Bi­ble sto­ries from the present

The Is­raeli pho­tog­ra­pher Adi Nes (be­low left) pro­duces iconic, multi-lay­ered yet dis­turb­ing images. By Jeremy Gor­don

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

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

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