The Aesthetics of Addiction
As a photographer, Nan Goldin (above puffing a cig) has been drawn to those living on the fringes of society. Best known for her chronicling of queer communities devastated by AIDS in the 1980s, she has turned her attention to another demonized group: opioid addicts. “People are afraid to come out about it. That’s one of the main reasons there aren’t more faces of addiction. There is a stigma attached.” Nan is trying to break through “that veil of shame” by talking about her own battle with addiction to prescription OxyContin, and campaigning against the producers of the wicked stuff. Nan hopes to bring attention to the hidden pain of those addicted to opioids, and the many lives shattered and lost. “I’ve always thought the personal is political,” she says.
Nan’s addiction lasted from November 2014 until she went into rehab in February 2017. “It started with extreme pain in my hand. I had tendonitis in my wrist and nothing was working, so the doc prescribed OxyContin,” she says. “The first dose was 40 milligrams, and it was too strong for me. I actually called to ask if I could have a lighter dose.” But her habit soon escalated until she was snorting between 250 milligrams and 450 milligrams a day.
The drab monotony of Nan’s life as an addict is embodied in the images she shot with her phone cam as well as the paintings and drawings she created. “Dope on my rug” (pictured below) accompanies a photo of prescription medicines strewn across the floor of her New York apartment. “Crushing Oxy on my bed” and “Time on Oxy” show how darkness and addiction became part of her daily routine. An oil painting called “Friday night alone, nobody on the phone” depicts a woman in red firing a bullet, hinting at anger and isolation. “Opiates make you feel warm. You’re in a bubble. You don’t feel pain and nothing really matters. But then it starts to step on your head,” she says.
“When I ran out of Oxy, I bought heroin. What is killing everyone in America is that they are going to illegal opiates when they run out of OxyContin so 80% of people who are using street opioids started off on prescription opioids.”
Nan founded Prescription Addiction Intervention Now (P.A.I.N.) in 2017 in an attempt to hold the Sackler family to account for their part in Purdue Pharma and the opioid crisis. An Instagram account will share images “illustrating the impact of the crisis on individuals, families and communities.” In an essay for Artforum, Nan called for the Sacklers to “use their fortune to fund addiction treatment and education.” She wants the family to fund the installation of public dispensers of Narcan, a medicine that reverses an overdose, as well as advertising campaigns on the drug’s dangers and education programs for doctors. Until they do so, the artist calls on cultural institutions to refuse their donations.
Purdue Pharma has not agreed to these demands, but has said it is willing to meet with Nan; an official statement noted that the company was “dedicated to being part of the solution” and “has supported much of what Nan advocates for.” Elizabeth Sackler, an art historian and founder of the Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, has stated that Arthur M. Sackler, her father, died long before the drug was approved for consumption. His heirs did not own a stake in, or exercise control of, Purdue Pharma after his death and are not party to any litigation related to OxyContin. They point out that none of his charitable gifts derived from revenue associated with OxyContin.
Nan hopes that her deeply personal account of her addiction will give a face to the opioid crisis. Though she has kept some of her drawings, paintings and photographs from this period private, she wants to encourage others to share their experiences and add more faces to the portrait of addiction in America.
Photos Nan Goldin + Whatever Media
VIVISXN MEDIA – Art + Fashion + Tech + Drugs + Photography