Renaissance men

Photographer Adi Nes borrows some inspiration from art history for a
fresh look at an Israeli myth


Tzur Uzi


March 17, 2000


The photograph on the invitation to Adi Nes' new show is an
ironic, stylish visual play on one of the most famous
macho-Zionist-sabra mythic images of all time: the Life magazine cover
photo of an Israeli paratrooper bathing in the waters of the Suez
Canal in 1967, his muscular body standing out in relief against his
wet shirt. It is a brilliantly emblematic representation of triumphant
victory about to give way to all-out euphoria. In Ness' take on it,
the scene is nocturnal and dramatic. Additional paratroopers burst
from the water into a beam of light that falls across their naked,
muscular bodies as they horse around and embrace, forming a human
chain. The power and beauty of the photograph (in which the reference
to the classic image is still quite recognizable) derives from that
same masculinity; but here, the added expansiveness and complexity
of it at once enriches the photo and distances it from its forerunner.
A tremendous amount of calculation and staging goes into each one
of Ness' photographs - from the exact placement of the model within
the composition to details such as his facial expression, the kind
of uniform he wears, the sources of artificial light used and the
way this light hits the objects being photographed, the way that
natural light is incorporated into the scene, the movements of the
figures, and ultimately, the camera setting used to capture the whole
thing. Apparently, it's out of all this careful planning that the
unique, elusive moment is born.
Some of Ness' photographs have already entered the pantheon of
archetypal images in Israeli art. One example is the photo of a group
of soldiers lounging beneath the branches of a lone tree on a sand
dune (was it real or a stage prop?). They all smile at the camera
as if in a standard photo for the army magazine Bamahaneh. But there's
something about the perfection of the photograph - the composition,
the complexity of the lighting (the tree is dark, the sky an in-between
shade, while most of the light falls on the "heroes"), the handsomeness
of the young men , and that one-armed soldier in the white tank top;
the masterful fusion of all these elements lifts the photo from the
mere temporal realm and imbues it with an ageless quality.
In another photograph, a swarthy, bare-chested soldier stands before
a tent flexing his muscles; the shadow reflected on the tent flap
resembles a genie risen from a bottle. The soldier wears a knitted
skullcap - a small detail that makes all the masculine and soldierly
eroticism that much more loaded, yet in a seemingly contradictory
way. The hidden spotlight that shines on him makes his body look all
the more powerful against the background of the soft night descending
upon the desert, creating an ironic and sexually-laden image.
And then there's the photo that has already become a true classic:
A soldier stands in the middle of a deserted road somewhere late at
night. Surrounded by the semi-darkness and with his back to the viewer,
he dances about in a circle of light (thrown by a spotlight), his
arms spread out as if he is about to take flight. What a wonderful
mix of theatricality and reality - such a feeling of release and
lightness, of self-awareness combined with subtle, lyrical eroticism!
And the male figure is so flawlessly positioned within that nocturnal
space, with the pale line of the horizon diagonally intersecting that
of his outstretched arms.
Each photograph is analogous to a classic painting: One must analyze
the relationship between the foreground and the depth, the
relationships among the figures in the photographs and between the
figures and the background, and the relationships between the main
segments of the photograph.
The exhibit opens with a photo showing a sleeping young man, his
beatific expression looking as though it was drawn from Renaissance
art. Only his lovely face is illuminated. Army knapsacks are piled
on the floor nearby. One of the boy's hands hangs down and the other
rests at his side. A small square of light whose glare contrasts with
the soft light of his face comes from the doorway and falls upon his
lower body; it hints at the barren landscape that lies outside the
Negev army base. The young man and the photograph are a key to the
passage from the tough military reality to the dream of the beautiful
The finest series in the show is entitled "Soldiers Sleeping on a
Bus." The bus has just left the gates of the base - whether to
transport the soldiers home on leave or to shuttle them to a combat
assignment is not specified - and the young men are fast asleep. In
sleep, they seem to be united into one living organism, opening up
all kinds of possibilities for the viewer gazing at the lovely
contours of the soldiers' unsuspecting countenances. The composition
is so soft, flowing and natural, yet at the same time so carefully
calculated - the tilt of the heads, the positions of the limbs, the
lines created by the weapons, the splotches of light - that the image
is simultaneously turbulent and tranquil. There may be nothing more
moving than contemplating a sleeping person's face.
On the gallery's eastern wall hang three photographs that constitute
the exception to the rule. With their bits of nearly raw realism and
total lack of references to art history, they have a certain directness
