Ari Nesher fell asleep at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 2008. His family was on a tour, and at a certain point, the six year old simply got tired and took a rest on some pillows at the center of a contemporary art gallery. It was a spontaneous and genuine expression of “museum fatigue.”
Ari’s mother, Tel Aviv-based art photographer Iris Nesher, snapped a shot of him in repose. When she looked at the image again when she got home, she realized it was far more than just a family photo.
“It had more of a feeling of a photograph I take during my artistic endeavors, not one I take normally as a mother. I felt this photograph had a resonance beyond my little boy being in a museum space. I felt like he looked like a piece of art. He was no less beautiful than the art around him, and he was in dialogue with it,” Nesher told The Times of Israel.
Nesher placed the photo in a file on her desktop she titled, “Ari sleeps in museums.” As Ari grew up, Nesher took hundreds of photos of him in European museums, galleries and art-filled churches the family visited while on vacation or business for Nesher or her husband, acclaimed Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher.
As Ari got older, he became a partner in the process, helping choose the artworks he would pose in front of and how to position himself. In keeping with the theme, he was always lying, leaning or sprawled — on a bench, against a wall, or over the back of a pew. Mother and son decided the endpoint of the project would be Ari’s 18th birthday, at which time they would put together an exhibit of the work.
Tragically, Ari never made it to 18. He died in a road accident in September 2018, just as he turned 17. His parents donated his organs, an altruistic gesture eerily foretold by the last photograph Nesher took for the series, when her son was 16 and a half. It was of Ari — eyes closed — limply leaning over a pew at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. He is positioned directly under the shadow of a crucifix hanging high overhead.
A little over a year after Ari’s death, Nesher met with The Times of Israel at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art to view and talk about “Out of Time,” a video installation that includes 16 of her portraits of Ari “sleeping” in museums. Going through with the exhibition helped Nesher cope with her grief.
In some ways it is the same exhibition Nesher and her son had planned, and in others it is significantly different. Originally, it was meant to highlight Nesher’s unique creative relationship with her son, and the evolution of his growing appreciation for art.
It was about our sense of humor. Many times when we shot the photographs they were very funny
“It was about our sense of humor. Many times when we shot the photographs they were very funny… We were enjoying it. We were laughing. For him it was enjoying our time together in the museum setting. This was a way of making him be a part of my life, and slowly exposing him to art in a manner that would be interesting,” Nesher explained.
The project took on a different meaning and tone after “the accident,” as Nesher repeatedly referred to her son’s death. But she refuses to see it as a a memorial to Ari.
“I see it as a video art, and not at all as a memorial. That is the way I think it should be viewed,” said Nesher, who is also a sculptor and ceramicist.
There is undeniable beauty in the composition of the images that run on a large-screen, seven-minute loop projection to a haunting soundtrack written by Ian Post. However, it is impossible for anyone aware of the handsome and talented Ari’s tragic death to look at “Out of Time” without a deep sense of sadness.
At the suggestion of the museum’s curator Aya Lurie, Nesher went back and looked through her desktop folder. She ended up spotting images she had originally passed over. One is of Ari at the library of the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art in 2013. He lies prostrate on a bench under a sign that reads, “Tell us you were here.”
What was intended as a routine request for feedback via social media from museum-goers obviously takes on a very different — and profound — connotation when paired with the image of a boy who is no longer living.
Other images take on unforeseen symbolism, such as one of Ari in front of “Who Owns What?” — a large-scale print by American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger at the Tate Modern in London. The shot was taken when Ari was about 13 or 14, and was one of the first ones for which Ari took on the role of full creative partner to his mother.
“Ari chose this piece. I think it spoke to him… First, it was because it has some kind of element of graffiti to it, which he really loved. The text meant a lot, too. It’s really about a question of property. What are we the owners of? If we buy a house, does it mean that we really own it, that it is going to last? If we marry someone, does it really mean that he is ours? If we buy a piece of art, does it mean that it is ours — or does it belong to the artist, or to the museum where it is showing?” Nesher asked.
“We try to feel like we are in control of our life, but you can’t control everything. It’s the same when we have a child. You don’t really own your child,” she said.
You don’t really own your child
Although the Herzliya Museum had long expressed interest in showing the “Ari sleeps in museums” photographs, Nesher was doubtful she would work, let alone mount this particular exhibition, after Ari’s death. It was a providential encounter with an art installation in Rome just two months after the accident that convinced Nesher to return to work on both this show, and an exhibition of her work entitled “The Dark Matter of Motherhood,” which is set to open in March 2020 at the Nomas Foundation in Rome.
Upon arriving in Rome for a retrospective of Avi Nesher’s work, the bereaved couple went for a walk in the Villa Borghese. On the edge of the park, they came across the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna. On the stairs leading up the grand building was the phrase “time is out of joint” from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”
“This is so much the place where we are at. You really fall out of the normal cycle of time. You are in a different loop of time. Time stands still,” Nesher said about grief.
Also on the steps were large sculptures of lions. Ari is Hebrew for lion. Nesher took it as a sign.
All Nesher could think about was that this would have been the perfect place to have shot the final image for her museum series with Ari. But such a photograph was not to be.
“Then I thought maybe it would be interesting for me to be photographed with my eyes closed in the setting, surrounded by the lions with this text,” Nesher said.
After her husband snapped the shot, Nesher downloaded it onto her computer back at their hotel and she decided it would serve as the final image in the video. A blurred dark figure of a motorcyclist passing behind Nesher appears as a threatening angel of death.
Later, inspired by the 1962 French science fiction short film “La Jetée” directed by Chris Marker, Nesher returned to the exact spot to have photos taken of her with her eyes open. Nesher’s husband and their 22-year-old daughter Tom took still shots and video of her. The video was a direct reference to “La Jetée,” as the only moving image in the film, otherwise comprised exclusively of stills, is of a woman who has seen the death of the hero opening her eyes.
“In the end, I opted to use one of the still photographs. Using Photoshop, I implanted the open eyes into the image of the closed eyes. I wanted the frame to stay still. ‘Time is out of joint’ means time stands still. The only thing that changes is the eyes opening. Everything else stands still,” Nesher said of how she put together the final image of the video that slowly, seamlessly shifts from eyes closed to eyes open.
While the opening of Nesher’s eyes may symbolize her having witnessed death, she agrees with this reporter’s suggestion that it could also connote that she is finding a way to navigate through her grief, move forward, and continue to create.
“Yes, it means I am going to actively participate in life,” she said.
“Out of Time” runs at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art through January 25, 2020. It will also be shown at MAXXI – National Museum of 21st Century Art in Rome, beginning November 24.