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Friday, April 6, 2001



The Only Democracy

After reconstructing the Last Supper using models dressed in army uniforms, photographer Adi Nes has returned to the development town where he was born to expose the homoerotic latency of life on the periphery.

By Daliah Karpel

At 34, Adi Nes is a respected and admired photographer, is happily married to the poet Ilan Sheinfeld (the two men were married by a lawyer in 1993), and is launching a new exhibition.Recent visitors to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, where Nes' new show will open on April 13, saw one of his best-known works on display in the lobby: a reconstruction of the Last Supper in which all the participants are good-looking men wearing uniforms of the Israel Defense Forces. At the center, where Jesus is situated in Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, sits a soldier wearing a disheveled shirt who looks into the camera with a gaze that is part bored and part provocative.

In his new exhibition, Nes - who was born and raised in the southern development town of Kiryat Gat - returns to his childhood landscape of brown-skinned boys against a backdrop of peeling walls, empty and rundown streets, neglected parks.

One of the most striking photographs shows six children of various ages sleeping in a crowded room. A few of them are lying on beds, others are curled up on mattresses on the floor. Coercive intimacy. At first glance the photograph seems to be a pure documentation of Israeli distress. Look more closely, though, and you gradually discover the precision of the details, the organized composition, the perfect lighting.

Nes says the inspiration for the photograph derived from an article in Ha'aretz which was accompanied by a documentary photo taken by Alon Ron depicting the distress of a family of 14 in Yavneh, south of Tel Aviv. That work shows six of the family's children sleeping with the feet of one touching the head of another.

Nes was so moved by the photograph, which reminded him of his childhood in Kiryat Gat, that he decided to reconstruct it. With characteristic meticulousness he set about creating a perfect environment for his needs. He rented an abandoned apartment in Tel Aviv, brought in some threadbare mattresses of the kind he remembered from childhood, covered them with sheets from his parents' home, hired six children and dressed them in clothes he bought at the city's open-air Carmel market.

"All six children in the photograph are me," he says. "The boy who is curled up like a child who has been beaten, for example, is a friend from high school whom I was desperately in love with."
Myth and memory

In his last exhibition, which was held a year ago in the Dvir Gallery in Tel Aviv, Nes photographed male models in IDF uniforms in a series of different poses. One work was a reconstruction of the famous photograph of veteran IDF commander Yossi Ben-Hanan that appeared on the cover of Life magazine after the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Ben-Hanan is seen standing in the Suez Canal, the water up to his waist, smiling broadly and proudly hoisting a Kalachnikov rifle above his head.

In Nes' photograph the water is black as pitch, the male pride so blatant and the smile so broad that the viewer begins to feel uneasy. The critics did not remain indifferent to the technically flawless color photographs. None of them, of course, failed to cite the powerful homoerotic sense that pervades them.

Nes says that the inspiration for the new exhibition had its genesis in the responses to the previous show. In particular, he notes a letter he received from a childhood friend in which she reminded him that at age 17, he had made some homophobic remarks directed against an activist for homosexual rights who had spoken to the class. Taken aback by his ambivalence at that age, Nes felt an overpowering urge to investigate his childhood.

"I couldn't get over the letter and at night I would dream of situations that happened in that period on the soccer field in the back of the high school in Kiryat Gat. In the dreams I would warmly embrace the confused and identity-less boy that was me. I decided to do some location scouting in my childhood haunts in Kiryat Gat.

"I prepared a photograph of Apollo searching for Hyacinthus. In the picture Apollo holds a discus, while in my dream he had a soccer ball. It was with those inchoate materials that work began on the exhibition."

It is not by chance that Nes evokes Greek mythology: "When I was a boy, my mother, Hannah Nisamov, was a librarian and there were always a lot of books in the house. I formed a close attachment to the stories of Greek mythology and I developed a skill for deciphering the texts and looking for the homoerotic element in them, which at the time was called 'friendship.' In my imagination, friendship was always something else."

