Q&A: adi nes
By Jess T. Dugan
Adi Nes is a photographer living and working in Israel. His meticulously crafted images are both autobiographical and representative of living in a country in conflict. Taking inspiration from Renaissance and Baroque paintings, religious parables, and contemporary culture, his photographs are infused with both homoeroticism and shared humanity. Adi Nes was born in Kiryat-Gat, Israel in 1966 and now works in Tel Aviv. He has had solo shows at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco; the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus; the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. His work is in many public collections including the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada; The Jewish Museum, New York; the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel and The Israel Museum, Jerusalem. He is represented by the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.
Jess T. Dugan: How did you begin making photographs?
Adi Nes: When I finished my army service I began thinking about what I wanted to study. Since I had artistic tendencies, I thought about studying industrial design, graphics or film making. Though I had painted at the time, I was more focused on acquiring a practical profession since I come from a family that was not well-off financially. When I arrived to register at the Academy of Art and Design the numerous possibilities confused me and I kept changing my mind as to what to do. Finally, I chose photography - by accident! I was summoned for an interview by the photography faculty and much to my surprise was accepted even though I didn't even have a photography portfolio. Years later when I asked the teachers why they accepted me, they told me of the numerous candidates who arrived after their Big Trip they took to the Far East upon being released from the army, each one with a similar portfolio of pictures they took of Thai women in rice fields and such, when I fell upon them: some kind of strange bird who painted instead of photographed. Photography, they said to themselves, is a teachable technology. Yet it would be a shame to waste the kernels of artistic talent they saw in me, so they accepted me.
JTD: Your photographs are extensively planned out and staged, yet they speak to very real moments and emotions. Can you talk about your process of conceiving and making a photograph, as well as how you came to work in this manner?
AN: Staged photography, the style which I've adopted, demands complex production and exacting direction, if for no other reason than a great deal of money and energy are poured into it. This is a style that, actually, developed when photography was invented. Later, people like Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson and others brought staged photography to a certain level of artistic perfection. Some view photographers as "hunters" who go out into the streets with their 35mm cameras and zoom lenses in an attempt to "catch" some situation. I work a little differently, perhaps more like "gleaner". The sources of images I build, the world in which I travel, they are like snapshots for me: personal memories, experiences, impressions of body language or some texture that fascinates me. Frequently I'm aided by documentary photographs by others - whether taken by professionals or amateurs. From tidbits I collect here and there I weave my ideas for a picture and transform them into physical sketches that give me a common language with other production people like those involved with makeup and lighting. With the aid of the camera I bring back the image that has been built from different sources so it becomes a new picture, which tells a story and is part of a series of images which I create. Now that I have the privilege to stage a shot and not rely merely on what reality presents, I can be more picky about the quality of the lighting and the picture, the staging, location and costumes - which are, in a sense, the artist/photographer's palette. This type of photography fits someone who is, essentially, a control freak. I feel I also have this perfectionist side and desire to control everything down to the smallest detail. For many years I earned a living working in the television and film industry and suspect that much of what I learned in these fields sunk-in to my consciousness and influenced my style of working as a stills photographer. One who looks at my photographs clearly knows they're staged, yet the experience is akin to entering a movie theater 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.
JTD: You have spoken about the mandatory three year military service expected of all men in Israel. To what extent are your photographs about war or affected by your experience in the Israeli army?
AN: When I began the series of photographs about soldiers a few years ago I decided that the soldiers in my pictures would never fight. I wanted the soldier to be a metaphor for humanity, not to be any specific soldier of any political significance or location. Thus, unlike photographs of Israeli soldiers common in the media, I decided that my soldiers would never fight; they'd always be between fighting: eating, drinking, laughing, smoking. Additionally, they're usually in a non-specific place that could be any place, often at a time that could be any time. During my military service I was an air traffic controller and not a foot soldier, yet in my pictures the soldiers are usually infantry. I seek to sharpen - in the image of the ultimate soldier - humanness, fragility, childlikeness. These are certainly traits that exist in me. Of course the background of my soldier photos is my Israeliness, living in a culture where the image of the soldier appears frequently in the media, in the local history of art, in Israeli cinema, and above on, on the street.
In my works I deal with issues of identity - a subject that occupies me a lot. As a gay man and one who lives in Israel the easiest way I found to deal with these issues was by staging masculine images in uniforms. Young, handsome men in complex situations in which death is an intrinsic part. They are immortalized in a picture and frozen in time as eternally young - a recurring motif for artists, as in for example, Oscar Wilde'sThe Picture of Dorian Gray. I deal with issues of identity and soldiers as in Youths, my next series of photographs who are at the age when questions of identity arise. Also, the fact the society or the army expects them to be just soldiers, negates their personal identity by issuing an identity number which appears on their dog tags, causes them to think about their identity. The army environment, much like the Israeli street, is very male dominated. That's where I situated subjects in my projects that deal with masculinity. Yet these are new men who act in the modern arena of today's reality. The soldier in the picture - as in every creative work - is just a metaphor.
JTD: Can you speak about your interest in the soldier as a vehicle to address both identity and masculinity?
AN: Obviously each creation is influenced by the artist's biography. I think that as one who grew up being different, gay, from a peripheral development town and a lower-class Sephardic family in a masculine society, that I adopted a perspective which I am unable to shake even today: the perspective of the outsider. I'm an outsider looking into the center; somewhat admiring, somewhat critical. It's not coincidental that all the heroes of my pictures come from the fringe: street people, prisoners, tenement youth. And in most of the pictures there is some dramatic contrast: life of soldiers in the field contrasted with the history of art; prisoners and fashions of high society, homeless as bible heroes. And all this sprinkled with homoerotic overtones which is also part of my personality.
JTD: This quote was taken from the exhibition program "Adi Nes: Biblical Stories" that accompanies your recent exhibition at the Wexner Center for the Arts at the Ohio State University.
When I started the project four years ago, I wondered what happens after everything's been erased. If I ignore that I am gay, I ignore that I grew up in a Sephardic family, I ignore that I grew up in a development town, I ignore that I'm an artist- what is the main thing in my own identity? I thought that the first layer that would exist is Judaism- that I can't run away from my Jewish identity. But when I finished the project, I found a different answer. I found that humanity, friendship, and being generous and compassionate, these are the last things I have as a human being.
With this in mind, can you speak about how your individual circumstances affect the way you work and the photographs you make?
Similarly, your photographs are mostly of men, and many of them contain homoerotic elements, yet your photographs simultaneously deal with masculine identity in Israel. Can you speak about the clash of these two cultures and ideas, and in the ways they simultaneously co-exist and challenge one another?
AN: Israeli society is young, it's only 60 years old, and it's still forming and influenced by the middle eastern climate, immigrants from many lands, the West and especially the United States, Jewish history and, in its early years, its desire to create a "New Jew" different from the weak diaspora Jew. Of course, with all this is a strong army that acts as the central melting pot. Despite the fact that the country is small, it's difficult to compare the atmosphere in the center - Tel Aviv is liberal, modern and Western like New York - with that of Jerusalem or other places with religious or more conservative communities.
Yet, in general, the Israeli street is very "masculine" or at least evokes masculine qualities like hardness and aggressiveness. Counterbalancing these rough aspects of society are other softer qualities like community, comradeship and brotherhood that are dominant and find many forms of cultural expression through popular songs, film and literature. To an outsider camaraderie may be confused with love between men. Looking one straight in the eyes or middle eastern body language - people touching each other - can be easily misunderstood. This is a subject quite often spoken about between homoeroticism and homosexuality.
I think that homoeroticism exists in all masculine environs whether on the rugby field or fire stations. The beauty of art is that everyone can see what they want, like life in which the potential of something can exist.
JTD: You have spoken about having the opportunity to live and work in the United States or Paris, the way many of your colleagues and friends have done. Can you speak about your decision to remain in Israel and continue to photograph as an openly gay man despite the challenges you face?
AN: The Hebrew language and my Jewish identity are such central aspects of my personality that I couldn't easily pick up and move to another place. In addition to this, even if I wanted to go elsewhere, no country in the world is actually dying to welcome Israeli immigrants even though moving somewhere is not impossible. Despite the fact that Israel is not an easy place to live in, it's where I live - along with all the social tensions and security problems. As I said earlier, Tel Aviv, where I live, is very Western and liberal. Our activist supreme court has ruled favorably on a long string of laws which protect the civil rights of gays and places Israel alongside the most advanced democracies of the world in this matter. Take, for example, the army's attitude toward gay men: being gay does not exempt you from service, and to the daughter who will be born to me soon she can have two fathers legally recognized as such by the authorities. Along with this, Israel is a society with many complex problems that, to a certain extent, serve me as an artist by challenging me to see its multifaceted nature. Often the world appears smaller because technology enables the periphery to get closer to the center. In the last few years I've taken advantage of my international career, which requires me to take numerous flights to Europe and North America, as a way of enjoying both worlds: living in Israel while traveling abroad. On the other hand, the more I travel I realize that the same problems exist everywhere and we don't seem to learn the good things from each other but rather the bad: terrorism, alienation and darkness seem to be gripping the West.
