An Army of Light and Shade
Adi Nes is a photographer in the vein of Jeff Wall. Every image is the outcome of a sophisticated
stratagem, deconstructing the idea of the snapshot and the frozen slice of (real) life that has been,
and still is, so widespread, as far as photography is concerned. Western civilization has now been
obsessed by image for over a century. And image is still exercising an irrevocable pull on it. The data
have changed, historically speaking: it's not the picture that makes the image any more, it's the
photograph that makes the picture - constantly showing that it's to do with detail, layout, framing and
shots. The eye does its work by skimming along the surface of the image, then dissecting it, examining
it, and detailing it.
How come Adi Nes's photos have such a powerful and irresistible pull?
This essay will try to answer this question, even though the task is less obvious than it might seem.
Faced with the re-creation of a scene that seems familiar to anyone who's done their military service,
based on personal experience and a sociological fix, we can read the image like a reflection of this
experience transformed by the artist's own eye.
But Adi Nes works on discrepancy and lag, as it were. He doesn't show what you think you're seeing.
In the series that has earned him a name, and even fame, the Israeli artist presents soldiers in the
Israeli army, a military organization that is generally reckoned to be no ordinary army. When each and
every member of Israeli society, man and woman alike, comes of age, they become part of the social
superstructure known as Tzahal. Someone even put it that every Israeli citizen is a soldier with eleven
months' holiday a year. Fifty years after it was introduced, this paramount social melting-pot has come
to a crucial point in its history, marked by a far-reaching identity crisis. Civilian society can no longer
see this phenomenon in abstract terms. Today, it has accordingly resolved to take a good look at itself
and even deep-plough this terrain that has been only superficially tilled for so long. Taboos are crumbling
one by one and basic myths are being challenged, for the enemy without is no longer the same
historical threat that has, in past years, been so clearly and unswervingly outlined. The assassination
of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, the political changes that have occurred since, and the
message has changed tacks. Artists, as ever, have been among the first to tackle the cultural bedrock
of the Israeli army, with its long-established stereotypes and its painstakingly maintained image, by
adopting differently critical stances and extremely subtle positions. The success ofAdi Nes's works
can right away be explained by his accomplished know-how as a director, and his ability to use soldiers
to express the whole ambiguity existing in the relationships that underpin Israeli society today.
By using photography to produce rich and complex images, Adi Nes involves himself with works which
have a very powerful identity, resulting from a sound knowledge of composition achieved by using a
presentation technique belonging to the realm of advertising. This approach, incidentally, has made
him one of the distinctive figures in the Israeli contemporary art scene, and one of the most significant
representatives of the new photography.
Adi Nes's works immediately show a shrewd and meticulous stage-work, based on direct references
to well-known works in art history, such as The Last Supper and the paintings of Caravaggio. What
is essentially involved is an iconographic and theoretical re-interpretation of original subjects, which
are transposed into a contemporary setting and environment. But Nes's eye focuses especially on
pictorial typologies. Rather than referring to any
specific work, the artist's work tends to highlight general features and methods of spatial organization
Like the painter who defines his composition and distributes in it the various elements it will contain,
Nes plans and, in a way, constructs each one of his images. Be it an outside site or an inner space,
he spends a long time pinpointing the appropriate setting. The choice of figures, their clothing, where
they are placed, and their attitudes and postures are all patiently worked out. The very smallest objects
are chosen, and a close eye kept on every detail, to such a degree that the artist's approach is akin
to the film director's work. Nes does in fact very closely study and rehearse the scene, and the facial
expressions are worked on over several working sessions with the people involved. The goal is to
create an effect of tension in the image to be produced, or alternatively reflect a key moment which
encapsulates the whole action. Faced with an image of this sort, the viewer is unfailingly pulled into
it. In most instances, this "suspended moment" is put across just by little movements and gestures,
and the facial expressions. The images thus actually seem to waver more openly between pose and
movement. Nes thus clearly tends to inform his photographs with cinematographic effects. With their
format and powerful presence, amplified by the way they are presented, the images also develop a
What is distinctive about Adi Nes is the intelligence he applies in juxtaposing the intensity of the film
image with classical compositions drawn from the history of painting, in photographs which offer us
his view of contemporary life. This work is neither pure stylistic exercise nor a demonstration of any
kind of virtuosity. Quintessentially, it reveals the critical eye of a young man surveying both his day
and age and his peers, among whom he has an undeniable place. By in turn perusing pictorial models,
which have actually become archetypes, Nes resorts to the deja-vu effect as a crucial way of describing
reality. The places, situations and characters we find in Nes's images may well appear familiar, and
even, at first glance, seem somewhat commonplace, especially for the Israeli audience, but this is
really because all this also resembles what people may come upon in everyday life. But the eye is
never indifferent, for it is engaged by a detail or expression which suddenly turns out to be unexpectedly
Nes re-creates events and situations which soldiers experience day in day out - perhaps because
they are too much a part of the private daily round - in order to display the signs of hidden human
manners, symptoms of an evolution of society and a necessary updating. By way of the various
issues raised by social, psychological and sexual issues, subtly depicted by the imagery used, Nes
highlights the alienation of the individual in today's world and the loss of a Utopian ideal.
