Friday 1 February 2002

Devil’s Playground

Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

‘There’s a feeling of voyeurism that pervades Nan Goldin’s ‘Devil’s Playground’ exhibition in London’s Whitechapel gallery.

You feel as if you’re seeing something you shouldn’t, peering into intimacies that are normally kept behind closed doors and shuttered windows. Yet, strangely enough, you’re drawn inexplicably to the images of Goldin’s closest friends’ sexuality, drug use and sicknesses. Goldin’s work-as she herself has identified-is a realistic depiction of her life and the people surrounding her.

Goldin’s work is literally crammed into Whitechapel: every wall on the ground floor is densely packed with photos divided up into sections such as “Devil’s Playground” (the breathtaking titular selection of landscapes offers quite a different take from the rest of the exhibit), “First Love,” and “AIDS.” Each section is a documentation of a certain aspect of Goldin’s life and her relationships with her group of friends. Particularly affecting are the series of photographs documenting her friends’ AIDS related deaths in the 70’s and her depictions of her friend’s sexual relationships. They feel a little intrusive and awkward, but in certain instances (particularly the series with Simon and Jessica) the close proximity of Goldin’s camera catches the intimacy and passion of their love making.

The first floor contains a retrospective of Goldin’s career, capturing some of her more well-known work, including the 45-minute slide show “the Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” The slide show divides her photos into individually themed sections and lends some narrative structure to her massive body of work, developing some of her central themes-the inherent dependency of relationships, the love and suffering that we inflict through relationships, and empowerment and self-reliance.

The early photos allow you to develop a better sense of Goldin’s portraiture and style and to appreciate her latest work even more. While her early portraits are skilled, I was particularly captivated by the beauty of her landscapes in “Devil’s Playground,” and was able to realise that Goldin is still progressing. And doing a fine job at it.

One element that I noticed she utilises particularly well is the use of soft focus. The way her lens seems to mould to her subjects rather than simply depicting them gives the photo a sense of life and a feeling of sympathy and love.

Goldin’s snapshots of her life might make the viewer a little uncomfortable: you feel like you’re seeing something you’re not supposed to. Then you realise that it’s because they’re rare glimpses of life and the fleeting, intimate moments normally kept private.

Devil’s Playground runs at Whitechapel until March 31.

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