Meeting with Adi Nes / Biblical Stories
Text by Catherine Somze
Each of Adi Nes' photographs is like an archaeological site that awaits excavation. Rich in details and references, his photographs are meticulously staged tableaux that draw on the visual cultural history of the West and of Israel. These textured and coloured compositions invite the viewer to dig deeper and deeper into their layers of meanings that speak about the Sabra, native-born Israeli Jew, Other; the different ethnic, sexual and social minorities that form part of the changing fabric of contemporary Israeli society.
Adi Nes (1966) grew up in Kiryat Gat, a peripheral city of Israel. In the early 1990s, he studied photography in Jerusalem and then multimedia in Tel Aviv where he still lives and works today. By the mid- 1990s, his series Soldiers attracted the interest of the media worldwide. This series of photographs, that specially addressed issues of gender identity, challenged the militaristic myth of the Sabra by representing the body of soldiers as passive and vulnerable. In his following series Prisoners, he kept on questioning this mythical Zionistic identity by producing edifying allegorical pictures of the precarious life conditions of ethnic minorities in Israel and elsewhere.
Today, exclusively for Eyemazing, Adi Nes gives us the pleasure to discover five works out of his latest – and still in progress - series. Based on the Old Testament, his Bible Stories further his earlier artistic endeavour at representing peripheral - socially repressed - identities; these that challenge the narratives of mythical harmony that are based on social, sexual and ethnic
Catherine Somze: What is photography for you?
Adi Nes: For me, photography is the medium that allows me to allegorise my worldview. My photographs are the vehicles for timeless narratives that are open to interpretation and allow multiple readings.
CS: How does an idea for a series crystallise?
AN: Although central themes in my work revolve around identity and masculinity, I begin each new project with a "working theme", which is based on some personal or artistic experience. I really try to unify each series, to infuse them with a same feel that is built around composition, lighting, the stance of each of the characters and an array of cultural references that function as a cornerstone of the different narratives. The Old Testament is, for instance, thebasis of my new series. Universal references imprintnarrative patterns to the works while basically leaving them open to interpretation.
CS: Most of your pictures capitalise on visual references, from the media, from the history of art and other sources. How do you choose them and how do you embed them within the picture?
AN: These have to fit the idea I want to visualise. For that I not only search the history of art or the media but sometimes I even look at snapshots of myself and others, at films, literature and more. What counts is how successful I am at weaving a whole new, multilayered and textured image around the original "hidden kernel" of an idea. I basically add new meanings to the original one.
CS: To what extent do you work with professional models? How do you choose them and how do you work with them?
AN: I never work with professional models. Even when I shot the series risoners, that was commissioned by the fashion magazine. Vogue Homines International, I didn't want to dress up professional models with brand name clothes. Rather, I wanted to fill the clothes with real people. I'm looking for a type of beauty that is part of life, including scratches and blemishes. My artistic endeavours are part of my life's reality so I want my subjects and their physical appearance to reflect this. Choosing unknown and unpolished faces helps me achieve a certain level of believability in the picture.
Despite the fact that the photographed person is chosen for his appearance, I always conduct an initial interview with him about the picture I have in mind. I
show the sketches and I try to discern how he connects with what I'm doing. Afterwards, during the day of shooting, I use some of the information that I received from him in order to direct him on the set and help him play his part. When I shoot, my subjects never stand still waiting. Rather, they always move according to a range of improvised movements that we have mutually agreed upon in advance. However, I still leave room for the person being photographed to move a bit and to portray himself.
I often think of myself as a conductor of orchestra. There are many violinists, yet only one is chosen due to some certain added value that he or she bring to
CS: Of what ethnic origins are your models?
AN: I usually choose my models according to their appearance and not according to their ethnic origin. Yet, for the series called Youths and Prisoners, that especially dealt with questions of masculinity and ethnicity, I decided to work with Mizrahim, Jews of Oriental origin, in order to reflect on their otherness, on their marginal condition in contemporary Israeli society.
CS: Your work seems to instantly raise questions of political order. How do you experience your work in regards to politics?
AN: The central theme in my work is that of masculine identity, which is closely related to political and religious issues. I try to multi-layer my works so that
they relate to varied aspects of life. However, one of these aspects is more particularly related to the political situation in Israel, which is where I live and therefore by which I am inspired.
CS: Some critics have seen your work as challenging the Zionist project, its myth constructed around the heterosexual male body, which doesn't show any sign of "weakness", or, say, "femaleness". Could you tell me a bit more about your work in regard to this issue?
AN: It's true that my work deals in an ironic fashion with questions of Israeli identity, or the "Zionist project" as you put it. Early Zionism endeavoured to create the "Sabra", the native-born Israeli who was to be a new type of Jew, different from the weak Diaspora Jew. This myth of the new Jew led to the creation of a macho, warrior, rough-and-tough Israeli who shows little outward emotions.
If I challenge some of this myth, it is not to completely discredit it but rather to be able, while redefining it, to identify with it. I have ambivalent feelings towards this mythical type. On the one hand I am attracted to him and I wish to stand on an equal footing with him. But, on the other hand, I am critical about the close-mindedness, the pathetic and unsuccessful attempt to hide emotions, sensitivity and homoeroticism that are bound to it.
I actually realised that, the moment you have two Sabras, or a group of them, together, there is a potential for homoeroticism. This is the way, I created a crack that was easy for me to open and enlarge allowing a wide range of additional questions to be asked about his identity.
CS: Do you think of yourself as an Israeli artist? Do you think of your photographs as Israeli?
AN: While I, and my art, are, of course, influenced by the fact that I was born and raised in Israel, the cultural sources which nourish me are not necessarily exclusively related to Israel; they are much more connected to the classical world, to media, American photography, etc. And I hope my art is universal enough to be appreciated in other cultures.
To look at art from the perspective of the place in which it's made - or the identity of its creator - is a choice that allows a certain, yet partial and erroneous, understanding of that art. Yes, I'm Israeli. I'm also a Jew, a gay, a child of Iranian parents, and I grew up in a small town on the periphery of society. All these concentric circles that define my identity reveal just how complex each of our individual identities really is. My work reflects and plays on these complexities.
CS: How do you see Israeli identity today and how is this reflected in your photographs?
AN: The term "Israeli" is a difficult concept to grasp if we do not want to draw a simplistic picture of the complex reality it should describe. I grew up within a culture that was increasingly becoming part of a larger, trans-national cultural dynamic. This global, consumer and networked culture engendered, as much as allowed, marginal identities to be more present within the public realm. Conscious of this new "Israeliness", different identities and memories were forged. Israel has matured to the point that many alternative narratives of women, Mizrahim, gays and Palestinians, for example, can now be heard. My series of photographs reflect on this changing society with its drawbacks and new challenges. In any case, it is now more possible than ever to voice the identity of the Sabra other.
Text by Catherine Someze