Of decaying dreams & the mundanely mysterious: The eerie irresistible sci-fi art of Simon Stålenhag’s Tales From The Loop

Gautham Shenoy August 4, 2018

I wish I had the childhood that the Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag had. Just look at the paintings contained in his artbook Tales From The Loop in which he has masterfully recreated scenes from his growing-up years in the 80s and 90s, and you will envy it too.

I used to think jumping into a river in spate from a rickety old wooden bridge was adventurous until I saw his haunting painting of the machine-filled lake he would go swimming in. I grew up playing under the shadow of trees we’d climb, but he under the shadows of massive cooling towers of abandoned reactors he’d explore. The first remote I saw was not changing channels on a television, not a glove-mounted remote that controlled a robot (see lead image above). The closest I came to dangerous animals was stray mongrels, not dinosaurs or cybernetic bison-boar like him. But then, unlike Simon Stålenhag, I didn’t grow up in a town with The Loop.

Left: The Moomin. Right: The Bona Towers.

The Loop was a massive particle accelerator commissioned by the Swedish government in the 1950s, located underground, deep below the rural Mälaröarna countryside that Stålenhag grew up in. For the time that The Loop was operational – from 1969 to 1994 – it was the world’s largest physics facility from which came many of the world’s scientific breakthroughs. At the heart of the accelerator lay the Gravitron, whose power was difficult to control, and which continues to influence events even after The Loop closed down, leaving in its wake discarded tech, eerie phenomena, weird machines and the detritus of decaying techno-optimistic dreams.

‘The Fire Guards’- a painting from Tales From The Loop, a scene from Stålenhag’s childhood.

It may seem unnerving to us, but for the residents of the town living alongside The Loop and its strangeness, is well, just another normal day of living. And Stålenhag captures the incongruity of the past living in the future with hauntingly beautiful art that draws you into itself. Sharing memories of his childhood primarily through his paintings with just enough accompanying text, Stålenhag transports us to his idyllic town in the eighties, a place where towers meant to cool the Gravitron dominate the skyline, where the mundane met the mysterious every day. His paintings evoke a sense of dread, comfort, fear, beauty and weirdness, of being familiar yet distant, recognizable and alien, all at once.

‘The Gauss Freighter’ – a painting of a scene from the 80s by Simon Stålenhag.

Unsettling in their incongruity yet tempered by the comfort of ordinariness that we can all relate to, Simon Stålenhag’s paintings in Tales From The Loop juxtapose the daily lives in rural Sweden in the 80s/90s with giant robots with rusting neo-futuristic outposts, and a bucolic countryside where automatons and cybernetic animals roam as they please. Read, nay see, the stories that Stålenhag relates of strange doors in basements, of friends with dinosaurs for pets, of twins switching bodies, of people gone missing leaving behind strange airships, and phones with single buttons.

Each Stålenhag painting in Tales From The Loop speaks a thousand words, with his short diary entries or recollections adding to the stories of him exploring abandoned reactors, coming across partially sentient robots, strange beasts, and stranger things.

Scenes from a childhood: Simon Stålenhag’s paintings from Things from the Flood, the follow-up book to Tales From The Loop.

All of this – of course – never happened. None of Stålenhag’s recollections are real.

The Loop doesn’t exist; never did, only its tales do.

Strange beasts, stranger things: ‘Invasive Species’- a painting by Simon Stålenhag.

Tales From The Loop is Stålenhag’s reminiscences of a childhood that never was, of a future that might – and could – have been, set in an alternate history with stories that are just that. But fabulously told through retro-futuristic sci-fi paintings that make this artbook a must-see, must-read experience for every fan of science fiction and great art.

Left: Simon Stålenhag in 2016. (Image via wikimedia commons). Right: Cover of Tales From The Loop featuring the pating, ‘Remote Glove’.

For the past few years, Simon Stålenhag and his paintings have gained somewhat of a cult following, and are immensely popular among science fiction fandom and art communities with his original mash-up of naturalistic landscape paintings with elements of science fiction and personal recollections of growing up in the eighties. In five short years, he has gone from someone who’d just shared his first painting on the internet to a person with three well-received and much-recommended narrative art books – Tales From The Loop, its sequel, Things from the Flood and the latest, The Electric State. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, Tales From The Loop was also adapted into a tabletop RPG.

Left: The RPG game based on Tales From The Loop. Right: Painting that portray scenes from Stålenhag’s imagined alternate futurist past.

It was then perhaps just a matter of time before the inevitable happened. That something as acclaimed as Tales From The Loop would enter the mainstream via Hollywood. And so it will soon, thanks to Amazon Studios, which is developing a live-action series based on the artbook – to be adapted by Legion writer Nathaniel Halpern – in what is perhaps the first instance of a major sci-fi series being based not on a book or comic but paintings from an art book. The series, however, will not be set in Sweden but in the United States. Again, inevitably.  Will the TV series do justice to Stålenhag’s paintings, will it be able to capture the sense of mystery, and captivate viewers the way Stålenhag’s paintings did to those who have seen them? I am hopeful, and I look forward to it. That said, I would highly recommend getting Tales From The Loop to experience this alternate futuristic past for yourself, to interpret it and experience it in your own inexplicable way. Happy reading!

Live long and prosper!


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