His photos are lovely, erotic, even a
bit disturbing. Adi Nes uses classical composition to portray Israeli soldiers.
Hamlin, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2004
In Adi Nes' version of the "Last Supper,'' 14 young Israeli soldiers sit or stand behind a long, crockery-cluttered table in a bullet-pocked desert barracks. They light each other's cigarettes, pour one another coffee, rest a hand on a comrade's shoulder, share a laugh or gaze into space.
It's a loaded tableau of fraternal camaraderie that, like many of Nes' elaborately staged, often homoerotic photographs, takes on the pervasive image of the macho Israeli soldier. There's a specificity and vulnerability about these 18-year-old boys who know they may not live to be 19.
"I wanted to express the idea that in Israel, death lingers. Death is being foreshadowed in most of these pictures,'' says Nes, standing in front of his huge "Untitled" (1999), which was inspired by Leonardo's "Last Supper.'' About 20 of his big color images are on display at San Francisco's Legion of Honor in the exhibition "Between Promise and Possibility: The Photographs of Adi Nes.''
Israelis, he says, "are dying not only in combat, but in their daily activity -- from bombs on buses, suicide bombers in restaurants. The moment you serve as a soldier, you choose to give yourself over to the society, to the army, to someone else. You have to take the possibility you're going to die. Here, I tried to incorporate the idea that this supper may be the last for any of them, not just Jesus. All of them are Jesus, all of them are Judas, '' adds Nes, whose pictures, with their attention to detail and dramatic contrast of light and shadow, are composed with an eye toward Caravaggio.
They draw on everything from Greek mythology and the Bible -- the bush Nes placed outside the window behind the head of the central "Supper'' figure suggests Jesus' thorny crown; the half-eaten apple, Adam and Eve -- to the films of Jean Genet, news photographs and Nes' own experiences as a gay Israeli who grew up in the "peripheral'' immigrant town of Kiryat Gat, and whose military service included a stint guarding Palestinian prisoners.
Prison is a metaphor for Israel's pressure-cooker society in Nes' most recent series of photographs, commissioned by the men's fashion magazine Vogue Hommes International.
Asked to photograph Israeli men wearing designer clothes, Nes ignored the editor's request not to do anything political. He hit on the idea of posing models in fake prison settings in order to provoke questions about the confining nature of fashion, masculine self-image and contemporary Israeli life.
"I come from a very tough reality, from a country in a very bad situation, with terrorism and the recession,'' says Nes, 38, a slight, gentle, brown- eyed man whose mother immigrated to Israel from Kurdistan, and his father from Iran, in the 1950s. "I open the newspaper and find images of criminals. Personal security is very bad. I felt I can't run away from my reality, to show fashion as something glamorous and not related to my life.
"I had the vision of using prison as a metaphor for daily life. Each of the pictures is a different kind of prison. Not that Israel is a police state; it's a small country, surrounded by hostile countries. A country where you have to learn to live with other people, otherwise it's going to be hell. I decided that different groups from Israeli reality would be part of this prison together.''
One photograph shows three Chinese men in matching red Paul Smith outfits, standing beneath a barred window against a gray, water-streaked wall. Nes wanted to say something about Israel's expanding population of foreign workers and how badly, he says, some of them are treated by immigration police.
This picture "gives a place to the people who manufacture the clothes,'' says Nes, who was thinking about "the story of the people in the Far East who work for $1 a day manufacturing expensive Nike shoes.'' Like most of his images, this one began with compositional concerns. "I wanted to shoot red, and I had Barnett Newman's painting 'Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?' in mind. Who's afraid of the yellow people? Why do you imprison them?''
You can't tell whether the buffed dude posed in another picture is inside or outside a prison cell. His hands are clasped behind his back, a black Rick Owens tank top pulled taut over his pecs.
"At first glance, it's very tempting, he looks fine,'' says Nes, who came out of the closet when he was 18, the year he began his three-year mandatory military service. "You see the musculature, the 5 o'clock beard. He's attractive. The second thought is, 'Is he a prisoner?' Maybe he's a prisoner of his self-image. He works out every day. He tends to be the prisoner of his body.''
Nes' work has often dealt with masculine identity. The Vogue gig got him thinking about how fashion shapes identity, why we choose certain clothes, how fashion becomes a kind of uniform.
