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"Nan Goldin: Stories Retold"

Work reflects the horrors, pleasures and ravages of time

There's a beautiful scene of footage captured at Barbara's gravesite. The center panel is a photo of Goldin's parents walking from the grave. The two side panels are moving video, creating an amazing effect on the still picture in the center, like it's actually moving forward in space or floating.

Goldin left home at 14, and as she describes, "Drugs set me free; later they became my prison." Her teenage years and twenties are represented by images also seen in Ballad, and it's clear she shares Barbara's self-destructive streak. A clean-and-sober period is followed by relapse, and Goldin lands in detox. Nick Cave's "Hallelujah" emphasizes Goldin's dejected state and struggles. What follows are the most horrifying images in "Stories Retold" — ugly scenes of self-mutilation set to Johnny Cash's haunting cover of Trent Reznor's "Hurt."

Of course, Goldin pulled through, and the redemptive final moment at her sister's grave site speaks to the power of confronting loss. "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy," by Leonard Cohen perfectly underlines the elegant closing imagery.

In Nan and Brian in Bed, the photographer wears an expression of quiet desperation.
Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
In Nan and Brian in Bed, the photographer wears an expression of quiet desperation.

Goldin's photo grids on display offer wonderful support to the two main presentations. Positive Grid and The Plague, two grids of 17 silver dye bleach photographs, document the friends Goldin lost to AIDS, a palpable theme of Ballad.

The grids demonstrate the cumulative power of Goldin's snapshots, especially Tokyo Spring Fever, a massive compilation of images Goldin captured in the '90s of Tokyo club kids partying, hanging out and having sex. Singularly viewed, they might seem repetitive and unedited, but presented as a 129-photo onslaught, they're powerful. One can almost smell the sweat, cigarettes, booze and sex.

Of all the grids, though, My Milky might encapsulate the big themes on display in "Stories Retold" — the objective, celebratory observance of time. The grid is a tribute to Goldin's cat Milky, a big black-and-white feline that was buried in Paris. Milky's tombstone reads "27/5/72 – 12/6/86 YOU NEVER DID ANYTHING WRONG."

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