2 January 2015


© Adi Nes (from Biblical Stories).
© Adi Nes (from Soldiers).

I was born in 1966, a year before the Six-Day War, and children of my generation were exposed to a wave of nationalism that was expressed in literature and culture and which dealt with what it meant to conquer the Promised Land and led to the awakening of nationalistic political movements. Since I was born and raised as a Jew, I don’t know what it would be like not being Jewish. Due to the history of the Jewish people, I think our national psyche feels a certain subconscious level of fear, which, not surprisingly, appears in my work. Along with this, I’d like to believe that being Jewish also means being humane, ethical and humble as expressed in the biblical values which influenced my education.

– Adi Nes

Anything worth living for is worth living for. It is an elaborate story of his family that Amos Oz recounts in A Tale of Love and Darkness (2002), a story about Jerusalem, Israel and “that worldatlarge” – “far away, attractive, marvellous, but to us it was dangerous and threatening. It didn’t like the Jews because they were clever, quick-witted, successful, but also because they were noisy and pushy. It didn’t like what we were doing here in the Land of Israel, because it begrudged us even this meagre strip of marshland, boulders, and desert. Out there in the world, all the walls were covered with graffiti: ‘Yids, go back to Palestine’, so we came back to Palestine, and now the worldatlarge shouts at us: ‘Yids, get out of Palestine!’”

On the same day that Fotografiska in Stockholm opened its impressive show with a brilliant Israeli artist – who almost one fifth of the Swedish population would not hesitate to call a “yid” these days – the malevolent Vice Speaker of the Parliament voiced that the Sami and the Jews of this country would never belong to the “Swedish nation” as real citizens.

How great it is to open one’s eyes to the electrifying narratives of Adi Nes. Seeing his photographic works in magazines and catalogues is one thing. Experiencing these large, cinematic, almost painterly (and yet pin-sharp) images “live” at Fotografiska – bang!

“It is always strange for an artist to be in front of his viewers and to explain his intentions. Most artists feel uncomfortable to be in this kind of situation, and I am not an exception.” Mr Nes’s initial words as he faced the press at Fotografiska revealed some tension but no uncertainty about the quality of Narratives, the biggest show that this often-exhibited artist have had so far. Everything ­(except the Prison series, which was an original work for the 2003 Fall/Winter issue of Vogue Hommes) is in this show: Soldiers (1994–2000), Boys (2000), Biblical Stories (2004–2007) and The Village (2013). And he is just getting better and better by every series.

The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones made a fool of himself in his column on December 10, 2014 (the day before Nes’s press conference in Stockholm): “Photography is not an art. It is a technology. We have no excuse to ignore this obvious fact in the age of digital cameras, when the most beguiling high-definition images and effects are available to millions. My Ipad can take panoramic views that are gorgeous to look at. Does that make me an artist? No, it just makes my tablet one hell of a device.” Well, what would you expect from a man who thinks that Cindy Sherman is the great exception?

Adi Nes’s photographic works take us back to the brilliance of the Renaissance. Nes is a master of light and composition. His chiaroscuro is remarkable (you just have to see it yourself in the reality of this exhibition) – the shifts between shadow and light against the narrative transitions between ancient history, art history and contemporary Israeli life, and the fierce “understanding” of the individual’s sacrifice for the state.

Most of his tableaux vivants (“living pictures”) represent a man’s, man’s world with heroes, antiheroes and bullshit heroes in deceptively peaceful situations. The charged atmosphere that you find in these pictures is like canoeing down the ferocious Cahulawassee River and its inbred sidekicks in Deliverance (1972). And more than anything, the scene with Lonnie on a footbridge as he swings his banjo like a pendulum of dread as a hint for the quarry below.

“One who looks at my photographs knows they are staged, yet the experience is akin to entering a movie theatre when the lights are dimmed: for a moment you may believe the images that tell a story which is entirely allegorical, a story which may be about you,” says Adi Nes.

Todd Samuel Presner suggests in Muscular Judaism: The Jewish Body and the Politics of Regeneration that “The image of the meek, Yiddish-speaking Jew of the Eastern European shtetl has become supplanted by the Hebrew-speaking sabra Jew [a native-born Israeli] who is always prepared to fend off would-be attackers and secure the perimeters of his land […] And while the associated ideals of muscularity and masculinity have certainly become internalised as part and parcel of Israeli identity, they have also come to define a more widespread, contemporary mode of being-Jewish-in-the-world, one which is characterised by toughness, aggressiveness, and battle-readiness. After World War II and the Holocaust, many a generation of Jews growing up in Israel and the United States has been weaned on this ideology of muscle. Never again, we are told, will Jews go like lamb to the slaughter. Never again, we are told, can we let down our guard.”

