Bible stories from the present
The Israeli photographer Adi Nes (below left) produces iconic, multi-layered yet disturbing images. By Jeremy Gordon
The exhibition New Hebrews: One Hundred Years of Israeli Art sprawled around a massive museum space in Berlin. Several hundred artists and well over a thousand artefacts were on show. After a while, the senses dulled. All the art started to merge into one long blur.
And then there was the work of Adi Nes. Nes’s contribution to the show was two photographs of soldiers. Set high on a wall, they stood out a mile — instantly iconic and dazzlingly multi-layered.
A muscled soldier, stripped to the waist, flexes his arm in a classic circus-strongman pose. The bulging biceps makes him look tough, but his shadow creeps up the army tarpaulin behind him. The shadow points at the soldier’s vulnerability; so too does the tarpaulin’s guy rope, which cuts across his neck like a sword. Oh, and our soldier wears a kippah. What power can his faith provide in the face of bullets?
To look at the photograph is to feel every Israeli, and certainly every Israeli male, merging into one miraculous, proud, scared, scarred, vision of defiance. The photograph commands attention.
For the first years of his artistic career, Nes took pictures of young, Israeli, Sephardic men like himself. He explored themes of his own life: homoeroticism; military service; and life in a development town at the margins of Israeli society.
But his work also had an additional layer that referenced a canon of images that had gone before. His photographs felt familiar, even if they were not.
The circus-strongman image we know from posters, but other works referenced moments in classical literature and famous images from the history of photography or Renaissance art.
In Nes’s more recent output, many of these themes remain, but the canon has shifted and narrowed. In a touring exhibition that opened in New York last week, Nes sets a series of Biblical Stories on the margins of contemporary Israeli society.
The work is, at once, elegant and ugly, raw and composed, classic and contemporary. There is a still a strong development-town Israeli feel to this new work, but the poverty and pain (as well as the strength) could be about the margins of any society where we would rather not look.
Ruth and Naomi (gleaners) is set in the aftermath of a market; it could be Beersheba, it could be anywhere. Our protagonists are collecting onions — bulbs of tears. The poverty is clear, but so too is the companionship — the figures are captured in identical poses; even their finger positions are synchronised.
Ruth and Naomi are alone but together; your people shall be my people, and where you die, I will die and there I will be buried. They are bent over by their poverty, but they are not broken. There is a cautious strength in this classic posture of “gathering-woman”; it feels tribal and ancient. Long before the time of the Bible, this is how our ancestors gathered. We have been here before.
At first glance, Nes’s portrait Joseph feels wrong: the child is too young. When we meet Joseph in the Bible, he seems to brim with arrogance, goading his brothers with dreams of his greatness. But in Nes’s photograph, the boasts are revealed as nothing more than the bravado of a little boy who has lost his mummy. Joseph’s eyes reel in the viewer; we are summoned to a personal engagement with ancient and modern suffering of little boys.
It is easy to remember some terrible statistic about how frequently Israeli boys in the oft-bombed north- ern villages wet their bed at night. One might reflect that no-one should have to spend a childhood in a bomb shelter only to enter compulsory army service at the age of 18.
But then again it is unclear that Nes’s Joseph is a Jew. He could be an Arab; the street behind him some godforsaken refugee camp. Nes’s picture is wrong, but it is not inaccurate or untrue, it is just wrenching.
Nes’s photographs might look like documentary footage, but they are not. Everything is staged; every seemingly extraneous detail has a message; every shadow tells a story. Nes has been criticised for being “contrived”, but that misses, entirely, the way he works with his canon of pre-existing images.
And now the mannered, almost forced, symbols that are so characteristic of Nes’s work have found a perfect shidduch in the Hebrew Bible. For centuries, Rabbis have mined mountains of midrash — exegesis — from lacunae in the written Biblical narrative.
For the rabbis, every seemingly extraneous word has a message, every choice of vocabulary tells a story. Jews have always engaged with the Bible, the ultimate Jewish canon, by enquiring after symbols and decoding narrative construction.
The written Biblical stories are no more reportage than Nes’s photographic stories; they are self-conscious, they point at truths beyond language, beyond image.
Biblical narratives often lose their multiple edges; they are treated so piously their self-conscious energy seems to dissipate. In Nes’s new pictorial record, the multiple voices re-emerge.
More than that, the stories tumble out of pre-history and land in a very recognisable and disconcerting contemporary society. Biblical Stories, both the written and the photographic, carry their truths as echoes of what we know and what we would rather we did not know; as messages that feel at once familiar and provocative.
At least they would if we accept Nes’s provocative insistence that we use these Biblical Stories to re-examine our sense of identity: male, Jewish, Zionist, or simply human. Jeremy Gordon is rabbi of St Albans Masorti Synagogue. Adi Nes’s Biblical Stories can be seen until February 3 at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York and will subsequently be shown in Tel Aviv, Stockholm and Paris. As yet there are no plans for a British exhibition
Clockwise from top left: Nes himself; his tough but vulnerable image of a young Israeli soldier; Ruth andNaomi,a portrayal of the companionship of two women collecting onions after a street market ; and the wrenching and disturbing Joseph