In earlier pictures, he posed uniformed men in settings suggested by classical art, a kind of "upgrading,'' Nes says. With the fashion pictures, "I decided to downgrade them, to take brand-name clothes and take them down into the reality.''
He spends months composing these images and scouting locations with the precise quality of light he's after. He makes mockups of each scene, refines the images on computer -- for purely compositional reasons, he added an extra figure to his "Last Supper" -- then casts the picture with models or movie extras.
When he began making art in the 1980s, homosexuality wasn't openly discussed in Israel, and almost no Israeli art and literature dealt with homoeroticism, says Nes, who found his inspiration in the work of "gay artists or people considered to be gay -- Leonardo, Caravaggio, Pasolini, Michelangelo. You can see the influence of all of them in my work.
"When I started to make art, I decided to find the hidden episodes behind what I see, to bring the hidden layer out to the front,'' continues Nes, who studied at Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and has shown his work in galleries and museums internationally. Because his pictures are "homoerotic, not homosexual,'' he says, they weren't controversial when they were first displayed in the 1990s, but they stirred up a lot of interest.
"They offered a different image of the soldier,'' says Nes, who describes the Israeli army as the big melting pot of a nation made up of people from diverse cultures (perhaps Israelis are more tolerant of gay people, he suggests, because as Jews they're all outsiders, or "other," in a way). "It was the first project in the culture that dealt with homoeroticism in the army, or reflected the army as a place where homoerotic things can happen. After that came the movie 'Yossi and Jagger,' '' about two gay Israeli soldiers.
Nes served as a military air traffic controller in an all-male unit. Female soldiers had served in the unit, he says, until a male and female officer were found having sex in the control tower. That apparently hasn't happened yet with all-male crews. Some of Nes' comrades knew he was gay, but it wasn't a subject they spoke much about.
One of his pictures depicts a group of handsome young soldiers asleep on a bus, the butt of an M-16 rifle jutting diagonally over their heads. The play of light and shadow was inspired by Vermeer.
If this were a documentary picture, "it would just be sleeping soldiers on a bus, Nes says. "But I wanted to multilayer it. Now, they are not just sleeping, they are dying, too. Whenever there is a gun in the first act,'' he adds, paraphrasing Chekov, "it goes off at the end. ... They're like sheep to the slaughter.
"Look at their features. Their faces are so boylike. You think about the age of the Israeli soldier, and you look at this picture and you understand that there's a person behind the image of the soldier.'' Then there's the erotic element, Nes says, pointing to one boy's Adam's apple, which he describes as "very strong, very beautiful.''
There's erotic-laced tension in the picture of a young Palestinian facing off against an Israeli guard in designer shades. It was inspired by Nes' "traumatic'' experience as a guard at a detention camp where he became friendly -- and attracted to -- a Palestinian prisoner during the first intifada, or uprising, when he was called up for his annual reserve duty.
"I tried to express the idea that whenever you put a fence around the other, surround him with high walls, you put yourself in a prison as well," Nes says. A guard becomes a captive, too.
"I don't believe in occupation. But I can't run out from my duty because I am a good Israeli citizen and know we are fighting for our lives. It's not by accident that these people are in prison. They want to kill us. ... It's a very complex situation. You have to know how to live together with your neighbors. You have to be smart. You have to be sensitive to the other. And sometimes you have to give more than you think you have to, just to live in peace.''
Nes sought to express the Israeli dilemma in a picture of a fang-baring Doberman wearing a studded leather collar from the chic Parisian store Samaritaine, framed by a barbed-wire fence glowing with blue police-car light.
The image conjures up Nazi concentration camps; the studded collar suggests sadomasochistic culture, in which "people want to humiliate each other,'' says Nes, who thinks of the Doberman as Cerberus, the three-headed dog in Greek mythology that guards the doors to hell.
"It asks more questions than it answers. Are we so aggressive, do we keep the territories, because of our past? We fight for our lives because we have no other place to go. Are we more frightened or frightening? This dog is aggressive, he bites you, but he's scared himself. It's all combined into one picture.''
The message of all his work, Nes says, is that "behind every image, there is much more going on."
“Between Promise and Possibility: The Photographs of Adi Nes’’: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday through July 18 at the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave. in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. $5-$8. (415) 863-3330, www.thinker.org.
E-mail Jesse Hamlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.