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'All the Beauty and the Bloodshed' chronicles Nan Goldin's career of art and activism

Activists hold a banner reading "Take down the Sackler name" in front of the Pyramid of the Louvre museum in Paris on July 1, 2019.
Stephane De Sakutin
AFP via Getty Images
Activists hold a banner reading "Take down the Sackler name" in front of the Pyramid of the Louvre museum in Paris on July 1, 2019.

On Feb. 9, 2019, artist Nan Goldin led a protest at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in which activists dropped fake OxyContin prescriptions — all attributed to Richard Sackler, the CEO of Purdue Pharma — into the air of the museum's sprawling atrium. Some activists lay on the museum's ground floor, posing as if they were dead.

"It was a really beautiful action," Goldin says. "We saw it as a blizzard of prescriptions, and that we were the people being buried."

The activists were protesting the fact that the Guggenheim, along with many other museums, had accepted money from the Sackler family, whose company had manufactured and aggressively marketed OxyContin, an opioid and prescription painkiller.

Goldin had become addicted to OxyContin after it was prescribed while she was recovering from surgery. She wasn't alone; OxyContin has fueled the opioid crisis in the U.S., which has caused approximately one million deaths since 1999.

Goldin wanted to bring attention to the Sacklers' influence in the art world — including with the fact that the family's name hung on various wings of a number of world-famous museums. She founded the organization, P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), which has staged "die-ins" at the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Filmmaker Laura Poitras remembers being "blown away" when she first heard of Goldin's protests: "It really wasn't until Nan and P.A.I.N. started doing these actions that it sort of crystallized and it became untenable and that name became associated with the kind of death toll that it has brought, that their drug has brought," Poitras says.

Poitras and Goldin's Oscar-nominated documentary, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, chronicles Goldin's work as a photographer, as well as her work as an activist. In the years since Goldin founded P.A.I.N., the group's protests have been a major factor in getting institutions like the Met, the Guggenheim and the Louvre to remove the Sackler name. The Sackler name, as of this interview, remains on two of the nine galleries at the Met.

"If Nan hadn't stood up, I am confident that the Sackler name would still be on the museums," Poitras says. "What Nan has done throughout her work is really talking about things that are deeply personal in a way to destigmatize them so that we can have conversations and that also we can talk about where the responsibility really belongs — which, in this case, is on Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers."

Goldin says the movement has been truly collaborative. "Right before the Met took down the name in November 2021, we wrote a letter — Laura, and myself and another person — to the board talking about the necessity of taking down the name, and 77 of the greatest living artists signed it. It was incredible," she says.

Interview highlights

On whether Goldin's activism in museums affected her career as an artist

Goldin: Probably. But actually I didn't even think about it. It didn't really occur to me. I had to do it. So I did it. ... I think there were probably museums where I would have been part of exhibitions. I know there's a museum right now that won't take my traveling retrospective, I believe, because of my politics. So there were those that it affected badly, and then there was a lot of acclaim given to me in the art world, also.

On P.A.I.N.'s prescription drop at the Guggenheim

Goldin: We threw prescriptions — fake prescriptions — that had quotes from Richard Sackler, about five different prescriptions, saying things like, "We have to hammer on the abusers. They're the culprits," and "We're going to make a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition." ...

Even though I'm an artist, I can't take credit that I designed these actions. They were very, very collaborative with the group. One person would have an idea and then it would roll to the next person. And that's how we created these actions.

On being influenced by the AIDS activist group ACT UP

Goldin: They were my model. I was present during ACT UP. I went to some of their actions and a few of their meetings. Unfortunately, I didn't get fully involved, but also I was making my work and a lot of it was about people who are living and dying from AIDS. And the people in ACT UP supported my work. ... The stigma was incredible for people living with AIDS. And so work that was positive, was important. I learned everything about doing performative actions and die-ins, and sometimes some of the older members of ACT UP that are still alive would come to meetings.

On Goldin's groundbreaking photography

Poitras: She documents her life, the people that she's deeply involved with, and there's a sort of relationship that actually you can see and you can feel in the images. ... The way in which she redefined, I think, storytelling with images both within the frame, there's just the sense of mise en scène, the lighting, the sense of characters. You want to know people, you want to be there. And then with the slideshows, how she juxtaposed the images with the music and her editing, it's all so cinematic. What's also so amazing about Nan's work is that different people relate to it differently depending on what they bring to it. People come up to me and say, "Nan helped me come out." They looked at her photographs and it made them feel OK to say that they're queer.

On Goldin's motivation in her photography

I think the wrong things are kept secret.

Goldin: I think the wrong things are kept secret. So the fact that I put out my work, it was not accepted as art at the beginning because it was so personal. I came up in a time of black-and-white vertical photographs about light. And then there was the period in the '80s when people were using appropriated images. So my work didn't really fit in anywhere. The way people respond to the work is very important to me. I show myself battered and in different countries, women have come up to me and said, "I couldn't show myself. I couldn't talk about it until I saw these images." And that's what the work is really about. That's really my motive in showing the work.

On photographing herself after being abused by a jealous boyfriend

Nan Goldin and Laura Poitras attend the Venice International Film Festival on Sept. 3, 2022.
Kate Green / Getty Images
Getty Images
Nan Goldin and Laura Poitras attend the Venice International Film Festival on Sept. 3, 2022.

Goldin: [I did it] so that I wouldn't go back to him. It's that simple. ... It was very important to me to have a record of what really happened. ... That's been sort of the motivating force of my whole life, my work, is to make records that nobody could re-edit or deny — and that was the same with this work. ... I believe it was for myself. And also, I think after [being] battered, there's a lot of emotional damage, and you're afraid that you'll be blamed on some level, by other people.

On photographing drag queens

Goldin: I moved in with the queens because I worshiped them, basically. I found them some of the most incredible people in the world, that they lived without concern about the opinions of the rest of the world, including the gay community and lesbians. Everybody stigmatized them, and I found them so beautiful and so moving and powerful in their lives. And it was really the first body of work I did. I was photographing them because I wanted to put them on the cover of Vogue. They were my supermodels and I wanted them to be supermodels in the world. And I took pictures every day and took them to a drugstore and brought back snapshots and collected piles of snapshots, which some of the times they ripped them up if they didn't like them. ... That was their right. And generally, I've tried to maintain that right to all the people I photograph over 50 years, not always, but I try to, the right to take their work out.

On why she stopped taking portraits of people

Goldin: I lost interest. I think I'm starting again now. My community's not alive. I don't have the same community. I've gotten older. I photograph the sky, mainly, and animals.

I have a fascination with the sky, with clouds. They're about beauty, but they're also imbued with a kind of loneliness. And it's about getting old and trying to understand mortality. I think they're emblematic of my struggle with mortality. I've realized I'm mortal. And as a young person, I was immortal. ...

Accepting being an old woman in this society ... is very different and could be seen as difficult. I mean, you lose your credibility and you're invisible, which I kind of like. I have thought now about making a piece about age.

Audio interview produced and edited by: Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner

Audio interview adapted to NPR.org by: Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.