HX – issue 603, 28 March 2003
Photographer Adi Nes restages Israeli military life and Greek mythology
Text Chris Schmidt
Nothing wilts the libido faster than generalized national anxiety. And is there a bigger turn-off than George W. Bush, in that annoying Texas twang of his, whispering less-than-sweet nothings in the U.N. Security Council’s ear? But war isn’t entirely unsexy. Look at the war-drobe: cargo pants, khaki wife beaters, artillery clips, combat boots—serious fetish objects. And though I watch CNN to ogle Anderson Cooper, no doubt some HX readers tune in with more than just a smidgeon of interest in the footage of those muscled, Midwestern reservists who wonder how they’ll survive in the Persian Gulf without their wives. I trust that a lonely, resourceful lad with surging hormones in an all-male barrack will find something to, ahem, occupy him.
If a soldier can’t find outlets for his pent-up energy, Adi Nes has a few ideas for him. This Israeli photographer, whose work will be on display at the Jack Shainman gallery starting March 21, creates homoerotic tableaux inspired by his experiences in the Israeli army (a compulsory duty for all citizens). Inspired by is the operative phrase, for although Nes’ photographs look documentary, they’re in fact elaborately staged. “The source of the photographs’ homoeroticism is, of course, my own experience,” says Nes, speaking by phone from his home in Tel Aviv. “I want to express my own personal ideas in the photographs – about identity and masculinity –and so I stage them. The photographs are multilayered; documentary pictures work on just one layer.”
The basis of that personal experience is Nes’ tenure in the Israeli army as an air traffic controller, from ‘84 to ‘87, “in a very small unit, in the tower in the middle of the desert, with just a few guys.” Though Nes wasn’t out then, he remarks that “it was a time when I really started to express my identity.” Judging by the photographs, that identity includes equal parts bristling power and boyish vulnerability.
Israel, Nes reports, is a thunderingly masculine culture. Yet, perhaps because the military is such a part of the national identity, homosexuality is much more openly accepted in Israel’s military than in our own. “As in America, the official policy is Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Nes says. “But in Israel, if you tell, nothing will happen to you.” Nes also mentions a recent milestone in gay advancement: The Gay Man of the Year, whose image was plastered on the cover of Israel’s equivalent of HX, was also a soldier in the army. “And nothing happened to him,” Nes adds.
The Shainman show is organized into two categories, what Nes calls “Soldiers” and “Boys.” “Boys” takes off from a different vantage point: that of Greek mythology, the myths of Adonis and Narcissus. Nes views his “Soldiers” series as more of an “imaginary circus where all the participants are soldiers: Many of these images are take-offs on famous examples of war photojournalism or war memorials, like the soldiers raising the flag at Iwogima – minus the flag in Nes’ version. Like any avowed postmodernist, Nes admits to “quoting” references as diverse as David Hockney and Caravaggio.
There are those who will find prurient interest in Nes’ photographs for their military styling, and those to whom they will appeal simply because they feature Israelis. But Israel, like America, is an immigrant nation, and far from homogenous. Among natural-born Israelis, for example, there are light-skinned Israelis from European stock, Ashkenazi, and the dark-skinned minority, Mizrahi or Sephardi, of Arabic lineage. Neighboring Arabs and Palestinians also add to the mix. As a specialist in Israeli visual culture, does Nes have a particular attraction to one ethnic group over another? “Well, I have had a boyfriend for the past two years, so mostly, I am attracted to him.”
Adi Nes, Recent Photographs, 10am-6pm Tue-Sat
March 21-April 12 at the Jack Shainman Gallery
(513 W 20th St). For more information, call