Mortal vision

Death is a common thread in Israeli photographer's meticulously

Robert L. Pincus

The San Diego Union - Tribune. 

San Diego, May 6, 2002.


The uniformed soldiers in one sequence of Adi Nes' large color photograph look as if they are sleeping. But as an Israeli artist, slumbering soldiers on a bus carry other implications for him.

"Sleeping soldiers are like lambs being taken to the slaughter," Nes says over a coffee at a downtown San Diego Starbucks.

The pictures' symbolism is no afterthought. It's a deliberate part of the creative process that has gone into the 15 selections in the artist's first solo exhibition in the United States, now on view in the downtown space of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego.

Nes doesn't take to the streets to find his images, even if the streets and the landscape of Israel are often in them. Taking a cue from quintessentially postmodern artists such as American Cindy Sherman and Canadian Jeff Wall, the 35-year-old Nes constructs his photographs from scratch, composing them much like a painter and functioning much like a filmmaker.

He picks a location, sometimes altering it to create the right setting. He enlists willing subjects, lights each composition just so, and often takes inspiration from historical paintings, mythology and even other photographs.

"I'm the research man, the art director, the producer and the director," says Nes, whose black hair and pronounced eyebrows highlight a gaunt face with sharp features and eyes that announce his intensity and intelligence. His day job in Tel Aviv as a television producer, creating promotional spots for one of its major studios, has clearly had an impact on his art.

Casting is a key element in the creation of his themes. In his pictures of the sleeping soldiers, the seeming innocence of the faces reinforces his concept.

"I was looking for certain features, childlike features, people who would seem boylike," he says.

Auspicious timing

Nes' photographs, highly regarded and widely shown in his own land, have received limited exposure in the United States. His most widely disseminated image -- a photograph of a guy in military pants and boots, with a torso fit for fitness ads -- was plastered on New York subways. It promoted a museum exhibition of new Israeli art.

Timing couldn't be more contentious and auspicious for his solo show in San Diego, given the seemingly unending stream of horrific events that have been emanating from the Palestinian territories and Israel during the past few weeks.

"As long as the bombing was in Jerusalem and Netany, people could go about their business," Nes says. "The moment it got to Tel Aviv and the most Western part of Tel Aviv, people were shocked.

"Two weeks ago, I was on the way to a coffee shop I always go to. Then, I heard that it had exploded."

It's not surprising to hear him say: "Death is foreshadowed in most of my pictures. Death lingers everywhere."

On the subject of death foreshadowed, there is no more famous painting than Leonardo's "The Last Supper" (1498). So it's understandable that he set out to create a variation on it.

Nes' version, the most dramatic and large-scale of his images on view, is expertly composed, with every one of the posed figures looking as if he's engaged in casual conversation with one or two other soldiers. This picture abounds with interpretive possibilities, but Nes likes to frame commentary with a simple one.

"It could be the last supper for one of them," he says.

As with so many of his photographs, Nes went to great lengths to get the end result. He scouted locations, ultimately fixing on a derelict barracks buildings near the Red Sea. But its dilapidated state didn't suit his concept, so he drywalled the space -- leaving only a few bullet holes that fit the mood of the picture.

Quest for identity

The military and national culture are nearly inseparable in Nes' art. So, too, is the male subject and its erotic dimension.

"The major focus of my projects is on issues of identity: As an Israeli gay man, I'm dealing with issues of identity. I am always dealing with the Israeli identity, too."

The situation is vastly different in his view than it was a decade ago, when Nes graduated from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem with a degree in photography. He has seen the rise of far greater acceptance of gays.

"When I was a student, there just weren't a lot of gay elements in the cultural life of Israel. You couldn't find many books in which the hero was gay. Now you can.

"Art is so important for the creation of identity, for recognizing identity by seeing yourself in a book or picture."

Like all Israelis, he served his time in the military -- from ages 18 to 21. His post, as an air traffic controller at an isolated site, kept him out of harm's way.

Only a few years later, when he was serving a month-long stint as a reservist, did he do disturbing duty. He was a guard at a makeshift prison camp during the intifada of the early '90s. Nes was so distressed that he was allowed to resign.

He spent his childhood in the working- and lower-middle-class town of Kiryat Gat, located in the southern region of Israel known as Negev. His parents were religiously observant immigrants from Iran and Kurdistan.

You see echoes of his hometown in a picture that recasts the ancient Greek mythological tale of the death of Adonis to Israeli streets. Or, in a night scene picturing teen-agers setting fire to a slide at a playground.

His mother, who was a librarian, possessed lots of books, and his interest in Greek mythology began in childhood, along with his fascination with the homoerotic elements in the stories. Just as important was his later discovery of the late 19th-century Austrian photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden, whose pictures joined his homoerotic and Greek mythological interests.

Art historical and mythological references abound in Nes' art. So do sly references to photographs from earlier decades, when the mission and value system of Israel went unquestioned.

"There was a ritual that was bigger than our lives, at the start of the country, but not any more," Nes asserts. "The story of the country is not necessarily my personal story. We're fighting a war that doesn't belong to us."

Nes isn't completely pessimistic.

"Our hope is dwindling, but we hope for peace," he says. "First, we just have to survive."

But he admits, "I'm very cynical."

No example in his exhibition supports this claim more baldly than his takeoff on a 1949 image by Micha Perry -- as familiar to Israelis as Joe Rosenthal's image of marines at Iwo Jima is to Americans -- which pictures soldiers raising a makeshift flag in the Red Sea city of Eilat. In Nes' version, there is no flag.