I find myself going to view Nan Goldin’s legendary series of photographs, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, with trepidation. Lying at the heart of these works is a renowned image, Nan after being battered, 1984. Taken by her friend, Suzanne Fletcher, it shows a youthful Goldin with big 1980s hair, dangling silver earrings, a necklace of pale beads. She gazes into the camera, her left eye swollen and bloodshot, her right eye framed by a half-healed bruise. The photo was taken one month after she was punched repeatedly by her long-time boyfriend Brian who, in a dope and jealousy fuelled rage, tried to blind her. The stroke of genius, writes Hilton Als in The New Yorker in 2016, is in her red-lipsticked lips. ‘It’s the tender femininity of those lips that brings the horror into focus.’
With residual stories from my own family history – a close family member was punched in the face by her husband years ago – I enter the dim, dark-walled room at the National Gallery of Australia, searching for Goldin’s harrowing self-portrait. It’s positioned midway among the sequence of 126 photographs, and what I’m struck by is her unflinching gaze, the enormous courage it must have required to reveal herself like this. What’s at stake is not just the moment of violence, but an insidious fear and uncertainty that lingers, like a stain.