In addition to the mythological tales that deal with relations between men, Nes was also deeply influenced by the photographs of Wilhelm Von Gloeden, an Austrian who in the late 19th century took pictures of naked boys and sold them to tourists as postcards. Von Gloeden's work seemed to be a comment on the world of classical Greece and to express the admiration of that culture for the beauty embodied in boys.

Thus, the two youths sitting on the roof of a bomb shelter in a photograph from Nes' new exhibition are Castor and Polydeuces, the twin sons of Zeus and Leda who were worshiped as gods and were condemned to spend alternate days in Hades and heaven.

Nes' critique of the myth of Israeli heroism, which was very pronounced in the previous exhibition, is now expanded to encompass an array of Israeli stereotypes: "My childhood in Kiryat Gat was not characterized by great distress or by poverty. We did not sleep six to a room in my parents' home. But that is the myth of the development towns, and a stereotype by its nature has a tendency to spread.

"When I was older and people asked me where I was from, I was happy to say that I was from Kiryat Gat in a kind of provocative tone so that I could reprove them concerning the stereotype and also play the game with them. 'So what did you do in the army?' they would ask, and I would say, 'I was a flight controller at the Hatzerim air force base.'"

Yet his photographs are consistent with the development-town stereotype. "Yes," he agrees, "but at the same time they undermine it. We have to be merciful and show compassion to those who made mistakes or hurt the Mizrahim [Jews with origins in Middle Eastern countries] at the time, whether accidentally or deliberately. We have to deconstruct the myth of discrimination, too. My occupation with myths and with undermining them is gentle and clever. I try to be a 'small, smart army.' After all, myth and memory are intertwined, memory is built on myth and myth is built on memory. I want to re-examine that circle."
In search of stories

Nes' mother came to Israel from Kurdistan at a young age; his father came from Iran when he was 16. Nes is their youngest, after two girls. His mother, as Nes points out, was not only a librarian but also published two children's books. His father was a manager in the Solel Boneh construction company. There was a lot of creativity in the family, Nes recalled this week. There were always paints and construction paper in the house. His two sisters are engaged in teaching that involves art.

In Kiryat Gat the family lived in a duplex with a garden, "a house that wasn't too pretty or too wretched, an ordinary house," Nes says. He raised geese and snakes, read a lot and liked to tell stories. "Our house was close to the market and not far from a grove where I used to go frequently. I would follow people in order to find out about their lives. That fascinated me. I looked for scandals and for good stories. No one ever caught me at it. Even then I was an excellent researcher."

He had a happy childhood, considering the circumstances. "I was beaten with a belt a few times. Everyone was in those years. That was the education in Kiryat Gat, and it was a hard education. Discipline was tough, especially in the school there. We had a warm home, but I would get it for stupid things like a silly quarrel with my sisters. It was just a few times, but it was meaningful to me. From my vantage point today, I forgive them. My father was young and he grew up without a family. My mother grew up without a mother of her own. They were both young."

He discovered his sexual proclivity at an early age but didn't understand its implications: "I was different. I felt a great love for certain boys from the first grades of elementary school. I was looking for an intimate friend. It didn't involve sexuality."

At the age of 15 he fell in love with a boy he met on the annual class outing, but didn't dare make the relationship physical. "To be a homosexual was absolutely taboo. No one told me it was forbidden to have relations with a man. It was obvious. The term 'homosexual' was considered a curse. So when that activist for homosexuals' rights spoke to our class, I couldn't stand him. I didn't like myself. A lot of children live like that even now.

"But to the credit of the towns in the periphery, it has to be said that [residents there] are far more accepting of the 'other,' because they are all 'others.' All of them, to one degree or another, are forsaken and abandoned somewhere at the end of the world. I was fortunate because I had a supportive family and I didn't feel a need to act superior to others."

