Gay & Lesbian Times, 2 May 2002, issue #749
Myth, militarism and gay identity
The photographs of Adi Nes
by Pat Sherman
“The way it is in Israel now is very complicated,” said 35-year-old Israeli Photographer Ad Nes, a resident of Tel-Aviv recently in San Diego for the opening of his exhibit at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), San Diego. “Just today I thought about it. I can feel now how I was tense and terrified in Tel-Aviv. I was on my way to the ... coffee shop, which was the [site of the] last suicide bombing. I heard the boom and I got back to my home.... [In Israel] it’s not a big deal to be close to explosions, because almost everyone hears the bombs close by.” Nes spoke with the Gay and Lesbian Times last week about the 15 large-scale photographs that comprise his first solo exhibition in the United States, on display through July 14 at MCA downtown.
The undercurrent of tension that led to the current militaristic conflict between Israel and Palestine has been omnipresent in Nes’s life since he was a boy living in the impoverished city of Kiryat Gat. He cites this underlying tension as one of many visible textures that comprise his photographs. Yet, perhaps the two most prominent themes in his work are Israel’s male-dominated military milieu and his own identity as gay man — reciprocal factors that have shaped both Nes’s life and his art.
“Israel is very male dominated,” Nes explains. “You can feel it in the streets, you can feel it wherever you’re going — the way people behave, the quality [in which] most of the men play — aggressive and masculine. In Israel, people from different social and economic backgrounds come together into one [purpose], to fight for the country. It is the men’s objective and goals.”
Nes served his mandatory three years in the Israeli National Defense from the ages of 18 to 21. As an air traffic controller, he found himself stationed with six other men in a remote area of the desert. Though he didn’t come out as a gay man until after leaving the service, it is here, he has said, that he fell in love with a young pilot and began to question his sexual identity.
“I think the main purpose of my exhibition — of my work at all — is issues of identity,” says Nes. “As a gay man in Israel, the issues of identity are the male identity and the Israel identity. That’s why I chose to first work with soldiers and then work with teenagers, because both soldiers and teenagers are [at] the age where their identity is being questioned.”
Where Nes grew up, he explained, people of European descent were revered, while those of Iranian, Iraqi, Middle Eastern or Spanish descent were considered minorities. For this reason, he chose mostly dark-skinned boys as the subjects of his latest work.
“I looked for ... dark skinned boys because when you’re a minority, you question your identity again,” Nes explains. “It’s like to be gay, it’s like to be Jewish, it’s like to be dark skinned.”
Nes takes his issues of identity as a gay Israeli and filters them through characters from Greek mythology, such as Castor, Polydeuces, Narcissus and Danziger’s Nimrod to create the precise setting for his photographs — some of which take months or even years to properly execute. The largest of his photographs, “The Last Supper,” printed in New York, with a price tag of $7,000, took seven months to produce.
“Behind every picture of a teenager is a story from Greek mythology that deals with issues of identity,” said Nes. As an example of how the myth of Narcissus was incorporated into one photograph, he motions to a print in which a teenage boy is sitting on a curb under a street lamp, viewing his own reflection in the gutter.
Though Israel dropped its ban on gays in the military five years ago, Nes himself served during a time when the ban was still firmly in place. After serving time in a Palestinian prison camp, Nes finally received a psychic evaluation and confessed his homosexuality in order to be released from duty. Noting that the U.S. still bans gays from serving openly in the military I ask why Nes feels his own country lifted its ban.
“Though we are a very conservative country, with Judaism and Middle Eastern behavior,” Nes explains, “we are very modernized and Westernized — especially Tel-Aviv. There was an officer in the army interviewed and he was [very] politically active. He was interviewed and he spoke about himself, [stating] that he is gay. He was a friend of president Yitzhak Rabin, so they changed the law and now it’s not a problem. It is very interesting. One month ago there was a competition for the ‘Gay Man of the Year’ and the winner was a [active duty] soldier, so that’s how you can understand it. A soldier can be on the cover of a main gay magazine in Tel-Aviv and nothing happens to him.”
“So the homoerotic undercurrent in your photographs doesn’t raise eyebrows in Israel?” I ask.
“I think that the main point is how you do it. For example, there is a lot of difference between homosexual, homoeroticism and homoempathism. They are different things. As long as ... there are no naked people in the pictures — and they are not sexual behavior — it’s very hard to argue with pictures where the homoeroticism is just in deep levels and deep layers.
