Hey wait! Catch this gritty look at prostitution

Story by Jack Foley

WARTE MAL! Prostitution After the Velvet Revolution - A video installation by Ann-Sofi Sidén

PROSTITUTION is an emotive word at the best of times. So often frowned upon by the middle classes, it nevertheless has a place in today's society - from the seedy backstreets of London, to the neon-lit vistas of Vegas, it is always a talking point.

And while prostitution may sound like an obscure idea for an exhibition, that is exactly what's now on show at the Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank until April 1.

Put together by Swedish artist Ann-Sofi Siden, Prostitution After the Velvet Revolution explores life in the border town of Dubi, just acorss the German border in Czech Republic, where prostitution is now rife.

In all seasons, throughout the day and night, motorists passing through the town are likely to see scantily clad women standing along the roadside desperately trying to attract potential clients - some even step into the road and shriek at the drivers of passing vehicles, "Warte Mal!" (Hey Wait!).

Dubi was once a successful resort town renowned for its mineral springs and spas. But in the wake of the 'Velvet Revolution' - the collapse of Communism in Czechoslovakia - economic instability and Dubi's location close to the economic powerhouse of reunified Germany transformed the town from a quiet resort to a notorious destination for sex tourists from the West.

The women who work here represent a large proportion of a total of around 10,000 female sex workers now active in the Czech Republic. They dominate the streets in and around Dubi as well as the numerous clubs, bars and hotels spawned by the sex industry over the past decade.

Throughout 1999 Swedish artist Ann-Sofi Sidén made prolonged trips to Dubi staying at the Motel Hubert, an establishment where rooms are rented to prostitutes by the hour. Siden documented her stay through video, photography and a written diary. With the help of a local translator she also recorded an extensive series of video interviews - detailed and often harrowing testimonies of the lives and experiences of those involved in the business of prostitution who she befriended: clients; police; pimps; the motel owners and the prostitutes themselves.

Warte Mal! is described by the Gallery as an extensive installation combining architectural, sculptural, cinematic and documentary elements. Siden's arrangement of video monitors in glass booths and large-scale projections give the viewer a sense of walking through a community, of witnessing peep shows and panoramas, intimate confidences and public outrage. Warte Mal! is a very real and disturbing exploration of how the lives of individuals are bound up in the accidents and complexities of political history.

It is said to allow the viewer to become immersed in the stories and realities of daily life in Dubi, where corruption, abuse and human exploitation is routine. The installation also reveals the capacity for individuals, against the odds, to create unexpected spaces of solidarity, compassion, and human decency.

The interviews reveal in detail the reasons why the girls have taken up prostitution. For some prostitution seems to be the result of a decision, where pros and cons have been weighed. While others have been kidnapped from their hometowns by pimps and forced to work the streets; many have been lured into the trade under false pretences with the promise of work as waitresses or dancers, but instead have been taught by threats and violence to accept their fate as prostitutes.

It may be tough viewing at times, but for art fans who like their exhibitions to be a little more challenging, then the Hayward Gallery is well worth a visit.

Featured Image:
Ann-Sofi Sidén: Legs, Motel Hubert, 1999
© the artist, 2002
Photo: Ann Sofi Sidén

Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London
Admission: £8/Concession £6 Multi-visit ticket £16
Multi-visit concession £12
Nearest Tube: Waterloo or Embankment