The Berlinische Galerie, Berlin’s museum for modern art, photography and architecture, seemed to be bursting at the seams on a November afternoon. The draw was Nan Goldin, one of America's most famous contemporary photographers, who was there for a talk with Joachim Sartorius, a close friend who helped to introduce her work to Berliners in 1991. Goldin was talking about her wild bohemian life in this city in the mid-1980s and early 1990s. For many young visitors and East Berliners (like myself) her stories from the roaring '80s sounded like fairy tales. Many of the older visitors who had lived in West Berlin at the time reminisced about the good old days of sex and drugs and recalled the many clubs and bars that disappeared along with the Berlin Wall.
Born in Washington, DC, in 1953, Nan Goldin left home at the age of 14. In 1983 she made her first trip to Berlin, where she would spent the “happiest years of (her) life,” as she told the curious crowd. She lived and worked on and off in the Kreuzberg part of the city between 1984 and 1994. “This is not a light thing to say since I was always looking for a home, from Washington, DC, to Paris,” were she is living now. Asked what drew her to this city, she explained that “in the '80s it was an island of a certain tribe of people, similar to New York. Americans who wanted to flee America moved to New York and Germans who wanted to flee Germany moved to Berlin. Nowadays it seems that all Americans are moving to New York and all Germans are moving to Berlin.” Rapturous applause! Goldin found what she would call her ”family” in the subcultural margins of New York and Berlin, among the squatters, gays, lesbians and transvestites.
She was back in Berlin to open an exhibition of 80 colour photographs she took in the city between 1984 and 2009, two-thirds of which are being shown to the public for the first time. Goldin is known for her candid work chronicling the irreverent lives of her close friends, and these pictures are in keeping with her spontaneous and somewhat voyeuristic style. The poignance of her work often comes from the recurrence of subjects, whom she documents with affection. A friend captured in a daze at a party may then be seen in a portrait years later on his death-bed. Quite a few friends in these pictures have since died of AIDS, including Alf Bold, a festival programmer who brought Goldin to Berlin in 1983.
One of the most beautiful and innocent photographs is also the most controversial. "Edda and Klara Belly Dancing" (1998) features Goldin's two young Berlin god-children dancing about in states of undress; Edda is half-naked, Klara is completely nude. Owned by Elton John, the photograph has been criticised as “children’s pornography”, and was removed by British police from a show at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Britain in 2007. “People who think this is pornography are sick," Goldin said, after applauding the Berlinische Galerie’s decision to display the work.
The exhibition which Goldin calls “a visual diary” gives an overview of her intimate and evolving relationship with Berlin—not only with its people, but also its interiors and landscapes. She rarely visited East Berlin, she admitted. All she remembers was that there was only one flavour of ice-cream available: vanilla, “which was convenient given how we are spoilt for choice today”.
"Being in Berlin changed my life from being in the photo ghetto to the art world," she said of her time here. "I got good lunches for two years and met many art dealers.” In 1984 she screened her slide-show “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” at Berlin’s “Arsenal” cinema, where Alf Bold worked. It brought her widespread attention and acclaim, and was followed by a book version that still sells well in Germany and abroad.
What are her next projects? “I have five books in the pipeline I’d like to publish and I would like to travel to help people in Africa or Haiti.”
"Nan Goldin. Berlin Work. Photography 1984–2009" is at the Berlinische Galerie until March 28th 2011
Picture credit: "Amanda on my Fortuny, Berlin" (1993), "Bea with blue drink, West Berlin" (1984), both courtesy of Nan Goldin and the Matthew Marks Gallery, New York; "Self-Portrait in my Blue Bathroom, Berlin" (1991), courtesy of Nan Goldin and the Berlinische Galerie