Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Adi Nes: The Biblical in the Banal

On May 3, 2012, the Koffler Gallery will present an off-site exhibition of one of Israel’s most formidable creative exports—the photographer Adi Nes. Along with artistic contemporaries such as Sigalit Landau and Yael Bartana, Nes transports and translates an inherited past and conflicted present from an area of the world whose oft-publicized geo-political duress is not nearly as accessible to cultural outsiders as true understanding demands. What becomes apparent upon encountering Nes’ photographic constructions is an instantaneous alignment between the subjectivity of the viewer and that of the artist as creator—an effect defined by Roland Barthes as a “punctum”. That is to say, from within these photographic examinations of military life, national identity, and mythological narrative shoot details that “prick” the viewer, signifying something outside of the strictures of language. Something phenomenologically felt. In the name of his fellow Diaspora, Nes requests pathos and respect simultaneously. Should this first Canadian survey of Adi Nes’ photography prove anything, it is that he successfully garners both.

Featured as part of the CONTACT festival at the Koffler Gallery Off-Site, works have been drawn from multiple series of the artist’s internationally exhibited photographs, including Soliders (1994-2000), Boys (2000), and Biblical Stories (2003-2006). An arresting image from the last of these three, entitled “David and Jonathan” (2004), draws its subject from one of the Bible’s most poignant testaments to the weight of true friendship. Flirting with homoeroticism—as he does elsewhere with his scenes of young, cavorting militia—Nes here re-contextualizes David and Jonathan’s story by placing the pair under the shadowy shelter of an industrial overpass. The graffiti-clad concrete firmly asserts the scene’s contemporaneity and reminds us that biblical exegesis remains relevant both in the Promised Land and within Western societies’ most critical artistic discourses.

The anachronistic qualities of Nes’ choreographed scenes are indeed striking and enunciate a fact not immediately apparent: that the past is only understood through a mining of the present. "Elijah" (2006), another piece from Biblical Stories, presents the spirit of a prophet whose name is not only spoken every week during Shabbat rituals, but who also plays an important role in the Christian, Muslim, and Folkloric traditions. The photographer selects as a host for the personage of Elijah the kind of citizen urban dwellers encounter on a daily basis: the weather-beaten and poorly-clothed homeless. This absurd combination of sacred and reprobate incites viewers to truly consider the things we discard in our lives, be they morals, the wisdom of elders, or history itself.  Furthermore, it is impossible to ignore Nes' visual double entendrethe homeless here acting as a syncdoche for Jewish Homelessness.  Taken metaphorically, the encircling crows represent the constant predation of a culture and way of life that may not continue to have the means to rebuff threat.

Expounding on this point, threat and violence are turned on their proverbial heads in the majority of the images included in Nes’ Solider series. The photographer’s subjects run the gamut from youthful boys engaged in tomfoolery to tanned, languid bodies exuding homoerotic energy. Initially, the soldiers in “Untitled (Soldiers in Water)” (1999) seem to be carrying on a vigorous bout of water wrestling. It takes only a moment to realise that the target of the wrestling game, a light-eyed boy wearing a touchingly triumphant expression, is holding up not a sports ball but a military-issue rifle. Similarly, the iconic “Untitled (The Last Supper Before Going Out to Battle)” (1999) changes before the viewer’s eyes as they begin to notice how the soliders are posturing themselves, sitting a little too closely together to be casual. What is at once a moment of pause before the betrayal and death born by the photograph's title is also a casual, homo-social scene in a mess hall.

Visual and conceptual counterpoints are Nes’ forte and one that is particularly allied with his area of personal and cultural excavation.  The photographer continues an important conversation between Israel and the Diaspora that, as has been pointed out, hinges on the dichotomies of centre/periphery, home/homeless, and sovereignty/antisemitism.[1]  As these dichotomies persist within contemporary Jewish history, often resulting in collective identity crisis, perhaps it will be the catharsis of visual art that reveals a workable solution. If nothing else, Nes’ provocations of our notions of masculinity, heroism, cultural and sexual identity ignite both black and white fires in our hearts.

Rachel Anne Farquharson


[1] Shaul Magid, “In Search of a Critical Voice in the Jewish Diaspora: Homelessness and Home in Edward Said and Shalom Noah Barzofsky’s Netivot Shalom”, Jewish Social Studies, New Series, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Spring-Summer, 2006): 194

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Adi Nes

May 3 to June 2, 2012 | FREE
Koffler Gallery Off-Site at Olga Korper Gallery, 17 Morrow Ave.
Curator: Mona Filip

OPENING RECEPTION: Thursday, May 3, 6-9 PM

ARTIST TALK: Monday, May 7, 2012, 7 PM
Eaton Theatre (Room 204), Rogers Communication Centre, 80 Gould St., Toronto
Presented by the Koffler Gallery and the School of Image Arts, Ryerson University

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