Light & Sie, Dallas
Through December 20, 2008
by Noah Simblist
Biblical stories aren’t too common in contemporary art. References to Moses, Adam or Job were usually the fodder for high modern myth makers like Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman who poured meaning into their abstractions with titles full of pathos. Today, maybe there has been a reaction to the failed universalizing gestures of modernism. Or maybe the absence of Biblical references has to do with the general antipathy of the art world to organized religion and its association with the American religious right. Or maybe contemporary cosmopolitan western citizens simply no longer share the Old and New Testaments as a common lexicon.
However, for Adi Nes, an Israeli photographer, Biblical imagery remains rich territory. For Israelis, the Bible is not only a story. It is a specter that haunts the landscape of everyday life. As I write this, the streets of Hebron are still burning after the Israeli army evacuated a group of Jewish settler squaters from a Palestinian house, prompting riots by Jewish settlers and counter demonstrations by Palestinians. While there might seem to be political, legal and nationalistic action and reaction that fuels this particular flair up in the Middle East, the roots of these events are Biblical. 500 Israelis have stubbornly held their ground in a West Bank city with a Palestinian population of 166,000 because it is the location where Jews and Muslims believe that numerous Biblical figures (specifically Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah) are buried.
One of Nes’s prints, Untitled (Cain and Abel), which depicts two men in modern clothes in a fistfight, might seem on the surface to be a straightforward image mythologized by its title. But this reading neglects the unavoidable presence of Biblical narratives in the daily life of Israeli society. This is not to say that Israeli society is predominantly religious—on the contrary, most of the country is quite secular. But Nes reflects upon a national condition in which even the post-Zionist, secular Israel is easily read through a Biblical lens. A fight on the streets of Hebron can be a petty squabble between neighbors over property rights, while also having mythological overtones.
Untitled (Ruth & Naomi Gleaners) depicts two women sifting through the castaway detritus of what looks like the aftermath of a busy market. They are bent down, like two figures in a Millet painting (as the title suggests) gathering half-rotten onions. This allusion to an artist from another time underlines the tradition of painters who used both realism and narrative to evoke allegory. At the same time, this image of poverty evokes the story of Ruth, a woman who found herself at the mercy of landowners but who eventually became the mother of David, the righteous king of Israel. What does this Biblical allusion imply for the poorest Israeli Jews or Muslims, commonly seen in a similar position?
Caravaggio also merged a relentless realism with divine images from the Bible. As Frank Stella has noted, “We remember that Caravaggio has made us see his models as real, an experience altogether different from other painting where we have seen merely a picture of rendered models.” Stella notes that the power of these images is the “ability of his model/actors to go both ways—to be total and complete participants, to be both performers and spectators.” This has a tremendous impact on the viewer’s relationship to visual Biblical imagery. If the models themselves are both spectators and performers in relation to the construction of an image and its content, then we too become complicit—both subject and object in relation to these stories.
In the Bible, Cain was a farmer—dependent on land and, as a result, ownership and materialism. Abel, a shepherd, was nomadic by nature. Cain kills his brother Abel out of jealousy, an emotion tied to possession. Could this violent act based on an identity predicated by an attachment to land be the first gesture in a history of conflict that is still playing itself out? And if we take Stella’s ideas about our complicit participation in images to heart, where do we fit into this image. Are we simply spectators?
Instead of painting, Adi Nes uses the language of photojournalism, all too commonly the narrative in which the story of Israel/Palestine is told. But he self-consciously stages these images, admitting that the truths often told through photography are constructed and beholden to a network of ideologies. Nes riffs on the strategies of photographers like Cindy Sherman who frame the interplay between the gaze of the viewer, the artist and the object of that gaze in a photographic realm that shifts back and forth between the real and the imaginary. Sherman and others have revealed the powerful effects that images have, not only to reflect but also to construct identity. By transposing the questions of feminism to Israeli identity, Nes has revealed that photography can act similarly. This combination of staging, realism and allegory make these photographs function as intertextual references to history, mythology and the complex social and historical conditions of Israeli society.
 Anna R. Morgan, “The Other Israeli Conflict: The Jewish State Struggles Once Again Over How Jewish It Should Be” The Washington Post July 11, 2004: B03.
 I use this term to refer to the changing nature of the State of Israel, which began with the socialist utopian dreams of Theodor Herzl where agriculture and industry would provide the Jewish people, traditionally victims of anti-Semitism around the world with a self-sufficient safe haven. But after the privatization of the Israeli economy, burgeoning biotech, software and defense industries and nuclear superpower status, and a prolonged aggressive military occupation of the Palestinian territories, Israel no longer follows the design of traditional Zionism. See Benny Morris. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001. New York: Vintage, 2001.
 Frank Stella, Working Space. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986. p. 17.
 See Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1989.
Noah Simblist is an artist, writer and Assistant Professor of Art at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. His work explores the political role of the artist, the history of abstraction and the ideas of home, borders and exile in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.