Nan Goldin – Police swoop

A set of 100 photographs by Nan Goldin, owned by Elton John, were due to go on show at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead from 21 Sept until 6 January 2008. But presumably there are only 99 on the wall, as one image was taken into custody last Thursday and is being examined by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, who are considering prosecution under the 1978 Protection of Children Act.

It is hard to see any sensible purpose that can be served by this action. Goldin is a highly admired photographer whose work has been shown in galleries around the world. She herself had a tough childhood, suffering abuse and running away from home at 11 after the suicide of her sister. Her work has always reflected her lifestyle – a mirror on her life.

Some years ago I wrote: “I find it difficult to imagine the position she was in, with these immense emotional pressures coming at an age when I was still in short trousers and being taught that sex was a Latin numeric prefix. Life was not without its traumas, but mine were less dramatic. Goldin was confronted in those sudden and tragic events with forces that most of us become aware of slowly over a period and evolve mechanisms to deal with or repress, and it is hardly surprising that the issues behind them have dominated her work. I don’t share her lifestyle or some of her attitudes, but I admire the honesty and clarity of her approach.”

What the police have seized is a photograph, which, according to The Telegraph,  shows “two young girls, one sitting down with her legs wide apart”. I don’t know anything more about it and the circumstances in which it was made, although I have seen a great deal of Goldin’s work. Much of it has been published – and this may well be an image that is widely available in bookshops here and elsewhere.

The Telegraph states that she “is well known for her shots of young, semic-clothed girls” which is both incorrect and entirely misleading. Young semi-clothed girls may appear in her work, but so far as I’m aware, have not been a major pre-occupation; what appears in her work has usually been what appears in her life. Most of the people she has photographed has been her friends and she has rather more often been a victim than an abuser.

Child abuse is a serious problem and minors need protection, but I would be very surprised if the children involved in this image were being seriously abused or were in need of the protection of the Northhumbria police. What I am sure of is that police time could be better employed investigating the real abuse of children (and other crimes) that will be occurring in Gateshead while they waste their time on this case.

The law has a long history of making itself an ass over art, and this looks very much like another episode in that ongoing saga. The publicity of course will not be doing the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art any harm, (and here I am adding to it,) which could well be why one of the assistant directors there called them in.

You can read a lengthy feature on Nan Goldin on here this blog

Peter Marshall

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