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Alien Past Inside the Present – Simon Stålenhag (w/ Nigel Kneale, Strugatsky Brothers)

The books, stories and images of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag (b.1984) have certainly made an impact in the last decade, landing deep into the culture with their alluring and dreamy visions of retro-futural technologies in rural and other settings. What began as online paitings have subsequently found release in the form of books, a role playing game scored by Philip Glass and even an Amazon streaming TV series.

Early

Stålenhag, engaged with landscape illustration from a young age, when he was influenced by paintings like those of Lars Jonsson (further below) while drawing in later work upon concept artists like Syd Mead and Ralph McQuarrie among others, who gained subsequent renown for their work on genre-defining science fiction films of the 70’s and 80’s. Their images and paintings fundamentally shaped how the stories of luminary directors were to be realised.

Something that marks Stålenhag out however, is his pairing of the kinds of compositional skill demonstrated by these artists, with a powerful story involving a re-dreaming of the landscapes of his childhood Sweden, now populated by technologies that are both somehow normalised and yet retain a presence of what (to us) remains alien.

This to my mind is fascinating in being a return to painting (and the still image) as a keystone of generating the space, feeling and affect of stories (and story telling), in a way which ramifies the earlier impacts of McQuarrie et al and does so unencumbered by being primarily a tool for movie-making. That it has been as successful demonstrates the singular force and precision of this as a milieu (and its retro-contemporised futurality) as a kind of dreaming within the culture.

Many have focused on this retro-futural-by-way-of-an-alternate-past that sets the scene for Stålenhag’s stories, yet what is also of interest here is the way this represents the alien (primarily in the form of unknown technology) arriving as pre-established and embedded in recent human culture. An alien which has some tantalisingly familiar aspects and is cleverly inculcated through the openness of childhood and the nostalgia-tinged Gen-X recollections of being children in the 70’s/80’s (a version of which is virtually available to all).

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The focus here will be on Stålenhag’s first book ‘Tales from the Loop‘ (2014) – the brief introduction to which mentions the initial discovery and point of seismic technological departure which took place in the Soviet Union of the 1960’s; ‘…the seemingly random discovery of the Megatrine effect…’. It’s interesting that Stålenhag places this paradigm-changing emergence in the Soviet era with its story and aesthetic of Communist human-triumphalism. This was the cosmic side of labour, expressed through artwork and propaganda displaying humans as edging with exultant stoicism into the unknown of the cosmos.

While the titular Loop (a massive particle accelerator) of Stålenhag’s story is located in Sweden, whose terrains and snowscapes are an important character in the (digital) paintings, this connection with the old Soviet Union remains a minimal but significant ingredient. It is the functional effect of this technological transformation (and in effect; departure) that Stålenhag visits, its originatory context now dead-ended in cultural and social terms as part of a lost system of social state governance and ideology. While this thread of departure with its Soviet inception brings to mind also film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky as well as the science fiction writings of the Strugatsky brothers (more below). Which among other things emerge from the USSR’s culture and conception of human life and technology (and their mutual incursions) as well as how these things are depicted.

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It’s also important to acknowledge the role of a kind of nostalgia here. These are 80’s-set scenes and yet they cannot simply be nostalgic on their own, as they are also alien to us. As such, the nostalgia also channels through the film and story media of this time, which have leaked in and effectuate a harking to a relatively innocent strand of encountering and joining with the alien (here we can think primarily of Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial and Close Encounters of the Third Kind). And while not noted especially as being radical, its still important that both of these stories involve a contact with the alien which is achieved against the aegis of state forces.

As such, it is with a nostalgia for these kinds of stories which inculcate the alien in the suburban or rural in an unthreatening way that is still subtly incurred with the unknown. The first painting one comes across inside the book captures this sense of approach succinctly.

In the above, the boy on his BMX could easily have ridden directly from the set of Spielberg’s 1982 film E.T. The Extra Terrerstrial. Its clearly a component (alongside the cute mecha design aesthetic of many of the robots) of the feeling of ease that comes from many of these images. The mist in this image adds mystery and a separation from the homes and houses in the background, a separation from the ordinary and routine. The land is a real presence and part of why these images are so effective, is that Stålenhag remains a landscape painter whose sense of composition and clear love of spaces and terrains are vital dramatic components.