There is another set of issues that hallmarks Adi Nes's approach, which are, per se, more radical,
and likewise managed in a shrewd way. They have to do with the homosexual identity, and what we
might call a perfectly tempered gay aesthetic. Confronted by the common and, need it be said,
mistaken accepted sense, introducing standard factors into the military organization of a regular army,
and dictating the image of a claimed and assumed group identity with clearly defined boundaries,
Adi Nes one by one imbues the ingredients with an open and indescribable identity. And hey presto!
the breach is made. In this artist's photos, the privates are all characters with confused identities and
ambiguous attitudes, captured by Adi Nes in poses which, at first glance, are part of the warrior's
repertory: relaxing, exercising, brotherhood, friendship, partying and sharing, and hierarchy. But at
the same time the transgressive character of homosexual dispositions gives the individuals concerned
a certain number of features in common. What directly emerges is a specifically homosexual sensibility,
which, first and foremost, reflects a lucidity stemming from this permanent role-playing, and the
removal from self which results from the secretiveness invariably marking these circles, though it is
never pronounced. One of the most striking features of the "homosexual condition" seems to be its
unspeakableness and, as a result, the fact of having to learn how to deal with an unspeakable identity.
In tandem, what Adi Nes reveals is a logic of emancipation, even if this logic here has a contradictory
form. These days, the readjustment of the image of homosexuals proceeds essentially by way of its
masculinization. So, just when oppression is slackening off, we are witnessing a movement of
redefinition that is shattering the caricatural image imposed by the majority on the minority, and thus
forging a liberated group identity. It refers to a process of winning an identity, inseparably individual
and collective. The situation of oppression and social rejection which still faces many homosexuals
(if only because of the mum's-the-word stricture that is their lot in most social situations) helps to
create a kind of fateful community. Adi Nes's approach directly introduces a homosexual community
which is organized, claims rights, and is keen to enact deeds affirming a public identity.
The recent development of Adi Nes's work reveals, more than ever, the complexity and distinctive
features of his artistic project. By incorporating the principles of painting, photography and film all at
once, this work, which is one of the most coherent and relevant bodies of visual expression, defies
any kind of restrictive categorization. From a strictly photographic viewpoint, however, Nes's work is
conspicuous for the outstanding way it reconciles and works the basic aspects of photography - both
in terms of its direct grasp of reality, otherwise put, its objective character, and the personalized view
of this reality, otherwise put, its subjective character. This, moreover, is one of Nes's main concerns:
to give us hints, through various details, about the tricks he uses, while showing us intense events
and moments with the greatest possible realism.
When, as viewer, you look at Adi Nes's images, you get a sense of enjoyment. The mainsprings of
this impact reside as much in the photographic paraphernalia as in the revelation of the confusion
that works its way into this paradoxical area made up of a compression of time and a form of delayed
action or movement. It results from a wavering between snapshot and pose which is conveyed either
by images which are steeped in photography (he excels in genre scenes), or by a setting in which
each element is selected, designed to make up the "photographic picture", so dear to the Canadian
master. This is when different, separately photographed split seconds can be incorporated on a
backdrop which, as a result of image manipulation, is stratified, but never thickens.
The photograph comforts and reassures the onlooker when he realizes that what is involved is a tiny
sampling in time. It intrigues when it re-creates or conjures up the actual conditions of life - effect of
verisimilitude, blur of a moment almost impossible to document or hang on to as such. Adi Nes's
images have this ambivalent presence: they have this link to the instant and then to a longer period.
Everything in them is caught in a fraction of a second and artificially suspended, or even immobilized
for a long time.
The area in which Adi Nes works and thinks, and the zone he tries to encompass, is definitely very
small. An aside, we might say. The impact of this artist's images, and their powerful spell, lies here,
in this interstice where various ways of reading, framing, interpreting, constructing and seeing the
real meet and merge.
In front of this world and this reconstructed atmosphere, we become detached onlookers - an
unexpected role because the subject has to do much more personally with the viewer. The viewer
feels this straightaway and is greatly indebted to the artist.
Ami Barak. Montpellier,2001.
(Translated from the French by Simon Pleasance(