The Art of Simon Stålenhag

A few years ago, I came across a painting by the artist Simon Stålenhag.

The painting showed a remote landscape in the Swedish countryside. A father and son were out walking together and in the distance, a giant mechanical structure lay in ruin.

The mechanical structure looked like it was from the future. The father and son looked like they were from the past.

A week ago, I stumbled upon the same painting in a local bookstore. The artist had produced a whole book on the topic, with a backstory of a retro-futuristic Sweden. It was a fictional story of a ruined world and simultaneously an allegory for our times.

He called it Tales from the Loop.

I read the book and watched the Amazon series of the same name. In doing so, I was trying to understand what made me stop and stare at that painting so many years ago. Reading the book, I wanted to understand the world according to Simon Stålenhag.

Tales from the Loop begins with an explanation of the Loop, a fictional experimental particle accelerator built deep within the Swedish underground, producing all sorts of spin off technology.

Our parents worked there. Riksenergi’s service vehicles patrolled the roads and the skies. Strange machines roamed the woods, the glades, and the meadows. Whatever forces reigned deep below sent vibrations up through the bedrock, the flint lime bricks, and the Eternit facades, and into our living rooms.

The book is set in the 1950s and yet the technologies are from another era entirely. The everyday images of a father and a son, a group of friends, or a man carrying his shopping home are offset against the looming vision of futuristic machinery, creating a strange contrast.

The landscape was full of machines and scrap metal connected to the facility in one way or the other. Always present on the horizon were the collosal cooling towers of the Bona reactor, with their green obstacle lights.

What initially drew me to Stålenhag’s artworks was his use of light. In each work, the landscape is bathed in a pastel pink, orange or blue, which blends into the surroundings. Usually, this is exaggerated further by mist and shadow. No matter the time of day, his paintings always feel like twilight.

There is something haunting about it. It is the eerie light of the early morning or the final flare of sun in the late afternoon, just before the darkness creeps in. It hints at something beyond our vision and beyond our realm of comprehension. And that is what Stålenhag is trying to do, expand how we see the world around us.

Emerson once wrote that it is very difficult to see what is right in front of us. How often do we pay attention to the sun setting or rising, or the colour of the light as it hits the skyscrapers as we walk down a busy city street? How often do we look down at our feet, rather than setting our shoulders back and looking up at the world? 

Looking at Stålenhag’s work, I am confronted by the beauty of nature and at the same time the imposition, the interruption of nature, by technology. Many of the retro futuristic machines  lie broken and in ruin, dotting the landscape, interrupting the natural flow of the hills and valleys and the flow of sunlight itself.

There is a permanent reminder in his works that technology scars the landscape, it brutalizes the forests and the trees, it marks the hills and valleys. It causes pain.

The factory on Davensko had been almost completely reclaimed by nature by the late 80s. At the back of the factory complex, in a large concrete building, was a big hall where the roof had caved in a long time ago. Once upon a time the final assembly of huge magnetrine discs had taken place here, beneath the waters of a large reservoir. The ruins of the hall were a favorite spot for the local children to sneak into.Large schools of tiny perch swam beneath the surface…

Stories were told of something huge and horrible living down there in the water.

Unfortunately, the Amazon TV show based on the paintings does not have the same aura of mystery to it. There is something lost when the paintings come to life, and when the real stories of people play out on screen. Having said that, the visuals of the show are still beautiful. They still capture that feeling of a world broken down into its constitutive parts.

Stålenhag painted his artworks after the fall of the Soviet Union. The inspiration is telling. He drew from the failed scientific experiments of the Cold War, imagining how they would have changed our daily lives. His pictures show a hypothetical future we could have lived, had things gone slightly differently. In showing us the future inside of the past, Stålenhag confronts us with our future.

He raises big questions. What does it mean when technology interferes with our lives? Can a technology die? And what can we build out of the rubble? 

These questions remind me of another story, The Machine Stops, by the author EM Forster, written in 1909.

The story is famous for predicting instant messaging and more recently, predicting the video chat lifestyle of Covid-19. But for current purposes, it’s main relevance is how it shows humans becoming increasingly reliant on technology at the expense of their connection to nature.

Forster wrote of a world where people lived underground in hexagonal bunkers, communicating with each other using video calls. They have their entire lives catered for by a godlike Machine. A machine they worship in reverence. It even has its own bible. The characters in the story never leave the underground paradise they have constructed.

The machine gives them everything they need to survive. There is no need to ever go outside or go for a walk. There is no need to see the world.

That is, until the machine starts malfunctioning. The protagonist, Vashti, makes a dangerous journey by air to visit her son, a rebel predicting the machine’s ultimate demise. On the way there, she is confronted by the world around her: by the stars and the air, and the landscape spinning by through the clouds below. She wishes to shut the blinds of the airship but she cannot. She has no choice but to see the world. She is confronted by what is right in front of her. She is forced to open her eyes.

It is in this confrontation that I understand the core of the story. Forster is making us question what it means when we become so detached from the world, from nature, from our surroundings, that they become foreign to us, a distant abstraction. A machine may provide us with comfort and security, he seems to suggest, but it can never make us feel alive.

(Spoilers ahead)

When the machine stops working in the story, Vashti again exits her underground room to see the chaos of people scrambling at all costs to survive. They are unable to do so, because they have lost their God. In putting the machine above all else, they have become dependent and  vulnerable. Without it, they cannot survive.

Forster’s story concludes in the most brutal way, with the death of the believers. Hundreds of people jump to their deaths, unable to handle life without the security of the machine.

But it need not end that way.

Stålenhag shows us a different ending. In showing people living in the ruins of the machines of the past and the distant future, he shows us a path. A way to move beyond our reliance on technology.

His work gives us a few core lessons. We need not have everything at our fingertips in order to be happy. We can still exist and thrive in the ruins of our collective past. Indeed, it is our connection to other people that can sustain us, even in an uncertain future with science fiction becoming a reality. If there’s one thing I take from his work it’s this:

Even with the greatest technology at our fingertips, we still need each other to survive.

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