logo
fr en
close post
12 August 2009

Nan Goldin / Sisters, Saints and Sibyls

How calmly she behaved that day,

Bought a knife, still had a price tag on it,

Asked when the next Boston Ohio train passed through,

Found a spot, a blind curve.

I was told she lay down and waited

The death-record says she lay

In front of the train

5:38 on an April afternoon.

During cherry blossom season,

On a day pass from a mental hospital,

Some boys saw her,

Tried to help her,

She threatened them with her knife.

Died of multiple injuries sustained,

By being dragged by the train,

And ‘from depression’ reads the death certificate.

She was almost 19.

The conductor came the next morning.

He tried to stop the train.

He quit his job.

When the police came to inform us,

I knew.

A Monday night, dinnertime,

I’d been waiting all my conscious life for this moment

Because I always believed her.

Two officers talked to my father on the lawn alone.

Then he howled, like a wounded animal

On the front lawn.

Inconsolable sounds from beneath the deepest recess of the soul,

Beyond any human sound I’ve heard since, way beyond the sound barrier,

Beyond language or tears tearing into shreds, piercing the air.

Every suicide kills more than one person, they say.

My mother said to the police:

‘Tell the children it was an accident’

Who was she trying to protect?

That was my moment of clarity that defined my life,

My break from my family, I was 11.

The tyranny of revisionism even at the moment of greatest anguish.

Rewrite history immediately before it can be written.


Nan Goldin, 2004.


Sisters, Saints and Sibyls is a tribute to my sister and to all rebellious women struggling to survive in society. My intention was to explore, through three narratives, the experience of being trapped, both literally and figuratively: the story of St. Barbara, beheaded by her father for having found liberation through her discovery of spirituality.

The story of my older sister Barbara who was locked up in various psychiatric institutions during most of her adolescence for having rebelled against the extreme conformity of her times, society and family.

The story of my own time spent in a psychiatric hospital, firstly to escape from the trap of drug addiction and later to be treated for depression and self-harm.

The installation will allow the audience to view the three-screen projection at eye level. The audience climbs onto a small balcony four metres high, like a doctor examining a patient from a cautious distance. At the same time as they are involved as observers, they also experience directly the sensation of being trapped. The themes of the psychiatric attitude towards women, the treatment of rebellious women and fatherdaughter relationships are seen in the intense light of personal memory and experience.


Nan Goldin



Scenography: Raymonde Couvreu

Direction and editing of the triptych by Nan Goldin and Raymonde Couvreu

Video process and post-production by Erwan Huon.

Sound by Alain Mahé.

Commissioned by the Ministry of Culture and Communication (DAP-CNAP) and the Festival d’Automne, 2004, with the support of Sylvie Winckler, Guy de Wouters, the Matthew Marks Gallery, New York and Michael Zilhaha, Madame la Baronne Lambert, Maja Hoffmann and Niccolo Sprovieri, Jean-Claude Meyer.

Exhibition venue: église des Frères Prêcheurs, Rencontres d’Arles 2009.