Hot lips from Amsterdam

    The National Gallery is displaying Ed Kienholz’s re-creation of a red-light district — a scandal or a liberating move?

    To prepare myself properly for the new exhibition at the National Gallery, I looked up the origins of the term “red-light district”. It turns out, there are two possible sources. One is ancient China, where red paper lanterns were hung outside brothels to identify them. The other is 19th-century America, where Milwaukee railway workers popping indoors for a quick romp would leave their warning lamps by the door in case they were urgently needed.

    The Chinese origins seem more likely to me. There is obviously something about the colour red that presses an alarm button deep within us, warning instantly of scarlet women. David Attenborough probably knows the answer. Perhaps it is associated with the mating displays of the female baboon? Whatever the original circumstances, it remains true that down dark and narrow alleys across the world, the colour red has long been roped into signalling the sale of sex. Nowhere more notoriously than in Amsterdam, whose emblematic red-light district, which is such a giggly must-see on the city’s tourist trail, is now the focus of a thoroughly surprising exhibition at the National Gallery.The show is surprising for a gang of reasons. First, because seediness is not a quality you generally encounter at the National. Second, because red-light districts are not typical topics hereabouts. Principally, however, the event surprises because it features at its centre a spooky, walk-through re-creation of the Amsterdam hooker belt by that compelling American installation-maker Ed Kienholz.

    Kienholz, who appeared on the scene at the start of the 1960s, and who died in 1994, has always been a difficult artist to cat egorise. His dates ought really to have made him a pop artist. His subject matter, too — bars, cars, clubs, brothels. But Kienholz was always different. His heyday may have been the 1960s, but the 1950s, you feel, had their claws in him.

    On the surface, his art celebrates that get-me-a-beer enthusiasm for the commercial world that American art brought to international aesthetics. Underneath, though, it was always darker, glummer, more soulful than the rest. While the Warhols and the Lichtensteins were relaying the new optimism, Kienholz was wallowing like a warthog in the same old bog of despair that true students of the human condition have been wallowing in since biblical times. It’s what made him a special artist and, on occasions, a great one.

    None of this qualifies him, however, to show at the National Gallery. One thing Kienholz definitely never was is an old master. The National has dabbled lightly in the past with contemporary and modern art, and the artist-in-residence scheme it operates guarantees the occasional flit-through of new blood. But this is more than that. This taking-over of the gallery’s central exhibition space by a full-size re-creation of Amsterdam’s red-light district adds up to the ripping-up of the old contract between Tate Modern and here, about which era belongs to whom. This is the beginning of a turf war. In fact, the revolt commences rather quietly with a tiny sample of Dutch 17th-century interiors that also show scenes of prostitution. There’s a lovely de Hooch, set in a house by a canal, in which a young girl in a gaudy red dress is being propositioned by a tipsy city burger. And a sensuous night scene, by Godfried Schalcken, showing a smiling wench leading a shadowy chappie to her bed while he slips her some gold coins. As always with Dutch 17th-century painting, you feel you are being issued with sneaky warnings about the perils of the flesh by artists who know full well what they are talking about, because they, too, have bitten into the forbidden apple. It’s like one of those drugs talks that are given at schools by former addicts.

    Amazingly to me, there are still plenty of 17th-century specialists who refuse to accept that these loaded little Dutch interiors harbour any secret ambitions to lecture or moralise. They are merely scenes of everyday life, insist the no-subject battalion, who really ought to be forced to attend a crash course on Calvinism. What is definitely true is that the tiny Dutch interiors that serve here as the show’s amuse-bouche are quickly crushed and pestled by its main course. Kienholz’s installation, The Hoerengracht, which means the whores’ canal, was begun in 1983 and took five years to finish. A couple of blocks of squalid canalside Amsterdam, complete with a dozen life-sized whores and their dingy crimson showing rooms, have seemingly been airlifted out of grubby modern Holland and deposited in the middle of the National Gallery, with the radios of the working girls still blaring. A fence with old bicycles chained to it encircles the squalor. There’s even an unpleasant odour to be smelled, as if earlier prowlers have already used the alley as a latrine.

    As you walk down the line of red-lit windows, you see that some are open to reveal their sad occupants displaying themselves to you, while others have their curtains drawn, encouraging you to imagine the worst possible things that might be going on behind them. The girls themselves come in a convincing variety of body shapes and attitudes. A few are predictably bulky. A couple are alarmingly sexy. There’s one in the street and another in a doorway. All were posed for by real visitors to Kienholz’s studio in Berlin; they were asked to undress and then dipped in plaster. Kienholz himself did their backs, bums and breasts. His wife did the hands, feet and fiddly bits.

    Although the resulting bodies are eerily convincing, the heads that have been attached to them are not. These were all borrowed from shop-window dummies and then put inside strange glass boxes that sit on the shoulders like upturned fish tanks. Thus, parts of the installation feel very real, and other parts feel strikingly artificial, a potentially bitty combination that Kienholz manages brilliantly to unify by coating the entire block and a half of people and architecture, their fags and their mags, with a thick layer of yellowing resin that sags and slithers across the whole installation as if a giant has spat on it.

    Cast unavoidably as a creepy voyeur, the viewer has no choice but to prowl through this red-lit squalor, from room to room, examining the different girls and savouring their sad little spaces. Already cut off from us by the windows behind which they sit, the home-made harlots are separated further by those eerie glass aquariums on their heads. As always with Kienholz, the details are fascinating, the mood is glum and the unseen caption appended to the frame of the experience appears to read: This Is Us.

    It’s all rather exciting. I went in suspecting that the National shouldn’t be doing this, and came out feeling glad it was. There’s something courageous about the entire idea that bodes well for the term in office of the newish director, Nick Penny. Where the previous incumbent seemed always to be tracking popular agendas, this one seems determined to set new ones. Happy days.