporary photographers. New York: Umbrage Editions.

Rutland, R. (1997). Gender and narrativity. Ottawa, Canada: Centre for Textual Analysis, Discourse, and Culture, Carlton University Press.

Smith, S. (1999). American archives. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the pain of others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Szarkowski, J. (1978). Mirrors and windows. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

Williams, V. (1986). Women photographers. London: Virago.

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