Born in Kiryat Gat, and currently living and working in Tel Aviv, Adi Nes is one of Israel’s leading photographers.
His work has been exhibited widely across Europe and North America and can be found in collections throughout the world. His work has won numerous awards and a print of his 2005 depiction of a group of soldiers, which echoed Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”, sold for an unprecedented amount, changing the way the world views of Israeli art.
His iconic works have featured a range of subjects as models, including homeless people, prisoners and Israeli soldiers. He addresses themes such as masculinity, conflict and belonging and refers heavily to art history, Biblical themes and Baroque motifs in his images. His work is frequently homoerotic and portrays unexpected beauty and vulnerability in his subjects through the use of often cinematic images in breathtaking oversized prints which are both overwhelming and magnificent.
Can you tell us about your current exhibition, “The Village”?
The exhibition is a series of staged photographs created over a period of the last 5 years in which different situations are portrayed from the daily lives of people living in an imaginary village. These people live in the shadow of a heavy cloud, or fear from the past. The situations in which characters are photographed reveal inter-generational tensions, the abyss between different aspects of masculinity, and the tension between aggressiveness and victimisation. I built this project as dreams are built in a Freudian sense – there appears to be a hidden secret whose suppression causes aggression and sadness to surface. The Village is also a metaphor for Israel – a country which arose from dreams, and, like The Village, was built after a tragedy. Yet the past doesn’t allow people to live a simple, pastoral life. Pictures of The Village relate to many familiar images from Art History (like Picasso’s ‘Boy Leading A Horse’, or Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’). These pictures resonate in the series of contemporary photographs, and the entire project looks like a modern interpretation of an ancient Greek tragedy – the village’s choir looks like a Greek Chorus; there’s a blind seer who knows all; a sacrificial goat and tragic hero…
Your work has been described as cinematic with staged scenes and shots and a mixture of actors and the general public. What is the process you followed to recreate the village scenes?
In many respects staged photography resembles cinematic productions yet I’m a type of one person production company because I’m also the script writer and the driver, in charge of casting, bringing tea, lighting, directing and photographing. As the shooting date draws closer, more and more people join me until behind the scenes of any particular picture are between 10 – 15 aides. Unlike the cinema, I’m not bound by the script since its purpose for me is to be a guide, to provide an infrastructure and source of inspiration and ideas. All in all, when viewers see the exhibit, they can create a different story
from each picture depending on the various script elements presented. For the most part, I choose to photograph regular people and not actors or professional models. I contacted most of them for this current project via Facebook. While on the set, I work with their personal stories which they share during the interviewing process before the day of shooting arrives. Most of the locations are real and have been painstakingly and artistically fabricated to match the mood I’m looking for. I work with cinematic lighting and not with photographic flash which means that the lighting is high quality. I still use analogue film, so what people see in the picture, is what really existed when it was taken – I don’t do any photoshop touch-ups.
In my creations I draw inspiration from various fields – literature, cinema, poetry, Art History, yet also from newspaper pictures, and even random snapshots of amateur photographers which I find on the web. Bruegel’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’ (c. 1560’s) was the key inspiring image for this whole project because of its inherent tension between the Sisyphean life of the farmer who tills the soil while the drama and death of Icarus takes place at the same time in the background. One can also find in this series inferences of Goya’s ‘Carpets’, of Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’, of Picasso’s ‘Boy Leading A Horse’, of Courbet’s self-portrait and of Caravaggio who is connected with almost each of my works over the past few years and who, for me, is a constant source of inspiration. Mythologies in generally, and Greek mythology in particular, are another source of inspiration.
Your photographs are heavy with homoerotic images and exquisite depictions of masculinity. How has this been received by the public?
The beauty of art is that each person can find in it something different. One can, for instance, see the men in the pictures and be excited about their beauty, or sense the sexual tension between them, while another will see references to images from the beginnings of Zionism when community work values were common and in which intimacy among members was ordinary. People are often confused about the difference between homosexualism and homoeroticism. Homoeroticism can be found almost everywhere in which men can be found, and it’s connected to camaraderie between souls and the tension which exists as a result of possible homosexual relations. Homosexual images testify that a relationship has happened. Well photographed images of masculinity draw the attention of all eyes – men and women alike. Artistic images are usually multi-layered and the art is usually capable of telling several stories at once in the same picture. The way I create images is also connected to my lifestyle – it is not defiant and provocative, but it is rather through asking questions and adding understandings about familiar situations. Just as my personality is multi-layered – I’m a man, I’m gay, a Jew, an Israeli, who grew up in the periphery, born of immigrant parents who came from Iran – and I’m also an artist. Naturally then, my works are full of various layers and there is not one voice which dominates the others. Fine art, like the way humans mature, enables one to express multiple voices in different circumstances. Exposing my art throughout the world – in art galleries and museums as well as the internet to various religious audiences, and on gay sites alongside contemporary photography bloggers and so forth proves, I think, that my art is generally well received.
What’s life like for gay, bisexual and transgender people in Israel currently?
Generally, Israel is a Western country: liberal, open. Yet in it there are also gaps between the centre and the periphery and different relationships to this issue among various minority groups. Both by law and by government institutions, relations towards the GLB&T community is acceptable, and even pretty good when compared with other Western countries and, of course, excellent when compared with the countries surrounding Israel. That being said, precisely because of the community’s civil rights successes, many voices can be heard calling on the LBG&T community not to highlight its success and thereby engage in Pinkwashing the problems of other minority groups. Personally, while I can testify that the law which prohibited homosexual behaviour between two males was annulled only 20 years ago in the Israeli Parliament when I was studying at the Art Academy, today my partner and I are able to raise our 4 children who were born through surrogate pregnancies; we enjoy all the civil rights and social privileges all families of our size enjoy in Israel…yet one must also remember that political gains can be lost, and the battle to preserve them and gain further rights has not ceased and is connected, not surprisingly, to the battle to define the state’s identity in general, and its integrity in granting identity rights for other minority groups.
Adi Nes’ current exhibition, “The Village” is showing at The
Jewish Museum in London until the 3rd of February 2013
Chris is a theatre and book obsessed Midlander who escaped to London. He’s usually to be found slumped in a seat in a darkened auditorium.