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ART : Putting Things All Together : Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, talk (a bit reluctantly) about life, art, love and all those changes

October 31, 1993|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

E.K.: The female figures are rougher in "Roxy's" because they're more abstract, and that allows you to read more into them. Take "Cock-eyed Jenny," one of the figures in "Roxy's"--she's basically a garbage pail with the word love painted on the lid, and the viewer brings a lot of imagination to that setup. With "The Hoerengracht" the figures are immediately identifiable as girls.

N.R.K.: The girls in this one are a lot prettier.

E.K.: Well, it's getting closer to closing time.

*

Did you make "The Hoerengracht" rougher or more lyrical than this world is in reality?

E.K.: It's pretty accurate to the actual environment--the piece is a little shabby and homey, and so is the real place. I mostly wanted to communicate that this is a good, functioning business.

*

How much interaction did you have with the women as you were making the piece? Did you get to know some of the women of the red-light district?

N.R.K.: Not really. In fact, the figures in the piece are made from casts we made of our friends. We did spend quite a bit of time in Amsterdam when we were working on the piece though, and much of that time was spent taking photographs. We wanted to look at the interiors and get a feeling for the environment as a whole. The place operates 24 hours a day, and the women, who range in age from roughly 18 to 40, work in eight-hour shifts. The state takes care of them--they pay taxes and are protected by the police--and there's also a black Mafia that keeps it a tightly running ship. You never see graffiti on the walls or trash in the streets, and it's a safe place for tourists--nobody ever gets rolled there. It's infinitely preferable to the situation for American prostitutes, who are always looking over their shoulder for the police and usually need a pimp for protection.

*

The faces of the women in this piece seem extremely sad; generally speaking, did you find the women of the red-light district to be unhappy?

E.K.: Yes, but they're not unhappy about the work they do--they're unhappy about the stigma society lays on them. This piece has been described as a plea for more civilized treatment of this work and the women who do it, and that was definitely one of our intentions in making it. Whose business is it what consenting adults agree to do together? And, I'd also like to point out that describing their faces as sad is an interpretation you've brought to the piece. We used stock mannequins for the faces and I doubt if you'd find these faces tragic if you saw them in Bonwit & Teller's, despite the fact that they're performing a similar function there: They're selling clothes on a sexual basis. For some reason, this is acceptable in our society and whores are not. Don't get me wrong, I'm not crusading for anything--all I'm saying is that I believe prostitution should be an open, free business. The police could then redirect the time and energy they spend chasing these girls down, throwing them in jail, collecting 50 bucks and putting them back on the street. It's just a continuous shakedown and it strikes me as ridiculous.

*

What was the most surprising thing you learned about these women in immersing yourselves in their world?

N.R.K.: How normal their lives seemed.

*

Generally speaking, what's their attitude toward men?

E.K.: Men are commodities to them, and that's why in our piece the faces of the women are boxed inside a frame with a lid. Theoretically the box--i.e. the face, mind and head--can be closed off anytime, leaving the body available for anybody who wants to use it. These women tend to see men as rather silly and when you observe how men behave it's easy to see why they feel that way. Say four men come out of a bar and one says, "Let's go get some girls," and they're all joking and having a high old time, but once they go into a whorehouse and are separated from each other they turn into shy little boys and the girl has to be the aggressor. The men are really performing for each other and there's a real homoerotic current to this behavior.

*

One could make the case that prostitution is about people paying money to avoid having to be genuinely intimate with each other; would you agree with that?

E.K.: There's probably some truth to that, but so what? If you're marriage-oriented, that idea probably seems like a travesty, but the same thing isn't right for everybody and we don't all need the same things. Some people want to lay down their $50, relieve themselves of a physical tension, then go to the movies or go sailing. They don't want all that emotional baggage, and that's the great lure of prostitution--people want satisfaction and don't want the involvement.

*

It's odd that you have such a pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts view of male-female relations, as most people who know you regard you as an extraordinarily romantic couple.

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