In another era, music playlists were tokens of highly personalized taste, ascribed to cassettes and CDs. To take a single song from its original album context and gift it a new one that you had created for yourself (a mixtape for a crush, or one person’s starter guide to punk) was to interact with the song on a deeply personal level. The artist might want you to hear this song as part of a bigger story, but your excellent playlist has other plans.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a slideshow of nearly 700 photographs Nan Goldin took between the years of 1979 and 2004, but it’s also a playlist. (The artwork itself is named after a song from The Threepenny Opera.) In showings, Goldin’s intimate photos of the ’80s New York scene, featuring her close friends and downtown celebs like Cookie Mueller and Jim Jarmusch, project across a dark gallery wall by slide carousel. In the photos, Goldin leaves no moment of life uncaptured, from messy motel beds to the faces of friends dying of AIDS. One of her most famous pictures is a self-portrait with a bruised face and bloodied eye titled “Nan one month after being battered.” Her photos of post-coital couples and city clubs flicker to an eclectic soundtrack assembled by Goldin and her friends that includes ’60s pop hits, opera, and ’70s rock.
The photos and the accompanying soundtrack are divided by theme, with songs lending a literalism to Goldin’s images. “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” by James Brown introduces a series of photos of men; Rosalind Hunt’s “Working Girl” brings a few pictures of strippers and women in bars to life; and the little-kid vocals of Nico’s son, Ari Boulogne, on his mother’s song “Le Petit Chevalier,” accompany a series depicting children and their parents at all stages of life. When the music of Goldin’s piece lines up so perfectly with the images onscreen it can be charming, but also a bit on the nose, as is the case with snapshots of her female friends staring into mirrors, in grimy bathrooms and gorgeous vanities, to The Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”
Elsewhere, the glamorous, vintage sounds of Dionne Warwick’s “Don’t Make Me Over,” Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” and Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This” play over pictures of dirty apartment rooms and old photos of Goldin’s parents with a sense of irony. At the time, in the mid-’80s, artists like John Waters and Debbie Harry were mining 1960s traditions and aesthetics for dark ironies that served to underpin their own work. Goldin’s use of music and form stands right alongside that movement. The glittering dream of ’60s urbanism plays potent context, adding contrast to photos of rheumy-eyed young men in bars, girls partying in a cramped apartment, a mattress-top tableau of drug addiction. It goes far in exposing the chasm between America’s romantic self-concept and American lived reality — a defining concept of the 1980s.
While The Ballad of Sexual Dependency just wrapped a 10-month run at MoMA, it originally was projected in bars and galleries on a carousel slide projector — the sort that Don Draper famously pitched as an inspiring vehicle for nostalgia during the final season of Mad Men. Goldin’s work is a fine-art object, filled with photos of messy life — sex, drugs, and abuse — but its medium is one of pedestrian, suburban comfort.
Goldin’s work as a photographer of her own life and friends seems quite prescient today, when most people are documentarians of their own lives on easy-to-find platforms. But rather than simply capturing moments, with The Ballad of Sexual Dependency she seems to grasp how we solidify those moments in our minds. It is not enough to hang the photos on a gallery wall — instead she must deliver them with movement and, of course, with music. The slide projections of her piece might be out of date, just as they already would have been in 1980, but the ways in which music flows throughout The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is unflinchingly modern. Goldin recognizes that a collection of songs that resists one genre or era, one in which a blur of songs flow in and out at different lengths like you’re flipping through the radio or feeling antsy listening to just one track, is the only suitable soundtrack for life.