© Chloe Dewe Mathews, Nozh, from the series Nadsat: Excerpts from an Illustrated Dictionary

Ideas Series: Creating Nadsat

Award winning British photographer Chloe Dewe Mathews discusses her work Nozh, from the series Nadsat: Excerpts from an Illustrated Dictionary her BPB14 commission for Evolving in Conversation.

In 1961 Anthony Burgess was struggling to complete the book that was to become A Clockwork Orange. It would be a novel about the relationship between the individual and society, focusing on the punishment of young criminals and possibility of redemption. He wanted to manipulate language to see if he could use it as a brainwashing device, but he didn’t know how. It was while preparing to take a cruise with his wife from Tilbury to Saint Petersburg that the answer came to him: Russian. Alex, the protagonist and narrator of his story, would speak Russian, or at least a strange hybrid dialect mixing teen-slang with crudely transliterated Russian. The effect would be, as he saw it, to turn the book itself into a “brain washing primer”. He wanted people to read the book and by the end, to find themselves “in possession of a minimal Russian vocabulary – without effort, with surprise.” This new language, Nadsat, would behave “like a mist” veiling the extreme violence of the book. It would also become the defining trait of his masterpiece.

During recent weeks, while working in Russia on my CASPIAN project, I re-read A Clockwork Orange. Like Burgess, I was waiting to catch a boat (in my case, a ferry down the Volga) and like Burgess, I was also learning Russian and became increasingly interested in his idea of “language as mist”. During that weekend, I started work on a photographic dictionary of Nadsat: a series of pictorial clues that could be used to unlock the illusive language.

I combed the city for real examples of Alex’s mangled vocabulary. I began with the word ‘maloko’ (meaning ‘milk’ in Russian, the infamous drink that Alex and his ‘droogs’ enjoy before going out for an evening of ultra-violence). By chance, someone ordered a milkshake at the cafe I was sitting in. I quickly snapped it, but looking at the photo a few moments later, I realised it wasn’t quite right: what I’d taken suggested ‘milkshake’ or ‘drink’, whereas for this project I needed an image that simply said ‘milk’. So I scoured the town’s supermarkets for a definitive milk bottle, but each frame I took seemed to speak of broken shelves or cartoon cats bounding across the packaging rather than the milk inside. Within every image was a whole series of inadvertent messages; I wondered why I hadn’t thought about this in my work before? However, rather than using sterile white backdrops to eliminate all potential distractions, I wanted to allow a certain amount of everyday detail into my visual dictionary. I wanted a sense of context and to make connections with Russia, the country from where the words derive.

And so the project evolved. It seemed appropriate to post the photographs directly to Brighton, so I used instant film, because there were no photo labs where I could develop my 120mm film in that part of Russia. I decided to send back the physical prints in envelopes that would become part of the finished piece – the linguistic journey from Russian to Nadsat echoing the postal journey my prints would make, from their origins in Russia, back to England. As I write this, they are somewhere on that journey, 30,000 feet above Poland perhaps, heading West, or maybe already sitting in a Sussex sorting office. Wherever they are, their cultural identity will, I hope, turn out to be as confused as that of the Nadsat language.