A walk through the Hoerengracht

Why the Kienholzes' facsimile of Amsterdam's red-light district at the National Gallery is worth vis

Imagine that everyone around you is suddenly and magically turned into a wax statue. You're able to do things you wouldn't normally dream of doing -- peering closely at the faces of passers-by, for example.
 
The Hoerengracht, an installation on show at the National Gallery in London, which features the reconstruction of a chunk of Amsterdam's red-light district (the title translates as "The Whores' Canal", and is formed by adding an "o" to "Herengracht", meaning "The Gentlemen's Canal"), seems to make this odd fantasy come true. It comes with a cast of sculptures of people that inspire a kind of nosiness, rather as the super-realistic work of the American artist Duane Hanson does.
 
The installation was produced in the 1980s by the artists Edward and Nancy Kienholz, outsiders whose trademark works were "tableaux", walk-in environments depicting provocative situations. Eleven young women look out of the tiny windows of their seedy, neon-lit workplaces, their heavily made-up eyes gazing blankly at the street. They are mannequins, yet you feel as if you're contemplating real girls, prostitutes waiting distractedly for the next client.

The work has at least two significant merits. First is the direct relationship that the viewer has with these modern Mary Magdalenes. One of them, Geralyn, stands on the street, her hands gripping her handbag. You're invited to confront her face-to-face, and to realise in the process that she is possibly scared for her life, and certainly cold and alone.

A grungy resin, used by the artists to stick the figures together, drips down the women's faces, creating the impression of tears. The temptation to play the voyeur is aroused by the attention to detail here -- to the range of objects crammed in each room: clocks, mirrors, telephones, and so on. Intruding into these lives is a bit like inspecting a personal cabinet, and one is reminded also of the vitrines made by the Kienholzes' contemporary Christian Boltanski.
 
The second reason I'd suggest you visit the show is the National Gallery itself. The Kienholzes' work is displayed alongside some 17th-century Dutch paintings from the permanent collection. Similarities in structure and means of expression are explored. But rather than dwell for too long on the similarities between The Hoerengracht and Vermeer's wonderful Young Woman seated at a Virginal, visitors should take the opportunity to have a closer look at Guido Reni's Saint Mary Magdalene, where superbly painted hair hangs loose on the highly symbolic red of the saint's robe (the echoes of carnal pleasure are impossible to ignore).

Nor should they leave without stopping for a moment in front of Lorenzo Lotto's beautiful Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia, in the room opposite. The woman depicted in a sumptuous green and orange dress with candid décolletage emodies virtue, but is possibly a courtesan.

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“Minoan pendant”: a new poem by Mark Granier

“Yes – I press my nose / to the pleasantly warm glass – / it’s a copy of one I saw / cased in the cool museum”

Yes – I press my nose
to the pleasantly warm glass –
it’s a copy of one I saw
cased in the cool museum –
gold beaten to honey, a grainy
oval dollop, flanked by two
slim symmetrical bees –

garland for a civilisation’s
rise and collapse, eye-dropped
five thousand years: a flash
of evening sun on a windscreen
or wing mirror – Heraklion’s
scooter-life buzzing and humming –

as I step in to browse, become
mesmerised by the warm
dark eyes of the woman
who gives her spiel and moves
softly and with such grace,
that, after leaving, I hesitate

a moment on the pavement
then re-enter with a question
I know not to ask, but ask
anyway, to hear her voice
soften even more as she smiles
and shakes her hair – no.

Mark Granier is an Irish poet and photographer. He is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Haunt (Salmon).

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink