Village life can evoke a sense of charm, nostalgia or simplicity. Indeed, a first glance at Israeli artist Adi Nes’s latest photographic series, The Village — his first UK show — reveals images that appear shiny, lush, beautiful. But examine the pictures for more than a moment and the multi-layered complexities become apparent.
“When I created The Village I thought to create an image like a dream,” explains Nes, one of Israel’s most acclaimed photographers. “In many ways dreams are fantastic and pastoral but also full of fears and all the things that we deny.”
He describes The Village as a metaphor for Israel, “a small place that was built after a tragedy”. There is an external beauty but at the same time “under the surface there is something dark and not quiet”. Certainly a sense of unease runs through the series.
The Jewish Museum in London is exhibiting 11 of the 13 large format photographs (the biggest is nearly two metres square) from the series. His style is “staged” — and all the images are set in a constructed reality, in a fictional village, taken in a different place, at a different time. Nes shot the series in the Jezreel Valley, the heart of the early pioneering Labour Zionists, an area where he lives.
In an age when everyone is a photographer — from the use of small cameras to mobile phones — “my challenge,” Nes says, “is to work with compositions that trap the viewer in front of the image for more than one second”.
The almost cinematic scale of the work helps him achieve that aim. For many years Nes worked in the film and TV industry and he explains that “usually staging photography is like film. When I’m creating a project, I work like a film director. I write myself a script, I make a storyboard.”
Behind each image lies extensive research and he uses non-professional models; people he has met via Facebook. The series took five years to create.
Nes had several inspirations for the project. The first was Nietzsche’s book, The Birth of Tragedy, which argued that art was created from the conflict between Apollonian (representing reason and calm) and Dionysian (frenzy and unrestraint) forces. As a result, all the pictures show some tension between the meeting of opposites, be it between “the open and the closed, light and dark or the old and the young”, such as in his picture of four people watching an eclipse (shown right). That image is a nod towards the shifts in the generations. “It is a world that is changing; even the sun doesn’t work as it used to,” Nes says.
Pieter Bruegel’s 450-year-old painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus was another source. Nes was struck by the way that drama and art happen alongside daily life. The painting shows a farmer working the land, indifferent to Icarus who is falling from the sky, plunging into the ocean. The work’s influence is seen in Nes’s photo of a man holding a chicken with its wings spread — perhaps the man is an Icarus-like figure, but in keeping with Nes’s multi-layered approach, the image is also reminiscent of kaporot (a ritual some Jews perform before Yom Kippur).
Nes’s work is partially autobiographical. Issues of identity form the main aspect of his art and the series brings together themes that have dominated his other works — Soldiers (1994-2000), Boys (2000), Prisoners (2003) and Biblical Stories (2004-7). He says: “I deal with Israeliness, masculinity — maybe because I am a man, maybe because I’m gay — and all the different layers of my personality.”
His is certainly an outsider perspective — as he observes: “I grew up in the periphery, in Kiryat Gat, a development town in southern Israel, the son of Iranian immigrants.” The Village addresses “the tensions between the centre and the periphery, ethnic issues such as Sephardim and Ashkenazim”. Women, once largely absent in Nes’s work, have taken a greater role, reflecting their significance in his life now he is a parent of four children through the surrogacy process.
He is known for referencing well-known compositions. His image of two men, one young, one old who is holding a shovel recalls Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic.
But to fully appreciate Nes’s work, do you have to have an art historian’s knowledge? He says not. “The beautiful thing in art is that everyone can understand whatever they like and can interpret the picture in many ways.”
This is another reason why none of the images is titled. “I want to leave everything open to the viewer.”