Nan Goldin in Berlin An Intimate Diary Of the Bohemian Underground

Controversial US photographer Nan Goldin has returned to Berlin to showcase a selection of photographs from her time spent revelling in the city's subculture. The exhibition of pictures, two thirds of which have never been displayed publicly before, opens today at the Berlinische Gallerie.

By Josie Le Blond


An exhibition by acclaimed American photographer Nan Goldin, who is notorious for her explicit pictures of nudity, masturbation, sex and drug-taking, opens in Berlin on Friday. The exhibition -- "Nan Goldin - Berlin Work" -- features photographs that Goldin took in Berlin between 1984 and 2009. Two-thirds of them have never been exhibited before.

This will include two particularly controversial images of Goldin's young god-daughters dancing for her naked, that were censored in some countries but not in Germany. At the opening, Goldin thanked the Berlinische Gallerie, where the show will run from Nov. 20 until Feb. 28, for including the shots. "If people think that's pornography, they're really sick," she said.

As with all of Goldin's work, her Berlin images document what she describes as "an intimate visual diary." Although she first came to Berlin in the early 1980s, Goldin lived in the city for three years after a prestigious DAAD residency in 1991.

'Best Years of My Life'

"The best years of my life were here in Berlin," Goldin told a press conference at the Berlinische Gallerie on Friday. "I don't say that lightly. I've been looking for a home all my life. The only place I feel myself and comfortable and feel real love for my friends is Berlin."

The specially selected photographs are a jumble of spontaneous snapshots of Goldin's bohemian Berlin milieu: Portraits of her male and female lovers, friends and acquaintances drinking in West Berlin bars, shots of East Berlin high-rises and stills from the drug-riddled squat she once inhabited in Berlin's working class Kreuzberg district.

"It's a place of loss. I haven't been back there," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE about the squat which was her home for three years in the early 1990s. "I don't know my way around Berlin anymore." Nan Goldin's underground of the 1980s and 1990s has been swallowed up by the rapid changes since reunification. "Back then (in West Berlin) we were an isolated community of artists," she said. "It's different now."

Memory and Loss

Arranged loosely according to themes, the exhibition gives an overview of Goldin's intimate and ever-shifting relationship with the city. A number of her subjects have now died of AIDS or drug overdoses.

A poignant collection arranged in a grid documents the illness and death of actor and festival programmer Alf Bold, one of the originators of the Berlin Film Festival and the man who first brought her to Berlin in 1983, from AIDS in 1993. "There's an enormous sense of loss, like a holocaust," said Goldin. "Most of my friends are infected. I show my friends as full human beings, not people with AIDS." The feeling of loss is especially palpable in Goldin's interiors showing flamboyantly decorated yet abandoned living spaces.

In an after word to the 1996 reissue of "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency," a version of her famous slide show in the form of a book, she wrote: "Photography doesn't preserve memory as effectively as I had thought it would…I thought I could stave off loss through photographing. ... But the pictures show me how much I've lost."

Out of Photographic 'Ghetto'

The photographer said her time in Berlin changed her life forever. It catapulted her "from the photo ghetto to the art world." In 1984 she first showed her slide show, "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency," at Berlin's Kino Arsenal Cinema where Alf Bold worked. The massive attention it won her in Germany has kept the book version of that work in print ever since.

Goldin now lives in Paris, where an exhibition of her more abstract recent work exploring "states of being" is currently on display at the Louvre Museum. Despite this honor, she still toys with the idea of moving back to the city that played such formative role in shaping her life and her art.

"I was truly happy in Berlin," she said. "A rare thing in my life."

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