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  • Writer's pictureFiona Prior

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (an Oscar nominated documentary)

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (an Oscar nominated documentary)

Director: Laura Poitras

You will definitely have seen Nan Goldin’s photographic work even if you are unaware that it is hers. Her most famous work ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ (1985) is housed in the Tate, UK.

images: pages from ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ by Nan Goldin (hardcopy)

During the 70’s and 80’s Nan was photographing society’s outliers; the drag queens, gay couples, queer performers. There is a heroic, romantic patina to her images. It seems so strange to think that these souls were once the disenfranchised; particularly in contemporary Sydney, having just wound up the World Pride Celebrations.

Goldin’s work has been presented in many major art institutions in the world. This definitely informs our admiration when she goes head-on with one of America’s most influential philanthropic families, the Sackler clan. The Sackler’s made billions of dollars through the family’s relationship with Purdue Pharma, the manufacturers of OxyContin, a highly addictive opioid that was a huge contributor to America’s opioid crisis (ironically, OxyContin was marketed as non-addictive). The Sackler’s have donated large sums to universities, museums and art institutions, along with their other philanthropic pursuits. Nan Goldin became a OxyContin addict when the drug was prescribed for her painful wrist.

So, what’s an artist to do when she realises that the Sackler family has donated not just money but massive concrete building extensions to some of the most famous art institutions in existence … and that they may also be the most successful prescription drug-dealers in the world? Goldin uses her creativity and organises ‘dead-ins’ in said institutions, illuminating that the Sackler’s money is in fact blood money and that the institutions that accept their money are just washing it back into polite society.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed’ in not an easy documentary to watch. Alongside the political activism of Goldin’s crusade against the incredibly powerful Sackler family we are also presented with a visual diary of her life; her sister’s suicide, her life on the fringe, her wounds from an abusive boyfriend, watching friends die from AIDS …

What struck me is the difference that time makes to a person’s life. Quite literally, between life and death in many of the highlighted issues in this documentary – death by AIDS, death by opioid addiction, death by domestic violence. At least these issues are acknowledged and confronted in the 21st century. Likewise, how persuasive prestige and power can be to our ideas of who are the victims, who are the good guys, and who are the criminals.

Through her political activity, Nan manages to get major art institutions to not accept Sackler money, and her activism causes the Sackler name to be taken off many of the vast gallery wings and extensions that they finance.

The aligning footage of Goldin’s life in 'All the Beauty and the Bloodshed' illuminates why she bothers. She is a creative by nature and so picking up a camera and snapping came to her as naturally as breathing, it was her way of communicating. When her sister suicided, Nan moved out of her 'respectable' home and was taken in by the fringe-dwellers after being placed in some unfortunate foster homes. She was an intelligent young woman and grateful for the hospitality, but saw an illogical disparity between the behaviour of those who showed her kindness and the way they were treated by society.

Fast forward and an older Nan is appalled that no one initially seems to care that her friends are wasting to death in a horrible manner from AIDS.

Later still she is irked that opioid dependents are labelled as criminals and unworthy while the family that knowingly sent them down the path of addiction are hailed as generous, respectable social benefactors.

A clear eye, a camera, and a cut-through vision.

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

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