While it maybe something which is explored more in later work (for example Stålenhag’s 2018 book The Electric State – where the action has moved onto a retro-reformulated US style state in the 1990’s) this collection does not generally waiver towards a threatening or dark-alien tonality, instead incepting through this warm cultural gateway promulgated by the likes of Mead-McQuarrie-Spielberg-Lucas and I would contend, all the more unencumbered and disarmingly powerful for it.

Something we’ll come onto is also that children are a regular foil in Stålenhag’s work – while in drawing from these seminal science fiction architects of the 70’s and 80’s whose productions crossed a threshold into the cultural mainstream – he is also invariably connected with their own popularising of a sense of technologically enthralled story-telling. A futurity and alien-ised extent are presented with care and nuance, depth and empathy (it brings to mind also the kind of story lens used by Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli).

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Oneiric affects

This image, accompanying a text about ‘The Bona Plant’ is one of the images that inspired this post. A dream I recounted here, experienced while hiking in the Cevenne region of France in 2019 carried exactly this kind of affect, the hulking and alien buildings, eerily comfortable in setting. It was eerily close to Stålenhag’s buildings, more squat in shape and spread out, set significantly apart from each other; futuristic, darkly-tinted trapezoidal warehouses or block complexes, inscrutable and always backgrounded. Set back amidst and yet looming over – average UK suburban sprawls of terraced houses and drives, through-roads and cul-de-sacs.

It wasn’t long before I found myself drawn to the image above as a parallel way of accessing the affect of this dream. The installations themselves seemingly close enough and carrying enough of the alien about them that Stålenhag and his work began playing more on my mind in reference. A similar feeling of the alien-in-plain-sight, the vast semi-monolithic architectures, separate and unknown and yet plainly present and relevant.

In Stålenhag’s image, the three towers rise like sentinels above the snow-caked bungalows, while two children play in the snow. This only part-normalising of the alien is what allows these images and their world to hover between the acceptance-mundaneity of engineering tools (for example and as below) with the clearly otherly in form and realisation. This lack of clear identity, tied with the contrasting and self-evident lineages of functional design and colouration, branding and form – create the tension responsible for an exquisite co-emplacement of the known and unknown to such powerful effect.

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Children and what is not

As referenced above, the stories that accompany Stålenhag’s paintings, as well often as the images themselves – recurrently revolve around children.

This has the potential to speak to the child in each of us, while expressing the childhood sense of heightened discovery from their encounters with the world, that still from its sense of the unknown maintains something alien but also accepted. It is all the more tantalising that this becomes a surreptitious way of connecting with the memories, feelings and atmospheres of our own childhood. Through these compositions that treat as normal to the world, missing and unknown protuberances, tools and installations, alien to our present and past.

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Stålenhag installs the alien inside a past which never has been and yet lives like a dream in these stories and images, poised with inscrutable drama and agency. The films of Spielberg and Lucas (and the tonality of spaces generated by Mead, McQuarry and others) leave an emotional connection to these creations of Stålenhag which share the same sense of simple or somehow naive relationships.

It’s important though that this is an aspect of these technological forms which is coming through, as it fundamentally presents us with something whose typography of the alien is in some way allied with what is fugitively good in human beings (E.T. and Close Encounters spring once more to mind).

In terms of its own story, its obviously also important that these technological discoveries are coming from an epochal technicolgically progressive shift, something that – while rooted within the normalised of this story is also not referenced against any overt or clear weaponisation. This absence feels somehow significant, unencumbering.

As with this image, there is also a recurrent dereliction to be found in ‘Tales from the Loop’ (and other Stålenhag work), a key affective thread which I feel shares attributes with the idea of an ‘evacuated future’ that I was writing about here.

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Dereliction

Cover illustration by Fred Gambino.

As a child of 7 or 8, I ended up receiving the gift of the Stewart Cowley book from 1979 Spacewreck, Ghostships and Derelicts of Space which inspired complex and layered thoughts and responses from me. I can say that despite spending hours looking through it, I was too young or disinterested to read any of the stories, for me I had the sense that the images were the stories and they felt in their derelict and smashed remnant form, part of a universe completely remote and alien, long lived and autonomous. It was all the more striking for being relatively rarified – images of quality depicting science fictional worlds and concepts were far rarer at the time.

