Intimacy toward Melancholy: Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and Sophie Calle’s Exquisite Pain

…although I’d say that my family still is marginal and that we don’t want to be part of normal society, I don’t think the work was ever about that.  I think the work has always been about the condition of being human and the pain, the ability to survive and how difficult that is.  -Nan Goldin[1]

Many artists make works of art that reference or reflect their personal and private lives.  Intimate works of art are inherently fragmentary due to the complex personhood of the self and the relationship of the self to others.  In intimate works, the artist strives for transparency through multiplicity, and the kind of transparency depends on the way in which details are concealed and revealed.  Contemporary artists, Nan Goldin and Sophie Calle, exhibit strategies of accumulation,[2] as well as adept capacities for particular revelation specific to each artist.  Each artist employs both techniques in disparate ways to form large projects that reflect her intimate life.  Focusing on Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and Calle’s Exquisite Pain, I will show the tendency of intimate works of art toward melancholy, a melancholy stripped of its usual debilitating connotations and affirmed for its transference of suffering in a way that has everything to do with real life.

My father cared for my grandmother.  During the last years of her life, he assisted her daily.  He explained to me that even on this particular day when she felt sicker than ever before, she still made her way out to the living room to sit in the chair, no matter that it was already evening.

This story parallels in my mind the reason an artist would make works that reflect their personal and private lives.  In understanding a complete life, there is the desire to express the subtleties that come from the complexity and condition of being human.  This story also functions in my mind as an analogy for the experience of melancholy.  Melancholy arises in any human as naïveness shifts to skepticism and painful experience becomes feared.  My grandmother’s determination was not a remedy; it was not hope.  That determination is a detail about my grandmother that conveys something elusive, something about how melancholy can be lived, something far from misery or despair.

Similar to my grandmother, Nan Goldin is inclined to relive over and over again the experiences she had in the past, even when so many have died young and she can admit that photographs do not preserve all that she had hoped for so long—the desire that drove her to take photographs in the first place.  Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (Figures 1-4) is an evolving forty-five minute slideshow of over nine hundred color photographs set to music.  She has photographed herself, friends and family in their most raw moments since the 70s.  They might be bruised, despondent or having sex.  She photographed the parties, lovers drunk and drugged, Boston in the 70s and New York in the late 70s and 80s.  She photographed men becoming women.  She photographed her friends dying of a disease that would one day be identified as AIDS.  She photographed them at night.  Hyperreal colors accentuate the reality of the visual diary and often dark imagery.  Each person appears in numerous images throughout the decades, and they appear in images together.  She describes one friend saying, “Bruce has been a devil and an angel.  I’ve photographed him for over twenty-one years.  I’ve never believed in a single decisive portrait of someone, but in a variety of pictures that record the complexity of a life.”[3]  Each image is a fragment of the person in the photograph but also a fragment of the time, place and every other person in her world of friends.

In addition to the slideshow, her exhibitions include framed photographs, often repeated images from the slideshow, revealing Goldin’s desire for the images to be seen momentarily in sequence, as well as statically, as if to suggest that each might be memorized or perhaps more importantly, memorialized.  Photographs from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency reappear in new slideshows adjacent new and old, seen and unseen images.  As more time passes, one can sense this passage of time even if unfamiliar with her work because of the breadth of personalities, times and places depicted.  Even when her slideshow begins to read as abstract cinema, the people featured never become characters because her story is precisely documented.  Lives change, but her telling of the story remains consistent.  Although the quantity of images emphasizes the quality and depth of content, it is not the quantity of fragments presented that convinces one of her sincerity, but rather her decisive editing of repetition and adjacency.  One believes in the portrait because of how she couples, and quadruples, images and so on.

Goldin reveals only the story of her life that she wants to share.  What Goldin has chosen to conceal has worked toward emphasizing how she and her friends live with their melancholy.  She discloses their sadness but never their rage.  I am realizing now that what I have written about my grandmother is just as much a portrait of my father as her.  What I have conveyed of her is so subtle a detail that it almost means nothing.  I have concealed all details of her life that make her determination salient at all.  Yet of my father, I have conveyed several things: his care, a way in which he cares, and his desire to share his insights with his daughter.  His melancholy allows his empathy.  Goldin’s melancholy allows empathy.

