Sex worker exhibition: what's shocking about this?

Submitted by Matthew on 5 February, 2010 - 3:50 Author: Sofie Buckland

Created between 1983 and 1988, The Hoerengracht is a reproduction of Amsterdam’s red light district, a series of small buildings housing models of sex workers, framed by the familiar red neon lights. The viewer is invited to peer in through windows, taking on the role of voyeur. It’s a small installation, which takes maybe 15 minutes to get a reasonably detailed view of, and for an exhibition in a major gallery on the topic of sex work, it’s disappointing and devoid of content.

Art does not, of course, have to be political; though any socialist feminist viewer may wish to see our politics of sex work as labour represented, it can hardly be expected that every installation will chime with our views, nor should this have to be the case to get something out of the art. But the Hoerengracht, having no other content or particular artist merit outside of the controversial subject matter, forces a socialist viewer to judge it on politics on sex work (or lack of) alone.

The installation is exactly what it says on the tin: a model of an area in a certain period, with badly rendered models (cast from women who were not sex workers) housed in reasonably well-made houses.

The only efforts at an interpretation come from the glass boxes each model’s head is encased in (supposedly showing these women can “close the box” or shut off the sex work side of their lives), and from the clear resin droplets that cover the models, their windows, mirrors and clothes.

This final effect struck me as being a representation of semen, or trying to say something about the staining nature of stigma, a little glimmer of artistic thought in an otherwise empty art work. However, it was explained by Nancy Kienholz in the accompanying video as a side effect of painting fabric, which must be covered with resin first, and (incoherently) as a way to cohere the women and their objects symbolically.

To have anything at all to say about the exhibition I had to turn to the framing of the exhibit and the 20 minute video made by the gallery to accompany it.

Before any visitor even gets to the exhibition, they’ll notice a display in the ante-room — some Vermeer prints, held in comparison for their (far from unambiguous) portrayal of sex work in Amsterdam in the 1600s. It’s almost as if the National Gallery is saying “look, it’s okay that this is seedy, because even great artists tackled prostitution!”
The coyness is continued throughout; the text accompanying the prints hints at “less moral pursuits” and the National Gallery presenter of the DVD talks of “disreputable trades”.

The presentation is one of gleeful, almost Carry-on style innuendo, like school children talking about naughty things rather than adults attempting a serious exploration of an often over-sensationalised industry. This only adds to the sense of being voyeur, and while some might find that challenging, it’s hardly new. The effect is to centre the experience of the viewer, to make them feel challenged (or perhaps titillated) at the invitation to gaze on a private world of transgressive sex.

Sadly, this voyeurism is pretty par for the course when it comes to artistic or media exploration of the sex industry, or pretty much any situation where you’re presented with representations of women at all: we’re invited to cast a voyeuristic gaze over women in advertising, celebrity magazines and films, so why is it we’re only supposed to find it shocking when the bodies on display are engaged in sex work?

The Hoerengracht serves to erase the women working in the windows almost entirely. The exhibition is about you, and what you think, faced with all this naughty seediness.

There is no evidence of sex worker input into this exhibition, bar one representative of a Dutch project popping up on the DVD. This might be an attempt at a detached, value-free presentation to allow viewers to make up their own minds, but if it is, it fails miserably. The framing, the coyness, the quote from Nancy Kienholz at the start about the “girls” needing legalisation so they can get “police protection” and he who is without sin must cast the first stone — all this provides viewers with a moralistic framework of passive sex workers with no agency or voice needing the help of the nice people who feel shocked by what they see.

Maybe I'm being a little harsh given this exhibition was produced over 20 years ago when sex workers’ politics had much less of a voice. But the National Gallery has colluded in the moralism by failing to update the exhibition (for example, there’s barely a mention of the changing legal status of sex work in Amsterdam). The really shocking, groundbreaking thing today would be to present the exhibition in the context of a frank, sex-worker inclusive discussion about voyeurism, agency and sex worker rights (see for example the Tate Modern’s excellent Pop Art exhibition section on artist-produced pornography). Sadly, this proved a little too much for the National Gallery.

*The Hoerengracht by Ed and Nancy Kienholz (National Gallery until 21 February).

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