Working in secret amid the deprivation and censorship of Soviet rule, Alexey Titarenko conceived Nomenklatura of Signs as a way to translate the visual reality of Soviet life into a language that expressed its absurdity. This groundbreaking series of photomontages and photocollages created a hierarchy of symbols that, together, form a nomenclature — or, in Russian, nomenklatura, a term for the system by which government posts were filled in the Soviet Union. In his article “Alexey Titarenko: Nomenklatura of Signs” in the October 2023 issue of Black and White magazine, photography historian and curator George Slade explains: “We commonly understand nomenclature as a system of specialized signs and symbols. Nomenklatura is a Soviet phenomenon addressing what in American culture of the 1960s might be referred to as “the Establishment”—that is, the power brokers and gatekeepers who influence decision-making and socio-economic ascendancy.”
Drawing inspiration from the aesthetics of Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko, and other artists of the early 20th-century Russian avant-garde, Titarenko captured an uncanny, darkly comic world in which language is controlled and subverted much like the Newspeak of George Orwell’s 1984. Slade writes: “For those of you whose Russian or Cyrillic decoding is a bit rusty, the texts in these images merit translation. ‘Observe cleanliness,’ for one… Other images in the Nomenklatura series take their titles from signs reading: ‘strengthen the world through labor’ and ‘economize electricity,’ banal civic encouragement toward a robust Russian state. Titarenko refers to these as ‘slogans of colossal dimensions.’ Some of the most mundane street signs in the portfolio, featuring T shapes and numbers providing locations of storm drains, are quotidian yet trenchant analogues to the cited Solzhenitsyn passage. When Titarenko’s photographs zoom in on them, as in Backyard with plaques, their utilitarian notations assume a very dark cast. A Russian never quite knew when or where they might disappear into the subterranean worlds of the gulag.”
“These are layered works, both conceptually and literally. Titarenko prints through multiple negatives, creating overlaid façades that press meaning into a single plane. He also uses brushed-on sepia toning to create grey-yellow highlights in the photographs…”
Nomenklatura of Signs (1986-1991) was exhibited for the first time at the Drouart Gallery in Paris in 1989, just before the collapse of the USSR. Shortly after this debut, work from the series toured museums in the United States as part of the Aperture Foundation’s landmark show Photostroika: New Soviet Photography. In 1992, an audiovisual projection of the series was shown at the Centre National de la Photographie at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and the following year the series was exhibited at the Russian State Museum in St. Petersburg. Nomenklatura of Signs was also a part of the exhibition Self-Identification: Positions in St. Petersburg Art from 1970 until Today, which toured Europe in 1994 and 1995. Today, prints from the series can be found in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University; the European House of Photography, Paris; the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg; and the Centre national de l’audiovisuel, Luxembourg, among other museums and institutions.
The monograph Alexey Titarenko: Nomenklatura of Signs, designed by Kelly Doe Studio in New York and published by Damiani in 2019, presents the series in its entirety for the first time and includes essays by Jean-Jacques Marie, art historian Gabriel Bauret, and curator and art historian Ksenia Nouril.