The twenty-two images from the Soldiers series make me think of Barbara Kruger’s (untitled) work from 1981: “You Construct Intricate Rituals Which Allow You to Touch the Skin of Other Men” – or as Presner puts it in his book: “Through his seductive images of masculine celebration, Nes reveals the violent contours of contemporary Jewish identity and the Israeli landscape. In effect, he not only counteracts the ‘straight male’ machismo of the military culture, but he also underscores the danger of phallocentrism by deconstructing and refiguring the trajectories of masculine, military desire.”

The parthenogenesis (the development of an egg without fertilisation) that runs through Israel’s military culture is very reminiscent of the rancid idea of Männerbünder – ritualised Germanic male bonding – as the superior and only way to generate and maintaining the state. Hans Blüher who was a force behind the German Youth Movement published his work The Role of the Erotic in Male Society: A Theory of State Formation Based on Essence and Value in two volumes in 1917 and 1919: “Wherever nature has created a species that is really capable of establishing a state, this has only been achieved by smashing the dictatorship of the family as well as the male–female sexual urges themselves.”

As Dora Apel argues in War Culture and the Contest of Images, “All war experience is publicly understood only through representation.” For Soldiers, Nes restaged two of the most famous documentary images that built the national myth and reality of the self-fashioned “muscle sabra” and his patriotic endeavours. The first of these images is a black and white photograph taken by the soldier Micha Perry, who cut out the feet of his triumphant troop members to catch as much of the new sky as possible. Another soldier is climbing the flagpole under their raised sheet with the two stripes and the Star of David. This was the British station of Umm Rashrash (Eilat, Israel’s southernmost point), captured on March 10, 1949 during the end of the protracted Palestine War – a conflict known as the “War of Independence” in Hebrew and “The Catastrophe” in Arabic.

Israel was created in “this meagre strip of marshland, boulders, and desert” where the Palestinians already lived. Muslims and Christians accounted for ninety-five per cent of the land when the British handed over Palestine’s destiny to the United Nations in 1947. “Within days, the Israelis were controlling an area three times that of the state of Israel itself,” writes Colin Shindler in A History of Modern Israel:

“In the midst of an election campaign, Eisenhower reacted furiously, resulting, not in the fall of [Egyptian President] Nasser, but of Eden instead. While the Israeli army demonstrated its military brilliance and infiltration into Israel decreased dramatically after 1957, the political fruits of the collusion with Britain and France were minimal. In diplomatic terms, Israel had alienated the USA, the USSR and the developing world. In a letter to [Israel’s first Prime Minister] Ben-Gurion, [Soviet leader] Bulganin commented: ‘The Government of Israel is criminally and irresponsibly playing with the fate of the world, with the fate of its own people. It is sowing hatred of the state of Israel among the Eastern peoples, such as cannot but leave its mark on the future and places in question the very existence of Israel as state.’”

The other image is sourced from the famous Life magazine cover of June 23, 1967, which shows a platoon commander from the Israel Defence Forces cooling off in the Suez Canal with a big smile on his face and an AK-47 in his hand – and once again that gaze towards the sky – as he celebrates another thundering victory in the Six-Day War (a war that Life called “astounding” on the front page). Nes added four shirtless soldiers in his version to pump up this universal, evolutional, anthropological, biological, animal message about respecting the cock.

The IDF issued a physical training book aimed at the US market after the Six-Day War in which America’s combat-minded young men would learn that “The ‘traditional Jew’ of Eastern Europe was known, in the past, for his capability to bear mental sufferings and moral tortures and for his physical weakness. Subjected to racial discriminations, the Jew of Eastern Europe was not conscripted into the army, nor did he engage in manual work. His main activity was in commerce and the educational field […] The Israeli Army is producing a new type of man in this young energetic Middle Eastern country. By means of tough, well-planned physical training, the army is contributing to the change in the physiognomy of the modern Israeli and to the transforming of the immigrants from seventy different countries into one, homogenous type.”

