Artext, Issue 78, Fall 2002
Adi Nes at The Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego
By Paul Foss
Lovers of dark-skinned Israeli youths and photographs that crackle with Old Testament hellfire weren’t about to be disappointed with the first US, outing of Israeli photographer Adi Nes (May 28 — July 14, 2002). Exhibited in the MCA's demure downtown space were 14 lavish color prints of doe-eyed boys and hunky grunts in both military and everyday settings, offering, to say the least, an arresting sideshow to the Israeli-Palestine conflict then raging across the world stage.
Nes’s work basically can be divided into the so-called “Soldiers Series” (1994-2000), depicting young Israeli soldiers at rest, play, or just posing for the camera, and a more recent series (exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art last year) harking back to earlier and more peripheral locations in the soldiers’ lives, when as boys they presumably knocked about in dusty “development towns.” But both series are neither straight reportage nor idle male pinups. Painstakingly lit and staged tableaux vivants, Nes’s endeavor is one of colliding different myths (Israeli national icons, Western masterpieces, and homoerotic classics à la Eakins, Sorolla, and Faucon) in a single image to highlight an underlying confusion or ambiguity in the contemporary Israeli imaginary. Emblematic of this system is a photo from 1999 (all works are untitled) modeled on The Last Supper, in which the disciples’ scrap bowls have been replaced with traditional orange-colored army dinnerware.
In fact, these photographs are far wickeder than the standard barracks romp. Ultimately devices for interrogating Israel’s war machine, all lovingly rendered through elaborate setups involving hired models, location shoots, and a full camera crew, Nes’s images are darkly subversive of the various means whereby that country engineers national memory, just as Mapplethorpe had earlier tried to slam American sexual and racial amnesia. Not unlike Ridley Scott’s film Black Hawk Down, which tackles the failure of the chain of command to uphold the buddy system upon which it is based, Nes’s main target is the warrior nation’s regime of brotherhood, exercise, sharing, and hierarchy. Throughout his work, mandatory military service, heroic manhood, and the centrality of the Israeli Defense Force to the nation’s self-image are pitted against the mnemonic technology that both fuels and plagues war-torn Israel. As with his image from 2000 (not included in the exhibition) showing a beautiful boy admiring himself in a murky puddle along an urban sidewalk, the Narcissus myth is but the “invert” of what Nes calls “muscular Judaism ... eternal youth, the unblemished warrior, excellence in meeting challenges, self-sacrifice for the homeland.”
The Israel that Nes refers to in his work is clearly no longer as self-assured as it was. To account for such a groundswell of dissent, curator Toby Kamps points to a growing skepticism in art and music during the '90s (particularly since the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a rightwing Israeli) toward the founding myths of that country, which “was no longer a hardscrabble land of idealistic Zionists; it was a booming, cosmopolitan nation with all the attendant problems. Increasingly, its citizens asked whether the country was, as its founders believed, a good kid in a bad neighborhood or a bully cruelly repressing the Palestinians.”
At the very least, recent history explains why Nes confronts adolescent masculinity as the epitome of idealized nationalism with the doubting, hesitant pre-adolescent. He is only cueing into the same jingoism that infects the panoply of Israeli icons, like Yitzhak Danziger’s Nimrod or Yehiel Shemi’s Father and Son, or classic war photos like The “Ink Flag” at Eilat, March 10, 1949. Even a seemingly innocent image of sleeping boys Nes found in a newspaper or the ones of soldiers sleeping together “on the road” are occasions for recontextual tweaking, in this case equating sleep with death (the myth of Adonis). Nothing in the national image repertory is too sacred for Nes, or else everything is already too sacred. A 1999 work, depicting a group of semi-naked studs frolicking in a stream, one of them brandishing a MK-47 while staring victoriously up at the heavens, is a wicked send-up of a famous 1957 LIFE cover image showing an Israeli soldier cooling off in the Suez Canal. The somewhat sleazy deportment of this modern-day soldier’s pals is poor compensation indeed for the now-fading validity of Israel’s ambitions for the West Bank and elsewhere.
It’s a shibboleth of the Jewish faith that it lacks any definitive idea about Satan or Hell. Even the Hebrew word Gehinom, often loosely translated as “hell,” actually refers to a process of restoration and recovery, not a permanent place or condition. Whatever role this interpretation may play in contemporary Judaic practice, the contra-Mephistophelian photography of Adi Nes is testament to a very ancient tradition that attempts to siphon off negativity rather than let it stand. But I’d be a schlump if I didn’t add that they also show how truly sexy Israeli boys are.