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Amsterdam: City of lights

As a new installation at the National Gallery recreates Amsterdam’s red-light district, Melanie Abrams traces the history of Dutch liberalism.

There is a vibrant area in the heart of Amsterdam which dates from the 13th century. It is characterised by canals, narrow streets and even narrower alleyways and is lined with tall, thin 17th century houses built during the city’s Golden Age. Inside the windows of these elegant houses scantily clad girls vie to draw men in for sex. Some gyrate to music, booming from their stereos. Others simply pose and preen. Sometimes they hurl abuse at tourists who attempt to take photographs. This is Amsterdam’s red-light district. From November 18th the experience of walking through it will be recreated in London. The National Gallery is hosting The Hoerengracht (Whore’s Canal) 1984- 88, by the American artists Ed and Nancy Kienholz, a walk-through installation of streets where whores pose in windows, hallways and stairways.
While one in three tourists go to Amsterdam’s red-light district to gawp and party, the Dutch are largely indifferent to the sexual behaviour that pervades their streets. Indeed research has shown that 74 per cent of the Dutch population regard prostitution as an acceptable job and prostitution has been legal in the Netherlands since 2000. According to Annemarie de Wildt, curator at the Amsterdam Historical Museum, the Dutch take pride in their permissive society. ‘It is in the DNA of the city to have openness,’ she says.

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