Writing for Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums

MoMA: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and Lovers

Nan Goldin, Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City, 1983

If you are familiar with the Downtown Scene of 1970s and 1980s New York, you probably know of Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexually Dependency. If you are my age, 20-something, or live outside of New York City and are interested in art, you probably own the book of the same title—or you have at least flipped-through it in a bookstore. If I haven’t described you yet and you have no idea what I’m talking about, you must at least be curious from the title alone. 

MoMA’s iteration of The Ballad is set-up in three rooms: ephemera from previous exhibitions, photos from the series traditionally hung on gallery walls, and a slideshow with soundtrack of the intimate moments that compose the work. Goldin didn’t shy away from much with her camera, “[it] is the diary I let people read.” This buckshot style of photography is common today since everyone has a camera in their pocket or purse anyway. What makes The Ballad so powerful, though, is its voyeuristic feel and its scattered narrative quality. Museum visitors sit in the dark and watch the images clip by at a steady pace, smiling because there is something for everyone in The Ballad. Whether it be sex, abuse, kissing, motherhood, family, strength, guns, cigarettes, or nostalgia. Even with the explicit imagery in some of the slides, you walk out of The Ballad happy—even if you just laughed at the penises.

On MoMA’s second floor contemporary galleries, there is a dark hallway leading to Teiji Furuhashi’s Lovers (1994). A familiar but anachronistic whirring can be heard before your eyes adjust to the darkness of the room coming from a column that holds rotating slide and video projectors. There are naked human figures standing, walking, or running along the walls of the gallery as well as straight lines and occasionally some text.
People slowly enter this space. It is difficult to know how big the room is and what, exactly, is happening at first. As people carefully mill around, they trigger the mechanical and dated contraption to restart one of the projectors. The bodies seemingly collide and pass through one another while the vertical lines cut right through them and the visitors standing and slowly turning to watch this ballet or ghosts.

These bodies could be anyone’s, even our own, but they are images of members of the Japanese art collective Dumb Type who sought to create beautiful works of art without words or heavy-handed “meanings.” Knowing that Furuhashi died of AIDS-related illnesses the next year, with this being his last work, makes Lovers extraordinarily more poignant. We all stand, walk, run, or float through this life intersecting with others until something, sometimes unexpected, causes us to vanish.

[1] “Titled after a song in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, Goldin’s Ballad is itself a kind of downtown opera.” See MoMA’s press release.
[1] This was the original way that The Ballad was shared with audiences.