The Soldiers section of the show at Fotografiska has roughly plastered walls, as if we too are inside the desert barrack camp with the fourteen soldier boys in Nes’s take on Leonardo’s tarnished tempera The Last Supper (1495–97) in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie convent in Milan (where Napoleon’s soldiers used to target the face of Christ for recreational sharpshooting practice). “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,” says the artist who added an extra “apostle” to his composition. “I wanted to express the idea that in Israel, death lingers. Death is being foreshadowed in most of these pictures.”

His few pictures that rely too much on the fame or the aura of another work are all right – and it is understandable that Nes had to do them – but everything else he does thrusts itself into magnificence. The American (and Jewish) artist RB Kitaj reasoned that “Whereas Jewish writers work in traditions going back to the Psalmists and before, our painters have no tradition or style, so I’ve had to begin with what I know, what interests me.” Adi Nes travels in time between the Psalmists of the past and what he knows and what interests him in the present.

Mr Nes’s soldier boys recall the 1985 hit single “19” by Paul Hardcastle, a song about the average age of the American soldier during the twenty-year-long Vietnam War. He says that he seeks “to sharpen – in the image of the ultimate soldier – humanness, fragility, childlikeness. These are certainly traits that exist in me.” Nes describes the slumbering soldiers in the back of a bus (his works are mostly untitled) as “not just sleeping, they are dying too”. I think of that last heartbreaking episode of MASH, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” (1983), when Hawkeye cracks up as the shrink unlocks his supressed memory of a Korean woman and her noisy “fowl” – how the poor mother strangled her crying infant to save everyone else on the bus.

A barechested soldier with a yarmulke (skullcap) strikes a strongman pose in the desert outside an army tent, which is also a screen for his phantom shadow. He will die without wisdom. Nes has placed his model so that the rope of the tent appears to cut right through his neck, just like the wraithlike slits that appeared in the darkroom of Keith Jennings in The Omen (1976).

Contemporary art, for the last fifteen or twenty years, has complied with a lazy formula of “raising questions”. With Nes’s pictures you get the answers too, though they will differ considerably depending on the viewer who unfurls them. The Soldiers series is antithetical to the brothers-in-arms culture of the IDF – this homosocial fraternity based on testicular force and Talmud studies – and yet there is something else that you will find in Nes’s pictures, a sign of approval: his love for men. One of his soldiers blows a fat smoke ring, which his comrade catches with the finger as a symbolic marriage between the two of them. Another soldier “plays doctor” with his friend in a weird and wonderful Pietà, in which the patient is lying in his lap with bleeding watercolour wounds from their paintbox.

Conscription in the Israel Defence Forces is three years for men and two years for women (women comprise as much as fifty-one per cent of the officers). You can see how the IDF operates in Emad Burnat’s first-hand documentary Five Broken Cameras (2011) from the West Bank, where the soldiers continuously harass Palestinian farmers and also, continuously, break into their homes at night to kidnap their children – or in the feature film Omar (2013), which gives you an idea of Palestinian life on both sides of the Israeli West Bank Barrier (a wall more than twice as high as the one that Communist oppression put around West Berlin), and how the one-hundred-and-twenty-year-long bloodshed between these peoples may look like today.

Boys are ten images that revolve around Greek mythology: “There is a specific routine in every Greek tragedy. Someone is doing something in his life, repeats the sin of pride, of hubris, then he’s punished and he suffers. And the moment he suffers, this is the moment that he’s changed, or the viewer of the tragedy is changed.” A great picture is the street scene with a youngster who pretends to be dead to get the attention from all the women around – it is a reversed scenario from Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962) when Catherine jumps in the Seine in order to regain the full attention from the two men who must worship her. A night shot depicts three boys in a playground who have set a slide on fire. The best of these pieces are as strong as Jeff Wall’s large light boxes with his unforgettable photographic works.

Nes: “I chose to cast dark-skinned boys for two reasons. I wanted them to have a Mediterranean skin colour since the project was based on Greek mythology, and I also wanted to raise issues of ethnic origins. From the outset the project was created as a museum piece, I wanted the museum walls to display portraits of people who otherwise would never be granted the privilege of appearing there.”

The fourteen Biblical Stories are like David LaChapelle out of the graces of Coca-Cola, kitsch and cocaine. These works are like Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986), a “biopic” placed in 1610 and 1986 at the same time, but these biblical narratives are so much better. Nes (who has a background in film production) scouts his locations and stages his images like a veritable filmmaker, and works like one on the sets. A film was shown at the press conference, with Nes giving direction to an amateur actor to make him walk and think like a homeless, hungry person. You also see how Nes is waiting for the sun to set at the right angle so it will light up the wall behind his bums Abraham and Isaac.

