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Nan Goldin’s ‘Memory Lost’ centers empathy in fight against addiction

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APRIL 12, 2023

In 2014, the photographer and activist Nan Goldin was prescribed Purdue Pharma’s opioid painkiller OxyContin. At the time, Purdue Pharma claimed OxyContin was not addictive because its active ingredient, oxycodone, was released slowly, rather than all at once. They marketed their drug aggressively to maximize prescriptions and revenue, despite knowing about the drug’s addictive potency. Goldin, who was recovering from a surgery, took her prescribed doses at the prescribed intervals, but quickly became addicted all the same. When the drug became inaccessible to her, she turned to illegal opioids. That same year, she survived a fentanyl overdose. 

In 2017, Goldin established the group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). The group, which led protests inspired by the Act Up movement, focused on helping people suffering from the opioid crisis and holding the Sackler family, who own Purdue Pharma, accountable. Goldin used her renown in the art world to call attention to the Sacklers, previously only widely known for their philanthropy in major art and education institutions, for the role they played in the opioid crisis.

“Memory Lost” is a slideshow of Goldin’s photographs and videos focusing on how a life is remembered through an addiction. The 24-minute video is on display at the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, alongside specific pieces from “Memory Lost,” which are displayed physically using dye sublimation print on aluminum. In the video, Goldin presents the world mainly through blurry and distorted images, paired with a score by Mica Levi and music by CJ Calderwood and the Soundwalk Collective. The score transitions from swelling orchestral strings to a more woozy electronic piece to classical piano, until it ends in jarring audio distortions and dissonant instruments playing together over images of pills, empty prescription bottles and cigarettes. 

Throughout her career, Goldin’s work has documented the AIDS epidemic since the ’80s and the opioid epidemic that began in the ’90s, as well as her own life as a bohemian artist. The photographs in “Memory Lost” come from various moments in Goldin’s life and are incredibly diverse in terms of the subjects, color and lighting and framing. Some are off-center and angled, while others are more uniform and standard. Scenes of parties with people dressed up are contrasted with personal portraits of individuals using drugs alone at home. Goldin uses the technique to convey the isolation and desperation she experienced as an addict, and the way that addiction is all consuming both internally and externally. 

The highly personal nature of Goldin’s work establishes an empathetic connection between audience and subject, fighting the stigma surrounding addiction that has long prevailed despite the growing body of research that outlines biological drug dependency and genetic predisposition to addiction. 

Goldin maintains a strong focus on why people turn to drugs, and in turn how addicts are perceived. In one of the audio recordings, a man reveals,“I’ve been trying to miss my whole life…and I’m not in pain, I’m just trying not to feel anything.” Later in the slideshow, there is a striking photograph of a drawing that shows an animal taking drugs and decrees the drug an “unknown substance” and the animal an “unknown species.” These comparisons point out the pain of being dismissed in a society that makes judgements based on misconceptions. 

The score, audio messages and the photographs work effectively in tandem to evoke a sense of confusion and detachment to the real world. The audience interprets the world through snapshots of lives lived alongside nature, friends and family, but followed by an addiction. 

In this way, “Memory Lost” humanizes people struggling with addiction in the face of societal stigma. Goldin’s work is profound, thought-provoking and emotionally complex, as she highlights the long-lasting pain, loss and sacrifices people endured and continue to endure as a result of greed in the pharmaceutical industry.

Contact Varnika Dhandapani at 


APRIL 12, 2023