In Death, We Find Peace.
by: Tyler Jackson
Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a series of photographs that follows the lives of her and her friends and their travels between 1979 and 1986. In this series, Nan utilizes a snapshot aesthetic to produce images that revolved around common themes in their lives. Some of these themes included sex, drugs, abuse, gay subcultures, and the affect of the AIDS epidemic. One of the hardest hitting photographs in this series that hits on just about all of these common themes is a photograph titled Gotscho Kissing Gilles (Deceased).
Gotscho Kissing Gilles (Deceased) is a color photograph that was produced in 1993. Depicted in this image are two gay lovers, Gotscho and Gilles. Gotscho is a stocky, bigger built, white man; we can only see a profile of his face, but from this angle one can take notice of his well defined features. He sports a large, bird-like nose; wide, almost elephant-esque ears; softly lidded eyes and spotlessly bald head; the rest of his body is obscured by a white, long-sleeved shirt that hugs to his burly form. If Gotscho’s form could be compared to that of a fit bodybuilder, then Gilles body could easily be compared to that of a malnourished adolescent from a third-world country. At this point, Gilles life has already faded away and he lies motionless in his hospital bed—but despite that, his skin retains its warmth and tan color; and as though he had actually been basking in the sun, his oily, sweat-covered skin reflects patches of the dim, sterile light of his hospital room. He too has a bird-like nose, ears that appear as long as they are thin, darkly lidded and sunken-in eyes, and thin lips that have been glossed over in a layer of sweat and saliva. His already well-defined features are further emphasized by the almost skeletal appearance of his sunken-in face; a condition no doubt inflicted upon him by the AIDS virus, from which he had been afflicted for years. The rest of his body is hidden beneath a t-shirt that perhaps fit him at one time, but has since become too large for his frail, sickly body. Two fluffy, white pillows prop up Gilles head as Gotscho leans into him to leave a parting kiss on the bridge of his lover’s nose. The two lovers’ heads are framed almost perfectly by the sleek, metal frame of the hospital bed; while the rest of the stark room seems to be nearly barren, with the exception of some wires hanging down behind the bed and a few pieces of what could be assumed to be medical equipment occupying the top right corner of the photo. Upon further reflection, one could reason that the dim fluorescent lighting of the hospital room seeks to flatten the colors in this photograph; which creates a feeling of emptiness and loss that is metaphorical to the actual event of this photo.
Nan Goldin has made it a mission in her work to document her everyday life and the lives of those closest to her. She has said herself that this need to photograph those closest to her comes from the tragic suicide of her older sister, which occurred when she was just 14-years-old. Goldin has gone on to say that her greatest regret was that because she was not very close to her sister, she had almost nothing to remember her by after she died; and that the realization that she would never have any keepsakes of her was something that deeply disturbed her. From that point on, she sought to use photography as a means to document not only her own life, but the lives of her friends, all from her own perspective. In order to do this successfully, Nan had to be actively involved in the everyday lives of her friends, a boundary that few friends dare to cross; but a boundary that, nonetheless, seems to non-existent and has no strain on their relationships with one another whatsoever. The lives of Nan and her close circle of friends was propelled and driven around the underground world of gay culture, drugs, alcohol, and the AIDS epidemic; so for them, death was not something that was neither unheard of nor uncommon. Gay bashings, overdoses, alcohol poisoning and drunk driving, and AIDS related deaths were all something that hovered over their shoulders on a day to day basis. They all lived in a world where death was one pill or prick away, but in spite of that, they refused to stop living the lives that were fulfilling to them. But, slowly and surely, the years and the habits began to catch up to all of them; and soon enough, several of Nan’s closest friends fell victim to the AIDS virus. Thus, the purpose of Goldin’s work finally begins to find its voice in the documentation of the lives of her friends who have since passed on, leaving little left to their names than the moments that Nan spent with them and managed to capture.
From this information, one can derive an archetypal meaning from this photo: the idea that everyone that you know will, one day, inevitably, die. Because of the sudden death of her sister, it stands to reason that Nan understands this universal fact and seeks to document the lives of those who never get around to documenting it themselves. Through this particular photograph, Goldin seeks to capture a soft and tender moment between two lovers after one has passed away. But more than that, Nan seeks to capture a moment that she herself never got to have with her sister; and as such, seems to be living vicariously, as she seems to with many photos, through the lives of her two friends. It is in this exact moment that she captures precisely the kind of tenderness, closeness, and intimacy that she never had the opportunity to share with her sister, and that she has clearly so desperately longed for since her sister died. I think that Goldin is also trying to use her own life experience and the experiences of her friends as an example for her audience to live by. She is trying to convey that not only is death an inevitability, but that it is something that everyone should learn to find peace with in some way; because regardless of whether we are ready or not, death is coming. And I do not think that she necessarily means this in an cynical way either, but more in an optimistic way that encourages her audience to not only to cherish life and the lives of those around us, but to also share in as many moments with the people we love as we can; because one day, they will be gone, are there will not be anything we can do to change that.
Nan Goldin’s intimate style of photography and desire to not miss a moment with the people she cares for the most reaches down to the core of all of her work, and Gotscho Kissing Gilles (Deceased) is no exception. I personally can think of no other photograph that encompasses the negative subjects of death, loss, and heart break, and turns it them into an image that is both touching and moving to the point of creating peace with the reality of the subject. American freelance journalist, Chuck Palahniuk, once said, “We all die. The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will” (Palahniuk); and with this photo, Nan succeeds in creating a means for the lives and memories of these two lovers to live on forever and into the afterlife.