Conspicuous amongst the classical paintings at the National Gallery, challenging issues permeate its first modern installation, a recreation of Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Prostitution continues to inspire strong reactions, prompting artistic interpretation over the centuries, evidenced here by paintings from 17th century Dutch artists.
Conceived by American artists Ed Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz in 1983-8, whose controversial depictions of taboo subjects have influenced contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst. This larger than life snapshot of sordid reality, created before Ed’s death in 1994, represents a tableau, precursor to modern installation art.
As you wander dark street corners tracing the well-worn route of clients, scantily clad women ply their trade, illuminated by seedy glowing neon. The dramatic lighting directs focus on the shop windows, a portal through which voyeurs jostle to peer upon a forbidden world. The rooms are a garish cacophony of colour that inflame the senses, where women pose seductively or pass the time smoking, and reading.
True to assemblage art, unadulterated reality exudes from the scavenged items littering the exhibition, while the room’s interiors scream eighties kitsch, bursting with tacky excess. Symbolic of the claustrophobic, vulgar, and distasteful voyeurism of prostitutes and visitors alike, liberal doses of resin coat every surface.
Quickly you become aware of the clinical detachment and sobering nature of intimacy stripped to the bare bones of raw mechanics. There is no mystery here, instead a raw honesty to a cold financial transaction. This lack of pretence imbues a melancholy air to the proceedings, as the mannequin’s faces stare vacant and emotionless.
A theme of female empowerment is evident as a jarring concept not usually associated with prostitution. The street name serves as an appropriation of control as the Herengracht (“Gentlemen’s Canal”) becomes ‘The Hoerengracht’ (‘Whore’s Canal’). Furthermore, tin boxes obscure the women’s faces representing mind over body separation, and freedom of choice. A marked distance from the women is clear as you are under no illusion that access to rooms beyond requires a monetary contribution.
Above all, it’s a provocative experience, whose stark realism serves as a springboard for intellectual curiosity and debate on a contentious subject. Visitors leave probing their opinions while attempting to separate truth from fiction. If even the opinions of ‘experts’ are so heavily divided then how are we as bystanders informed enough to realise the truth.