Copyright The Jerusalem Report
issue[ June 4, 2001]
author[ Daniel Grushkin]
title[ Telling It in Gat]
subject[ Adi Nes]
The photographic sensation Adi Nes uses his range finder as a stage from which to
critique Israeli society, using his life, sexuality and interests as props
IT WAS NOT THREE YEARS ago that the photos of Adi Nes barraged New York City's
subway system. The image of a bare-chested Israeli soldier flexing his muscles in
the desert sunset lined the insides of nearly every underground car. His smug,
self-satisfied face, knitted white skullcap, and cool Mediterranean sheen notified
New Yorkers of a show of new Israeli art at the Jewish Museum, and, in the larger
sense, of the quashing of the image of the idealistic Israeli pioneer.
If Adi Nes's soldier series critiqued Israel's martial identity after the
assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Nes is now challenging the story of Israel's youth
- this time, against a backdrop of Greek mythology.
Nes, 34, child of religiously traditional immigrants from Iran and Kurdistan, won
the Nathan Gottesdiener Israeli Art Prize for 2000, which awards a handsome
$10,000 to a rising artist to continue new work, and exhibit at Israel's top venue
for local contemporary art: the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Nes's exhibition opened in
April to a packed house; but he is no stranger to the Tel Aviv Museum.
The museum is already awash with Nes's colorful soldier photos, all of which are
actually staged, the soldiers played by models. The new-art exhibition, adjacent
to Nes's show, displays his sleeping soldiers. Just down the hall, the Doron Sebag
collection displays his photos of veterans, soldiers in a black pool of water and
more. Even the entrance hall of the museum bears his mark with an army mess hall
version of Leonardo's Last Supper, which has become an icon in Israel symbolizing
the Lebanon war.
Nes says that for many, Israeli identity can be reduced to two questions: "What
did you do in the army, and where are you from? In that order." Such priorities
preclude recognition of his own homosexual identity.
This new exhibit addresses that, and more. Nes has moved on to his childhood in
Kiryat Gat, an underprivileged town in the northern Negev, with a series of photos
that document a sometimes contemplative, sometimes threatening realm of
dark-skinned boys in a crumbling neighborhood.
Take for example, Nes's version of the Death of Adonis. Set amid the dull tan
stucco of Israel's 1950s-era apartment buildings, the background to this posed
dramatic scene is the gilded facade of the "Yaffa" beauty salon. From the window,
a poster of a model with deep red lipstick peeks out at the camera. "I
accidentally found this corner long ago - pure beauty in an ugly place," says Nes,
referring to the gaudy attention spent on a store on an otherwise neglected street
According to Greek mythology, Adonis was a beautiful and effeminate young man who
was loved by the deities Aphrodite in Olympus and Persephone in Hades. While
hunting, he was gored in the groin by a wild boar. In despair, none of the gods
could save him from dying.
In Nes's photo, a boy, not older than 16, with Mediterranean features, is sprawled
in the street before the salon, perhaps unconscious or even dead. A woman kneels
over him, her hand on his chest; she looks to the others hovering around her for
help. In the background, a crowd of more women, some carrying shopping bags, rush
to the scene.
This is the photographic moment when Greek and Israeli myth converge with Nes's
personal memory. He recalls the time as a child when he was hit by a car while
riding his bike, and knocked unconscious. The photo evokes the life he led in
Kiryat Gat: "When I was a child and both parents were working, you had the sense
that you were alone for most of the day. It was a city of children, and if you
saw a grownup, it was a housewife. There's the story of a woman in Greek myth
who's forever pregnant. We had that same woman."
BUT WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? Nes says his photos are infused with layers of meaning.
On surface level, this one is about the loss of a child. Dig down a little,
though, and the fallen Adonis represents Israeli youth as a whole, whom he sees as
victims of the uniformity imposed upon them by Zionism. On another level, it is
Nes's childhood self coming to terms with homosexuality in an atmosphere that
stifled or even murdered, like the face-up child in the street, that aspect of his
For this reason, Vivienne Silver-Brody, a historian of Israeli photography, calls
Nes's works "schizophrenic." "They are part post-modernist, quoting other, maybe
unrelated, sources; rooted in Israel; and part of his own homoerotic existence."
Nes himself claims that the homoerotic element found in his work is never
intentional. "It simply happens - it's part of my identity. I don't think I make
them erotic; I think that the eros in the pictures is like the eros in culture. It
comes out from inside without meaning to."
Nes's comments may seem a little disingenuous after one discovers just how
meticulous he is on the "set." Nes acts more like a movie director than your
classical photographer who captures life. For one thing, he uses models, whom he
outfits, coaches and poses. His lighting is always artificial, even in exterior
shots. The perspective and placement are all sketched months before the shoot. (He
spent some $7,000 setting up the Adonis shot.) For one picture, he spent six
months scouting the right location.
Indeed, the end result hanging on the wall looks staged - the characters like wax
models, the light too perfect. Nes in fact uses a gold filter during the printing,
to accentuate its polished look. "Who wants to see themselves as themselves? No
one. In my pictures you see the element of fantasy."
Even if posed, there's an element of exposed humanity in Nes's work. For example,
the exhibit's most violent and sexual photo, set in Bat Yam, is a remake of the
Rape of Dionysus. In the myth, a band of pirates kidnap a handsome young man, not
recognizing him to be the god of wine. As they are about to rape him, the ship's
pilot comes to his defense.
In Nes's version, two boys hold down another by his arms and legs - pulling on his
shirt as he struggles to get loose. Meanwhile, a shirtless, muscular boy stands
over him, the light from the outside sun streaming onto the rapist's groin - his
hands poised to grab his victim. One can't help but feel squeamish at the sight of
it. On the wall behind the scene, a fading white-on-white painting from the
state's early days displays the fishermen of Bat Yam.
Nes notes the irony of buildings blocking the view of the Bat Yam coastline and
replacing it with a fading painting that represents fading Zionist ideology.
"There are a lot of faces of Israel now. The Sabra that we wanted to be, the
worker, the socialist who will change the world and be changed by it - you can't
sustain an ethos that big for 50 years. No one will stand for it. We want to live
real, everyday lives."
At the same time, one can't miss the homoerotic nature of the photo. Nes claims
Wilhelm Von Gloeden as an influence. Von Gloeden, an Austrian living in Sicily,
was popular a century ago for selling tourists his photographs of naked boys in
poses derived from Greek mythology. He is noted as the first photographer of the
homoerotic, and several gay artists' work can be traced back to him, including
that of Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe.
There's a likable meekness in Nes's thin frame and shy smile, but something
perhaps predatory in his glance. As I stood together with him in his exhibition, I
could feel him watching me take in his photography. There's a bit of the owl in
him too - an intense stare behind a heavy, cocked brow. And in his presence, the
interlocutor varies between discomfort and a feeling of being at complete ease.
Nes says vaguely that he hopes to take on Jewish mythology in his next project,
maybe in order to explore his traditionally observant roots, or reconcile it with
his homosexuality. "There are many beautiful aspects of Judaism. 'Love your
neighbor as you love yourself' has an element of homo-eroticism in it."