“But, of course, the eye is an illusion,” Ness continues. “If you’re gay, you will find a lot of homoeroticism. When I chose the “Last Supper,” I chose Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” because Leonardo da Vinci was gay.... So, if you’re a smart viewer, you can find the homoeroticism layered inside the pictures.”
Nes notes a photograph in which a group of soldiers are sleeping together on a bus. One soldier’s hand is cupped around the barrel of his rifle, and another soldier has his arm draped tenderly across the back of a seat occupied by a fellow comrade.
“I think the soldiers sleeping in the bus is very homoerotic,” says Nes. “The way he’s holding his gun, the main soldier, it’s like he’s masturbating. [Though] on one hand, it’s very [much] camaraderie.” Nes moves to a picture in which the homoeroticism is perhaps the least subtle of the group — a wounded soldier resting in the arms of his comrade, who, strangely, is applying flesh-toned makeup with a cosmetic brush.
“This picture,” Ness explains “is [based on] the picture where Mary holds Jesus in her hands. But it’s not Mary and Christ; it’s two soldiers.... One needs to be weak for the other to hold him.... I found the right place for gays in the military to touch or to be very emotional. One is wounded and the other is [administering] medical treatment.... When somebody is wounded then it’s easy for them to act inside the situation.
“It’s the line that’s passed between the terror of life … and the relationship of two guys playing. In Israel people die, not only in combat, they could die in their daily activities. People die from bombs in busses, from simply eating in restaurants, like [might happen] in “The Last Supper,” from suicide bombers in discotechs, all of this....”
One of the more unsettling, yet nevertheless captivating photographs is one of three boys standing before a playground slide that has been set afire.
Though Nes seems protective of this piece, cautioning me with the obvious artistic tenet, “The goal of the artist is to ask questions, not to give answers,” he quickly digresses, dipping into his vast wellspring of inspiration.
“When I was a child in this developing town, we always used to burn things, you know, it was kind of symbolism that came from a very poverty [stricken] environment. It was more fun to bum the playground then to play in it, because we felt that [the government] put the playground in the neighborhoods in a kind of patronizing way. It wasn’t really for the people, because the people need something [more] important than some stupid plastic slides, you know. So it was fun to come to school and see a new playground in the field, and then to come back at night and to burn it.”
“An element from your deviant childhood?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Nes laughs. “But this image came from something else. in the place that people burn books, they will burn a human being. So here, in the place where people burn slides and different things, there’s a lot of aggression.... Burning is a connection between their childhood and a higher sphere. It bums a bridge between them and their past, maybe.... It’s the fire from the inside.”
Asked how much of the current political events between Israel and Palestine he is absorbing as an artist, Nes takes a somber tone. “In Israel, death is lingering everywhere…. Sadly, this has become Israel’s situation. I think death is being foreshadowed in these pictures a lot.... Sleeping soldiers are not just sleeping, they’re dying too. You know, you can see their necks are like lambs to the slaughter, like thrown to the hangman. What is the ‘Last Supper,’ if not the last supper maybe for one of them?”
As for Nes’s perception of gay culture in the States, as opposed to Israel,” he said, “I think there are a lot of divisions between cultures and a lot of [commonalities] between cultures. There is a lot of difference between the gay culture in [San Diego] and New York, where I had been last week —the culture of the well built guys, you know, cruising Eighth Avenue.... But I think the common things are more important that the differences. The gay situation in Tel-Aviv is different; because Tel-Aviv is very modernized, westernized, open. In Tel-Aviv, it’s very close to the gay scene here in the States. There are a lot of gay clubs and circuit parties that gays and a lot of straights come to [in Tel-Aviv].
As Nes returns to Israel to begin work on a new black and white series he says will be inspired by a “film noir” theme, he reflects on his life thusfar. “I think the trivial things in life are now important to me. In Israel when I’m driving in my car, I have to consider twice if I’m going to stand in a traffic jam near a bus, because usually bombs explode on busses.... When you are living in situations where death is very close to you, suddenly the simple things are very close to you…. When I was sitting in a coffee shop the other day [in San Diego], I wasn’t afraid that somebody would sit next to me. It hadn’t passed in my mind.”
MCA San Diego’s galleries are located at 1001 Kettner Blvd., across from Santa Fe Depot.