Maybe Simon Stålenhag had similar encounters, alongside those other artists he has mentioned and referenced above, who knows? However the theme of the abandoned / derelict amongst the advanced technological is once again at work.

Peter Elson (SpaceWreck 1979)

The derelicts in these images (in the case of the Cowley book produced by a number of artists) entails an intensifying aspect to our encountering them, the unknown/s of their appearance in occurrence and story and any sense of their own autonomy and reality lie dormant and locked away behind demise and what is left is a sustaining sense of mystery – the tang once more of the unknown as a conjoined and unaccessibly-storied entity.

Tony Roberts (SpaceWreck 1979)

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Nigel Kneale & The Strugatsky Brothers

The derelict and (this time) ancient-derelict of the alien was notably brought to early UK TV screens by the BBC production of Nigel Kneale’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ as a serial in 1958-59. A favourite on the pages of the Mark Fisher’s K-Punk blog, it was a story and theme he returned to with great success on a few occasions, such as here, when he noted over the course of Kneale’s Quatermass stories, the alien ‘…has become increasingly intimate’. After all by the time of Quatermass and the Pit, the Martian bodies discovered during the excavation of a fictitious London Underground station are understood to have interbred with early hominids in order to preserve their race. In this piece, Fisher also dances through quick striations of concepts of memory in the becoming-alien, touching upon Kneale’s story in Quatermass as a thesis of phylogenetic memory, while contrasting with JG Ballard’s The Drowned World as ‘Anticipating Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘geology of morals’ Ballard‘s innovation… in collapsing culture, psychology and biology into geology.’

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At a certain point in Tales from the Loop, descriptions and drawings are provided that dinosaurs have in some way managed to emerge into the sory’s quasi-near-past, through ‘eddies of spacetime‘ created by the more anomalous aspects of the technology to which the book and its stories refer.

In this respect, a move probably closest in spirit to the Strugatsky brother’s story of Roadside Picnic (adapted by Tarkovsky as ‘Stalker’ in 1979) and in which specialists called Stalkers, move through and navigate terrains which have been left behind by apparent visitation of aliens – as per Wikipedia ‘The zones exhibit strange and dangerous phenomena not understood by humans, and contain artifacts with inexplicable, seemingly supernatural properties.’

There is a shared sense of absence here too, in Stålenhag it is through the dereliction and other factors of distance between the origin of the Loop’s machines and faded wonders, while in the world of the Strugatsky’s – the visitations which created The Zone (there are six of these areas in their novel) are never witnessed or recalled by human beings. They remain instead a haunting presence defined partly by this absence and by the inexplicable and anomalous presence of the zone and those objects left behind, as suggested by its title, like the discarded remants of a roadside picnic.

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The painting above is the final one to be used in the book. A boy (for a moment I wondered if it might be Stålenhag) looking into a large rusted metal sphere. A circular hole at its centre, into the dark of which the boy leans. It is devoid of background – the white abstract void surrounds it. It is a telling final image, we the child; the non-judgmental eyes of which have been the lens necessary for part of Stålenhag’s effect here (and again calling to mind the methodology of Miyazaki). Then we have the object – the alien and yet adjacent sense of being a part of something else, a defunct machine or structure unknown. The boy stares inside, into the dark of the unknown. It is a simple and focused shorthand for those key attributes which have formed ‘Tales from the Loop’ and yet…

…All the while a question lingers, hanging among these transformed encounters and beings. If after all the thing that continues to resonate through these images and paintings is the planet and it’s terrains and spaces, rendered beautifully and with a strangely familiar tint to these alien forms and post-arrivals… The snowy worlds of Sweden, even when hardening into the roadsides and town-edges, the land and its forms remain there, more character than setting, in fact like some secret character whose whispers haunt the arrival of an understanding, alongside these stories and images – that one remains in a dream, even after having awoken…

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Wiki: Simon Stålenhag at the Göteborg Book Fair in September 2016

Banner image modified (probably unwisely) by AR

‘The Past Inside the Present’ is a reference to this majestic Boards of Canada track.

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