Nes relates that his next great love was for a classmate who was not a homosexual, but they were good friends and had a warm relationship. When Nes came to Hatzerim as a flight controller, he was astounded to find his friend serving as a cadet on the same base. He was already taking photographs then and asked his friend to pose for him. Years later, for his series of photographs of soldiers, he dressed a model in the uniform of the combat pilot he loved.

After his discharge, Nes was accepted by the photography department of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. In the course of his studies he worked as a research assistant, an assistant director and a production manager for a television production company. He also taught photography to groups of youth in the disadvantaged Musrara neighborhood, and worked with autistic individuals and with disabled soldiers. Every photograph of Adi Nes is a tremendous creation involving direction and complex production. In this sense, Nes is not only the photographer but also the director, producer and researcher. He chooses his actors carefully (through agencies of extras and models) and positions them in front of the camera so that they will act out, under his precise direction, the "performance" he wants to perpetuate. Each photograph is accompanied by a thick production file that contains sketches and drafts, phone numbers of the models and the crew members, and also receipts for gas, food and rental of equipment.

"Every photograph begins as a documentary and ends as a feature," Nes says. "I am the director. In big productions I take a photographer because I am busy on the set. I imagine that in the future I will also make a film."

About eight years ago he told his parents about his sexual identity. "It wasn't a secret. I felt it was a subject I didn't have to share with them. When I met Ilan Sheinfeld, a poet and a public relations man, I told my mother I was going to Greece with him, and she said, 'Sheinfeld, poet, isn't he a homo?'

"I said he was and that I loved him and he was going to be my partner. Mother smiled and said, 'Bring him home for dinner next week so the whole family can meet him.' She took it well. She wasn't surprised because it connected with things from the past. My parents accepted my sexual identity with composure because they are true liberals."

Is the homo-eroticism in his photographs a type of obsession?

"The homoeroticism is present in the photographs just as it is present on the street. I am returning to the way stations of my biography - including my childhood - and declaring that homoeroticism was there in almost every situation. I am just letting it be realized in the photographs. There is no way to deny and nullify people's sexual identity."

Does this not extend to the photographs of the soldiers, in which Israeli machismo is presented as having a homosexual potential?

"Israeli manhood in this case is aggressive and show-offy," Nes notes. "There is an element in Zionism, which is given expression in literature and film, that is taken from Greek mythology: eternal youth, the unblemished warrior, excellence in meeting challenges, self-sacrifice for the homeland. What's known as 'muscular Judaism.' It's a form of power that is meant to show itself and not necessarily to protect the society."

As for the pervasive homoeroticism in his work, Nes explains that when he was a boy, "homosexuality did not reach Kiryat Gat in any form. Not in poetry and not via the cinema. Nothing. The first time I encountered artistic expression of homosexuality was in the film 'My Favorite Launderette,' and by then I was already doing my second year of army service.

"In my photographs I say that the homoerotic potential is part of life and part of the street. It exists in the photograph of the delicate, tender boy looking into a puddle and it exists in the photograph of the women running toward the boy who is lying on the road as the wind whips their skirts between their legs."

Does Nes seek legitimacy?

"I am legitimate," he states, "and I am very happy to be the 'other.' Other-ness has a place and the test of a society is its maturity and its acceptance of that other-ness. I want to place the invisible heroes to the front of the stage, and among those heroes is the homosexual boy from the small development town who has a place, just as Mizrahim have a place and women have a place. It's not an attempt to reform the world, it's a type of expression. The moment you express something, it generates a difference in the reality.

"I am bringing the presence of the other into the public discourse. The photographs make comments on Israeli manliness, on the social realm and also on the composition and lighting of photographs. Israeli light, you know, is harsh and searing, it creates deep contrasts. What are we if not people of contrasts who are always doing battle between the dark and the light, between what is shadowed and what is glaring?"


copyright 2001 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

Adi Nes: "I am just letting homoeroticism be realized in the photographs. There is no way to deny and nullify people's sexual identity."(Photo: Photo by Adi Mazan)

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