Photographing the Bible

January 29th, 2007 by Menachem Wecker

Creative biblical art that conveys a living bible still relevant today is rare for obvious reasons. It’s hard to convey a split Red Sea or Golden Calf without falling prey to the Scylla and Charybdis of religious art: cartoony or tacky work.

Adi Nes brilliantly avoids both pitfalls and creates some of the most inventive work I’ve ever seen.

In “Abraham and Isaac” (2005), Nes invokes a Duchamp like move in portraying the altar as a shopping cart and the two patriarchs as homeless men. But “Isaac” is not as fortunate as the biblical Isaac, because there is no kid nearby stuck in the bushes to rescue him from his poverty. Nes shows that there are tough sacrifices all around if one knows to look for them. Instead of the stones of yesterday, today’s sacrifices happen on altars of empty, squashed soda cans.

Nes’ other work (on exhibit at Jack Shainman Gallery) is equally powerful. “Hagar” (2006) shows a woman so torn apart by Sarah, who cast her out with her sick son and only a jug of water to survive the harsh desert (perhaps the biblical version of what was to become the Arab-Israeli conflict), that she cannot even meet the viewer’s gaze. And yet, she is scheming knowingly, as if already plotting to take Abraham back — as Keturah — after Sarah dies.

Another photograph shows Abel lying dead on the ground in an animalistic pose. Cain is nowhere to be seen. In another image, Noah lies drunk (dead?) on the floor, and elsewhere David and Jonathan lovingly embrace. Ruth and Naomi gather trash in a field of asphalt. Elijah is indeed surrounded by ravens, but they ignore the pitiful old man and offer no promises of feeding him.

And yet, however brilliant Nes’ images are as biblical interpretation, the work has a whole other level, which the press release describes in terms of “masculinity and Israeliness” and addressing “preconceived notions of the ‘ideal’ male body, homoeroticism as a pictorial device, and the story of Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries.”

Although I did not remember his name, I remember visiting the Tel Aviv Museum in 2001 and seeing Nes’ 1999 “Untitled (The Last Supper),” which modeled 14 Israelis for da Vinci’s last supper.

Many will consider Nes’ work offensive and sacrilegious for daring to displace biblical stories from their pedestals. But as I wrote about Tiepolo, it is important to remember that biblical stories, even within the logic of their own narratives, were about real people. Nes is not only provocatively suggesting that there was something homeless in Abraham — indeed he did flee his home and become the wandering Jew — but also that there is something to be canonized in the daily sacrifices of otherwise unexpectedly glamorous and heroic people.

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