When we enter an art museum, we usually put ourselves in the same mood of browsing through a book divided in consecutive yet independently readable chapters. Artworks are divided into sections accordingly to the historical period or the artistic technique: from ancient Greek and Roman sculpture through neoclassical paintings and Renaissance frescos. The taxonomic method of archiving and displaying the pieces – that followed and replaced the approach existing in the 15th century Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities, where objects were arranged on the basis of imaginative and eccentric associations in order to marvel the viewer – is universally accepted and understandable, and is the same on which the Louvre Museum in Paris is structured. I remember the sensation of littleness I felt at every turn I had the chance to step in that place, and the consequent decision of visiting just a section at a time in order not to find myself visually overwhelmed or – on the contrary – anesthetized, knowing that the time at my disposal was limited if compared to the quantity of masterpieces.

Nan Goldin, Odalisque, 2011 © Nan Goldin / Courtesy: Gagosian Gallery

The well-known photographer Nan Goldin experienced a completely different approach of the great Parisian temple of art, since in 2010 – in occasion of a project commissioned by the Museum itself – she was allowed access on Tuesdays, when the building is closed to the public. For eight months she photographed the highest paintings by Delacroix and Ingres, the sophisticated artworks by Bronzino, the marble statues by Canova and the Roman masters, collecting hundreds of pictures that could retrace, if put in a line, the history of occidental art. But Nan Goldin never moved in a linear way, thus – after overcoming an initial impasse given by the majesty of the assignment – she decided to change the game and to concentrate on the flash and soul of the artworks rather than on their importance or status. Just in the same way she’s used to do in her real life, she focussed her camera on the body’s details, bends and gestures she encountered in the Museum, and she then juxtaposed the result of this research to her personal archive comprising of both very famous and inedited shots.
The final outcome of this project is Scopophilia, an exhibition based on a 25-minute-long slide installation and a series of photographic tableaux; while the first was premiered at the Louvre in 2010, the whole show was displayed at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York City in the following year and is now on-going at the Gagosian Gallery in Rome. The name comes from a Greek word that means “deriving pleasure from looking” and in reality – despite the fact it has already been seen on the web and on various newspapers and magazines – having all those sensuous and carnal images in front of the eyes is a totally different matter.

Nan Goldin, The Nap, Paris 2010 © Nan Goldin / Courtesy: Gagosian Gallery

“Between them and me: telepathic exchanges, divination”, she whispers in the slideshow, referring to the relationship she established with the artworks during her French affair; a tangible and vibrant sense of intimacy pervaded the dark room in which it was projected, although the space was packed with people that attended the opening. The video is without any doubt the medium that better responds to the private yet evoking nature of Goldin’s work, beyond being the way she used to display her pictures since the beginning of her career; also in this case, it reveals to be the core of the entire exhibition, an immersive dive into the inner sensitiveness and the raw aesthetic touch that made her one of the most influent photographers of the last decades.
Even though the general impact is less shocking and punkish if compared to Goldin’s 80’s and 90’s productions, this project is gently subversive on different levels: first and foremost, the fact that such a strong parallel between the art we define as “classical” and a contemporary kind of photography which treats themes like sex, love and gender is not only possible but evident is an indisputable proof that the labelling turns out to be a constraint rather than a tool in the artistic fruition. Starting from this consideration and sharpening the perspective, in Scopophilia we can track down Goldin’s mistrust in the contemporary art market and in its efforts in freezing every creative initiative in a clearly recognizable (and economically valuable) tendency or practice; as she said to Glenn O’Brien in a rare interview for Harper Bazaar, “art dealers might as well be drug dealers or weapons dealers. There’s not much difference anymore.” (1)

Nan Goldin, Veils, 2014 © Nan Goldin / Courtesy: Gagosian Gallery

Last but not least, the decision of using her own archive in combination of one of the biggest museum’s collection in the world is not a tentative, as someone may think, to polish her past, but on the contrary demonstrates an attitude towards the demythologising of the artistic making with an end to itself. Scopophilia is to be read more as a celebration of choosing than of showing, as to say: “Art is real: just go and live it”.

(1) O’Brien, Glenn. “Nan Goldin: In the Frame”, Harpers Bazaar. November 2011, pp. 151-155

Nan Goldin
Until 24th May, 2014

Gagosian Gallery
Via Francesco Crispi 16, Roma

This article was published on YET magazine #5, April 2014

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