that sets them apart from the dreamlike atmosphere of the rest of
the exhibit. One of these photographs is an exquisite, stunningly
honest portrait of a soldier in a khaki tank top. The string of his
dog tags peeks out from under his shirt. The whiteness of his chest
contrasts strikingly with his suntanned face; his gaze is fixed upon
an unseen object. A slight squint only adds to the beauty of this
face, on which the ache of the boy-man is manifest. Also splendid
is the counterpoint between the slant of the shoulders and the slight
tilt of the head, which seems to express some kind of wild, natural
nobility. The golden twilight imbues the face with a radiance that
stands out against the arid landscape of the military base.
The largest and most complex photograph in the show measures 172
by 276 centimeters. Ness used a 4 by 5 inch camera with an 8 by 10
inch back. The final results were printed in New York (at a very
substantial cost) from a transparency. It's a contemporary Israeli
version of "The Last Supper," yet it also manages to be timeless and
universal. The local-style floor, the long table covered with peeling
blue paint and arrayed with bags of sliced bread, orange slices and
hard-boiled eggs, which stretches from one end of the space to the
other... The soldier, analogous to the figure of Jesus, sits in the
center, cut off from all those around him and staring at some invisible
point in the distance. His shirt buttons are missing and a cigarette
dangles between his fingers, which are surrounded by a halo of light.
The apostles/soldiers (13 in number instead of the traditional 12,
perhaps so that the central figure will be flanked by two not quite
symmetrical groups) are engrossed in conversation, pouring tea from
plastic pitchers into orange plastic cups and lighting each other's
cigarettes. They appear relaxed and unaware of any danger that might
be lurking in the very near future. The positions of their bodies,
heads and limbs create a fascinating web-like pattern. Behind them
is a white wall perforated with holes, whose apparent flimsiness
attests to its temporary nature. Through the windows, the viewer can
see a landscape that lies on the threshold of the desert. The stark
ambience gives the photograph a nearly surrealistic beauty; it's as
if the heroes are the ghosts of dead soldiers, resurrected just to
relive once more the military experience of their lost youth. And
the image also conveys a sense of getting away with something, of
the sweetness of forbidden fruit, of some secret, pseudo-erotic
activity - reminiscent of the atmosphere in Derek Jarman's film,
The photograph is hung at such a height that the viewer gazes at
it from slightly above - an unusual but well-considered angle that
draws you right into the action.
As one views the last part of the exhibit, Caravaggio comes to mind.
Ness seems to emulate Caravaggio's method of gathering ordinary people
to use as models in reconstructing scenes from the lives of the saints
and then illuminating them in a dramatic, focused and soft light.
Inside a tent at night, in the enhanced light (from an invisible
source), sits a group of soldiers - one on the right upon a cot; two
at the center of the photo - they face front and sit on a pile of
field mattresses; and a fourth who is situated to the left and sits
on the ground in half-profile. The one on the right looks at the third,
who is sitting upright and looking back at him; the second (between
the first two) leans back on his arm and looks at the fourth soldier
- creating more intersecting diagonal lines; the fourth soldier is
self-absorbed and drips milk onto the back of his hand as the
candlelight shines on his face. A bare bulb hangs down in the center
of the tent, but it's clearly a decorative element and not a source
of light. The lighting inside the tent, which almost makes it look
like the stage set of an opera, creates a marvelous interplay of light
refracted in shadow. On the left, the shadow of a cross is visible
in a puddle of light that also holds within it the silhouette of a
soldier's head (resembling a miniature Rembrandt painting). In the
center is a red plastic bag, aglow as if with desire. To the right,
on the illuminated tent flap, a window grid has been torn out. The
utterly black night peeks in through each of its squares. All this
latent and seductive tension between the illusion of a real moment
of calm and the viewer's knowledge of its staged nature would have
done Caravaggio proud.
The show is excellent, but Ness ought to be wary of two things: He
should guard against getting carried away by images of
self-satisfaction and hedonism - that tranquilizing drug that could
surreptitiously suck dry the core of irony inherent in his work. The
second danger has to do with the photographs themselves - they must
not become like book jackets, that is to say, overly formulaic. In
the exhibit, thanks to the power of their physical size and their
superb production quality, this risk is avoided. But it could still
be an issue in miniaturized versions.
Ness belongs to a young generation of talented artists whose
unmediated sexual identity has become a completely natural part of
their work to one degree or another. The unique value and liberating
lack of hypocrisy of this work have taken it from the subcultural
margins right into the mainstream of Israeli art - perhaps as part
of the culture's process of growing up.