Five years in the making, Edward and Nancy Kienholz’s installation The Hoerengracht captures the essence of Amsterdam’s Red Light District of days past. A play on words, The Hoerengracht translates from Dutch to “the Whores Canal” and references the Herengracht (Gentlemen’s Canal), a prestigious Amsterdam thoroughfare. The artist couple made the work, a massive installation that recreates a section of the infamous Wallen district, while living in Berlin in the 1980s. Researched in the brothels of sex workers and constructed from materials found in flea markets and salvage yards, it depicts a provocative realm with empathy and wit.
On view for the first time in the city that inspired it, The Hoerengracht reproduces a section of a street with a series of windowed rooms, populated with women making a living from prostitution. The artists cast Berlin friends of various ages to play the roles of prostitutes and fabricated the voyeuristic dens after photographs that they made, ironically, by paying the women for sexual services not rendered. Utilizing vintage objects, such as ’70s TVs, rotary telephones, and wind-up clocks, the poetic installation riffs on an early and magnificent Kienholz assemblage, Roxys, which hauntingly recreates a notorious Las Vegas brothel.
Layering open, glass cookie boxes over the faces of the women, the artists convey the hinged detachment that the workers apply to shut themselves off to clients. Other authentic objects of the times are the spy mirrors, mounted outside windows that allowed the prostitutes an early glimpse of approaching johns, and the small interior sinks, where they could quickly take a “whore’s bath.” These assembled elements — along with leopard-skin wallpaper, tinted fluorescent lights, and drippy, fluid-like resin that covers everything — offer a view of a world that few people would want to inhabit yet many find fascinating.
The Hoerengracht is on view at the Amsterdam Historical Museum, along with other contemporary works by artists and designers inspired by the Red Light District, through August 29.
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