A little Amsterdam goes a long way.
The National Gallery in London has just opened a new art exhibit based on one of our favorite cities—Amsterdam. The exhibit is stirring up quite a controversy because of its explicit content, which critics describe as tasteless and “designed to shock.” The artists responsible, Ed and Nancy Kienholz, created partial versions of some of Amsterdam’s famous brothels back in 1983. Their new installation, “The Hoerengracht,” or the Whore Canal, features these pieces arranged to replicate a realistic walk through Amsterdam’s famous De Wallen red light district, complete with mannequins dressed as prostitutes and garish neon lights.
These were among the final pieces worked on by Ed Kienholz, who died in 1994. By that time he had achieved widespread acclaim, but even so, this is perhaps the first time his and his wife’s work has been featured in a venue as conventional and respected as the National Gallery. It is the venue’s break from its traditional roots that has generated both criticism and publicity. Now that the exhibit is open, it’s the public’s turn to decide. “The Hoerengracht”—the closest thing to Amsterdam without going there—runs through February 2010.
De Wallen is ground zero of the international sex trade.
It’s been a great vacation, folks. We’ve been in Amsterdam for ten days, and now we’re headed back to Paris for one more night there before returning home. Last night we finally got around to checking out De Wallen, aka the main Red Light District. You probably already know that the ladies (and a few ladyboys, as well) display themselves in windows, while the potential johns parade past checking the wares. Like strippers, the girls use eye contact to both entice and control the men. You don’t just get to ogle them up and down for a cheap thrill—they are ogling you as well. Men are basically cowardly herd animals, so this has the effect of keeping them moving quickly through the area as a group. If you stop for a really good look, you have to deal with the pressure of the woman staring right back at you. Not many guys do well with that.
According to official sources, about 75% of sex workers are foreigners, and according to our unofficial visual survey, very few are the types you would pay special attention to if you saw them on a tram or in a bar. But allure isn't all just a matter of physical beauty and, like sex workers the world over, the ones here exude that intangible quality of availability that supercedes all other considerations. If you take photos, do so at your own risk. Anonymity for both the johns and pros is considered of paramount importance, and if you aim a camera prepare to discover that the dude lounging on a nearby stoop is actually a bouncer. However it is still possible to shoot pictures if you’re careful—just make sure to do it from a distance, or on the fly. Our attempts resulted in unsatisfactory results, so we borrowed the photos here from Wikipedia and Pbase.
The Dutch government is making a push to clean up the area, so De Wallen—and the other districts scattered around town—may soon be gone, or at least considerably reduced in size. This move, we’re told, is not so much about the business of sex as it is about the numerous shady fuckers who inevitably profit from it. Though the system is set up so that girls can work as independent contractors, in practice most of them are controlled by Eastern European and Moroccan pimps involved in human trafficking. A recent investigation by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime revealed that Amsterdam is the world’s number one destination for trafficked girls.
We could talk about this for pages, but let’s just say we can cross another item off life’s to-do list. It was worth the excursion, and as pulp hunters we’d have felt remiss if we hadn’t done it. Amsterdam is a lovely town, and even in the Red Light District there’s a beauty, an otherworldiness thatgives the down-and-dirty commerce of sex a storybook surface sheen. Nothing makes this clearer than when you see swans bobbing in the canal next to Voorburgwal, pure white on the neon splashed waters, as women trade their bodies for money.