JTD: When you first exhibited your photographs in Israel, what kind of response did you receive? Have you faced opposition because of your subject matter?
AN: Much to my delight, from the first time I displayed my works 15 years ago the response was encouraging. Despite the fact that my photographs deal with complex subjects, they aren't provocative or divisive. In the past I've received government prizes and my works have been displayed in important, main-stream Israeli museums.
JTD: Your images draw heavily on art history and cultural history. Can you speak about your decision to reference not only historical and cultural texts, such as the Bible, but also the interpretation of these texts through art by such masters as Caravaggio and Rubens?
AN: The power of myths has nurtured different areas of art for hundreds of years. As a visual artist I can't only relate to texts or stories and deliberately ignore pictorial references created by the old masters. Along with this, in places where I interpret texts, whether biblical or from Christian mythology, I'm not trying to illustrate or dramatize the story, rather, I'm trying to use the text to say something new - about myself, and the world from which I come. A good photograph, like any piece of art, is multi-layered. It can be interpreted in multiple ways - read as a narrative, read for content and timeliness, read visually in how it relates to issues of composition and the language of photography, read in context to how and where it is displayed and on and on. The moment I choose to leave my works without titles, viewers are free to choose the way they look at the work. Take, for example, Untitled 2000, in which a youth is laying in the street and women begin to gather around him. It's a picture that began from a personal trauma I suffered as a child when I was injured in a motorcycle accident in the middle of our community. Yet, my photograph also expresses the death of Adonis from Greek mythology, Rubens' Death of Adonis, and also the image of removing Jesus from the cross (with women surrounding him). Also invoked is the image of the woman crouching over the body of her friend at Kent State as well as the Israeli reality of suicide bombers who blown themselves up in the street. Just as the picture speaks of masculinity and the identity of young men - as do the rest of the pictures in my series of Youth, or about eternal youth as in the pictures of Soldiers - this picture also deals with various forms of feminism in the street, on posters and in general culture.
JTD: Is there a large community of photographers working in Tel Aviv? Additionally, is there a welcoming gay community?
AN: In Tel Aviv, as well in many other areas of the Western world, the community of photographers is large and active. There are a number of art schools, galleries which exhibit photographs, contemporary photo exhibits in museums, photography collectors who also purchase Israeli art as well as the best of international photography along with internet forums and blogs in Hebrew. Tel Aviv is also the central city in which Israeli cultural life takes place so there is a gay community, an engaging night life, DJs from the US and Europe, numerous club bars and night clubs. Several popular Israeli singers have come out of the closet in recent years and in commercial television the image of gays holds a respectable place. A few years ago the state representative to the European song festival was a transsexual named Dana International. Yet along with this, as is the case throughout the world, the further one goes from the center, the less open and more conservative people are with regards to gay issues. This liberal atmosphere has not always been here and is due, to no small extent, to the many artists in different fields who expressed their empathetic and inspirational acceptance.
JTD: Who do you look to for inspiration?
AN: My inspiration comes from everything around me beginning with images I see in the media or on the street yet also emerging from my memory, dreams, fantasies... people I admire, classical and contemporary art, films and literature. My approach to work is through narrowing and broadening my scope: a small idea takes form and grows as I journey into inspirational sources yet the moment it germinates, I begin to strip away what's unessential and to focus on the simple image. Afterwards, a complex process of intricate production takes place until the day of shooting when, again, I narrow down the work and focus on the set which demands sensitivity to natural light, on the personal story of the person being photographed, to different nuances of expression and change which takes place in each moment.
grows as I journey into inspirational sources yet the moment it germinates, I begin to strip away what's unessential and to focus on the simple image. Afterwards, a complex process of intricate production takes place until the day of shooting when, again, I narrow down the work and focus on the set which demands sensitivity to natural light, on the personal story of the person being photographed, to different nuances of expression and change which takes place in each moment.
JTD: What are you currently working on, and what is next?
AN: My work process is long, complex and dynamic. Currently I'm working on a modern adaptation to a classic tragedy - yet in the coming months I'll become a father and expect that the experience will undoubtedly influence my creativity in ways I'm currently unaware.
Editor's note: this interview was originally published on April 27, 2008 on Big, Red, & Shiny.
All images © Adi Nes