‘The Hoerengracht’ (1983–8), by American artists Ed and Nancy Kienholz, will transform the Sunley Room into a walk-through evocation of Amsterdam’s Red Light District.
This highly polemical tableau explores a theme that has been investigated by artists over many centuries and echoes visual traditions well established within European art.
Recalling in particular the Dutch masters of the 17th century, which are strongly represented in the National Gallery, ‘The Hoerengracht’ recreates the brick walls, glowing windows and mysterious doorways of Amsterdam’s claustrophobic streets. At the same time, the half-dressed, garishly lit mannequins of ‘The Hoerengracht’ reveal a theatre of grim sociology, filled with the most vulgar, ugly and ramshackle aspects of society.
Colin Wiggins: Ed and Nancy Kienholz are famous – or notorious, depending on your point of view – for their controversial and provocative installations. In the summer of 2009, their biggest piece, ‘The Hoerengracht’, was packed up in the Kienholzs’ studio, ready for transportation to London’s National Gallery.
[Song: ‘Love for Sale’ by Cole Porter]
Marco Livingstone: In a way, they’ve been like outsider artists. Ed Kienholz was self-taught; Nancy, when she married him, learned about sculpture through working with him. I don’t think he was the sort of artist who cared too much about being seen to be part of a history, nor did she. They just made the work that they needed to make as powerfully as possible.
Colin Wiggins: ‘The Hoerengracht’ is a three-dimensional walk-in recreation of Amsterdam’s notorious red-light district as it appeared during the 1980s. Viewers are drawn in, to peer into the windows and doorways in order to discover the secrets concealed within. In the history of art, this is nothing new because painters have been doing exactly this since the discovery of perspective. It might seem heretical to those who love Vermeer for his cool abstracted beauty, but his ‘Lady standing at a Virginal’ is a pictorial cousin of ‘Jutta’, standing in her window.
Nancy Kienholz: Well, of course we knew about it – about the red-light district – years before we made the piece, because we’d go to Amsterdam for exhibitions or to visit friends or travelling through. I don’t know what sparked the idea to go ahead and make the red-light district.
Colin Wiggins: Because it’s a hugely ambitious piece. It must be one of the biggest pieces that the two of you made.
Nancy Kienholz: Yeah, I think it is. It took about five years.
Colin Wiggins: Each of the rooms is packed with amazing details, like the U-bend on the sink and everything. How much were Ed and you concerned to get this…?
Nancy Kienholz: Oh, all of that stuff, you know, that’s very Kienholz. It is. Where it’s always over the top!
Colin Wiggins: And another Kienholz trademark is covering the installations with all of this kind of gungy stuff. All of that dribbling down the window becomes water, rain, tears?
Nancy Kienholz: It can be all of those things, but first of all, you can’t paint fabric if it’s just fabric. And so by putting the resin on it, it hardens it and then you can go in and you can paint the fabric. And then it’s always the very last thing to do – is to put the resin on, and by doing that you’re connecting unconnected things, you connect them together. Putting the resin on, they all become cohesive, rather than being just individual things.
Colin Wiggins: And can you remember – or doesn’t it matter – which parts you worked on and which parts Ed worked on?
Nancy Kienholz: Anything that was like nit-picking work he hated. He liked the grand gesture, he didn’t like the things like... even making a body cast, you know, he liked that, casting all these women, but he didn’t like to do the hands or he didn’t like to do the feet, because it’s boring.
But sometimes it’s very dangerous to show up in the studio, especially if you’re doing something like this, and you can be very innocent and walk in and the next thing you know, you’re naked and you’re being put into plaster!
Colin Wiggins: And one thing all the characters have got in common is the frames around their faces.
Nancy Kienholz: They were cookie boxes, and the idea behind them is that the women can close themselves off.
Colin Wiggins: So this man here is a genuine, potential client?
Nancy Kienholz: Yes.
Colin Wiggins: And he doesn’t know he’s in this artwork?
Nancy Kienholz: No.
Colin Wiggins: That’s rather good, isn’t it?
Nancy Kienholz: I hope he’s not the minister of something – either the church or the government!
We could go inside the rooms. We would ask the girls if we could come inside and photograph the interiors of the room, and they would allow us to do that. At first they’d be shaking their fingers at us because they didn’t like women to be there, and I was doing the photography, so they didn’t like that, but then when they realised they could make 50 guilders then they’d wave at us as we walked by, and they’d wave and say, ‘what about my room?’ So they became very friendly.
In all the years when Ed and I were making it – for the five years – I would say to him, ‘pimps and whores, pimps and whores, I’m sick of pimps and whores!’ and ‘not enough pimps, we only have whores!’ You know, this kind of stuff? And he’d say, ‘oh, Nancy, no, no, it’s about the light’.
Ed Kienholz: What really interests me is those lights. Because when you walk down those streets they’re just like little paintings. They’re beautiful.
Made in their Berlin studio, ‘Te Hoerengracht’ was one of the last major pieces made by the Kienholzes before Ed died in 1994. Their work remains a major reference point for contemporary artists such as Mike Kelly, Paul McCarthy, Mike Nelson and Damien Hirst.
Supported by Outset Contemporary Art Fund