Abraham took his adult son Isaac to sacrifice him at the altar of Mount Moriah to curry favour with god – as the bible says (in quite other words) – but the Almighty sent an angel with a ram instead, since he was so content about the fear and suffering that he had instigated with the mock execution of Isaac. Isaac is just a kid in Nes’s image, sleeping (or is he dead?) on a heap of PET bottles in a shopping cart pulled by his father, worlds apart from Duane Hanson’s overfed Supermarket Shopper (1970) and just as unhealthy and sad. Nes says that he used the bottles “because I was thinking about the idea of the recycled myth of this land. Many fathers sacrifice their sons for the army – this process is recycled over and over again for the ideals of this country.”

Another discarded soul in Nes’s Israel is the prophet Elijah, and you only sense that he is still alive because the black birds around him are coolly observing their meal, just biding their time. It is like that Spanish saying, Cría cuervos, y te sacarán los ojos – raise ravens, and they will prick out your eyes. A drunk, unconscious Noah is lying naked on the ground outside a DVD store. One of the films in the display window is Yossi and Jagger (2002), an Israeli love story between two IDF soldiers. During one of his call-up services for the IDF, Nes had to work in a detention camp where he not only befriended a Muslim prisoner – like the female Guantanamo soldier in Camp X-Ray (2014) – but also painfully fell in love with him.

The story in the bible about Cain and Abel is a story of fratricide, how the envious Cain murders his brother because he wants to be the one who is favoured by god. In Nes’s image of the two opponents and their nasty turns of hypocrite defence fighting (krav maga) it is really not possible to discern who is killing who, and that is the point. This is John Pilger in Hidden Agendas: “In Palestine, as elsewhere, the victims, not oppressors, are the terrorists.”

Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau, and though they were twins they were as different as mist and mast. Nes’s picture (which looks like a magical Caravaggio in Fotografiska’s superb light design) shows the moment of truth when the Christlike Esau gives up his birthright to his sibling for a simple bowl of koshari. Simona Kogan writes on the Israel 21C website (April 29, 2007) how “Nes wanted to present his view of Israel as a country that had fallen from a utopian, mythic culture of the ‘chosen people’ to a conquering, capitalistic society with large social gaps.”

Mr Nes mentioned Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph from the Great Depression, Migrant Mother (1936), as the inspiration for his beautiful image of Hagar (the model for this work is a friend of Nes). Hagar was forced out of society after giving birth to Abraham’s illegitimate child, Ismael. In this photograph you see her begging on a staircase. There is a mysterious form behind her, of a foetus, which the bewildered artist claims is unintentional. The story of Ruth and Naomi appears in two images in the series. The one that was modelled on Jean-François Millet’s Des glaneuses (1857) shows how a strand of Ruth’s hair is tied to her mother-in-law after the loss of both of their husbands, as they glean for scattered leftovers from a dusty farmers’ market at the end of the world, their homeland.

The god in the bible urged Abraham to go “to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation.” He also told the first Patriarch that his offspring “shall be aliens in a land that is not their own”. David Ben-Gurion once told an audience of American Jews that “[Zionism] consists of bringing all Jews to Israel. We appeal to the parents to help us bring their children here. Even if they decline to help, we will bring the youth to Israel.”

“In no text or archaeological finding do we find the term ‘Land of Israel’ used to refer to a defined geographic region,” writes Shlomo Sand in The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland. “When Jewish groups were expelled from their places of residence during acts of religious prosecution, they did not seek refugee in their sacred land but made every effort to relocate to other, more hospitable locations.”

“In fact, it was the United States’ refusal, between the anti-immigration legislation of 1924 and the year 1948, to accept the victims of Judeophobic persecution that enabled decision makers to channel somewhat more significant numbers of Jews toward the Middle East. Absent this stern anti-immigration policy, it is doubtful whether the state of Israel could have been established,” he argues. “In the early 1980s, US President Ronald Reagan decided to allow refugees of the Soviet regime to immigrate to the United States, an offer greeted with overwhelming demand. In response, the Israeli government exerted pressure to have the gates of immigration to the United States blocked by all possible means. Because the immigrants continued to insist on the United States, and not the Middle East as their preferred destination, Israel collaborated with Rumanian ruler Nicolae Ceausescu to limit their ability to choose.”