Sophie Calle’s melancholy is less empathetic.  Calle’s Exquisite Pain is an extensive two-part installation that has also been made into a book.  Fifteen years after a period of substantial personal anguish, Calle returns to the subject with melancholy.  She had risked her romantic relationship of the time to travel to Japan, and the relationship had not survived.  In the first part of the installation (Figures 5-6), she gathers artifacts, texts, photographs, letters and documents from her stay in Japan, and she obstructively stamps each in red.  The stamps count down the ninety-two “days to unhappiness”.  The second part (Figure 7-8) is the aftermath; it consists of twenty-one works juxtaposing her story of heartache—counting up the days, “5 days ago, the man I love left me”— with diverse stories of suffering from anonymous writers.  Embroidered on linen, each story is accompanied by a photograph pertaining to the story.  As her story varies slightly in each retelling, the photograph alongside is always the same image of a red telephone on a bed, presumably in the hotel where she received the bad news.

Calle’s sentiment in the face of suffering differs drastically from Goldin’s immersion into painful reality.  Consistently inventing ways for her artwork to function as proxy for her intimate life, Calle creates a more general transparency by involving others and the element of chance they bring into her process.  In reference to Exquisite Pain, Calle writes, “I started asking both friends and chance encounters: ‘When did you suffer most?’ I decided to do this systematically until I had managed to relativize my pain by comparing it with other people’s, or had worn out my own story by sheer repetition.”[4]  However, the fact that she would return to the issue after fifteen years suggests significance far beyond her nonchalance and awkward involvement of random people.  Here the accumulation of fragments does not lend to convincing the viewer of sincerity as honesty, as it did in Goldin’s work, but rather sincerity in her obsessiveness and remove.  Her constant remove from her obsessively affective content is so uniform throughout all her work that the work becomes that much more melancholic.  Which part is it for which Calle actually cares?  In the essay Paper Tigress, Yve-Alain Bois observes, “with Calle it is not the usual hype aimed at filling an empty life with an overflow of affect; it is not the matter of oneself into a state while setting up a target that can be reached sooner or later.  Calle’s anticipations are often the wrong way round; the closer she gets to the goal, the colder things become.”[5]  Although she controls every detail of the mask, concealing and revealing, she always wears one.

Calle experiences melancholy, not toward empathy like Goldin and my father, but rather toward universality.  Like my grandmother, Calle’s method is neither a remedy nor hope.   Goldin thought she had a remedy, “I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough.  In fact, my pictures show me how much I’ve lost.”[6]  Melancholy must be lived, and something about that inspires artists.  Successful intimate works of art rely on the accumulation and repetition of fragments and the capacity of the specific artist for particular revelation, techniques more acute than style or personal sentiment.  However honest, the resulting transparency reveals, in vivid color, the dynamic way in which melancholy is lived within the complexity of human life.



Bois, Yve-Alain. “Paper Tigress.” October, Vol. 116 (Spring, 2006): 35-54. Accessed May 29, 2012.

Matthew Marks Gallery. “Nan Goldin.” Accessed May 29, 2012.

Owens, Craig. “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism.” October, Vol. 12 (Spring, 1980): 67-86. Accessed May 29, 2012.

Owens, Craig. “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism Part 2.” October, Vol. 13 (Summer, 1980): 58-80. Accessed May 29, 2012.

Paula Cooper Gallery. “Sophie Call Exquisite Pain.” Accessed May 29, 2012.

YouTube. “Nan Goldin I’ll Be Your Mirror Documentary, Part One,” also Parts 2-4. Uploaded by cristvswarhol on Sep 27, 2010.  Accessed May 29, 2012.

YouTube.  “Nan Goldin Interview 1 of 2,” also 2 of 2. Uploaded by ArtPatrolTV on Nov. 18, 2008. Accessed May 29, 2012.


[2] “Strategies of accumulation” is the third link between allegory and contemporary art defined by Craig Owens in The Allegorical Impulse: Toward A Theory of Postmodernism.  The first and second links are appropriation and site specificity, which all lead to a kind of unreadability.  Both the work of Nan Goldin and Sophie Calle could be evaluated effectively in terms of Owens’ allegory.

[3] “Nan Goldin I’ll Be Your Mirror Documentary, Part Three,” 07:05.

[4] Paula Cooper Gallery. “Sophie Call Exquisite Pain.”

[5]Yve-Alain Bois, “Paper Tigress.” October, Vol. 116 (Spring, 2006): 51

[6] “Nan Goldin I’ll Be Your Mirror Documentary, Part One,” 07:05.