Kiryat Gat is a development town that began to grow in the 1950s after the Jewish exodus from the Muslim world. Nes’s parents were refugees from Iran and Kurdistan who settled down in this nowhere place. When Nes applied for the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem after the military service, he had no relation to photography at all. But the teachers loved his energy and they understood what his talent would do with this “technology”.

Looking at the thirteen images in the amazing The Village series is like listening to the house band on Titanic. “The series was shot on a kibbutz, or a communal settlement, situated in the Jezreel Valley of Israel – a landscape that appears in the bible as a point of conflict between Israelites and Philistines. The kibbutz was an integral part of the emerging Zionist ideology and the establishment of the state of Israel, and has since experienced significant social and cultural changes. Nes’s photographs represent an idyllic pastoral landscape wrought with tangible communal and interpersonal tension,” explains Gili Karev in Manifesto magazine (July/August, 2012).

It is the cussedness and the contradictions – and that Nes keeps questioning his own position in this place – that animate these pictures so remarkably well. No one can feel safe around the occupants in The Village. The artist affirms that the series is a metaphor for Israel: “The country started with a dream, and then more and more, we decided to ignore the dreams. I am trying to bring myself back to the dream without forgetting the reality,” he says. “Unfortunately, in the places I live and work, people die from reality.”

Freud wrote in his last book – Moses and Monotheism (1939) – that, “The preeminence given to intellectual labours throughout some two thousand years in the life of the Jewish people has, of course, had its effect. It has helped to check the brutality and the tendency to violence, which are apt to appear where the development of muscular strength is the popular ideal. Harmony in the cultivation of intellectual and physical activity, such as was achieved by the Greek people, was denied to the Jews. In this dichotomy their decision was at least in favour of the worthier alternative.”

The opposite turns out to be the case in The Village. There is an oddness that takes place within the reality of the picture from an attic space (the framework is curiously decorated with hearts) where three men with a very poor approach to life are using a possible cockfight – with bats – to express their hate for each other. Other villagers are out and about. You can only just feel how they are up to things that are fraught with danger and harm, what unites them as a collective body.

“About suffering they were never wrong / The Old Masters: how well they understood.” This is how WH Auden opens “Musée des Beaux Arts”, the poem from 1938 that was printed next to the reproduction of Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (late 1550s) in an art book that Thomas Jerome Newton sent to Dr Nathan Bryce in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Bruegel’s painting captures the moment when Icarus is plunging into the sea with his ruined wings, while the farmers in the foreground continue with their chores without caring the least.

The painting inspired Nes’s picture with a man (who looks like a regular army guy) who holds up a white dead turkey with its shredded wings spread and its eyes looking right at us. “Unfortunately, artists and art never succeeded at stopping politicians and generals, or at opening their eyes,” says the artist. He told Sarah Phillips in The Guardian (December 12, 2012) that, “Three things made me chose this frame from the sixty-odd shot. First, the folds in the drapes behind the actor hint that he has wings. Second, I like the way he has distanced the turkey from his body. Finally, the shutter closed when his eyelids were half-open.”

The kindest picture in the series does not at all conform to stereotypical masculine traits. The inspiration here was Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse (1906), and indeed it is a picture of a young man and his horse as they walk through an orange grove swarmed with natural light. This is also a picture about being an outsider. It might as well be a self-portrait with a younger stand-in: “This boy represents the fantasy of the person who isn’t part of any group yet who yearns to belong,” as Nes explained in an interview in The Huffington Post (May 22, 2012). “He represents the Sephardic fantasy in the eyes of the group, their desire to connect to the Mediterranean culture, to ride horses bareback, to tan their complexions since ‘Black is Beautiful’. To a certain extent, everyone wants some aspect of the other.”

In The Birth of Tragedy (1871), Nietzsche proposed some kind of threat to his readers: “Do you know what ‘the world’ is to me? Shall I show it to you in my mirror?” The Apollonian and Dionysian forces that Nietzsche thrusts through this book influenced Nes during his work with The Village. And he says that, “Israelis always look to the past but they also look for hope. As Jews, we have a connection and our connection is Judaism. We have no other land. We have no other reason to stay together. This is my tradition and my roots. I have no other place to go.”

What he mirrors in his art is not a threat but a message from a mensch.

© Adi Nes (from Boys).
© Adi Nes (from The Village).

Adi Nes: Narratives at Fotografiska in Stockholm through March 8, 2015.