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Simon Stålenhag - Past Futures

Words:

Edd Norval
January 9, 2021

Swedish concept artist Simon Stålenhag has been on the radar for some time now, creating vignettes of a parallel world, where the future - or what looks like the future - has crash-landed into the landscape of his youth. Last year, his works were turned into a successful Amazon Prime series.

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Although there’s nothing inherently sad about his images, it’s hard to deny that they drip with a certain melancholy, as if worlds have collided and neither one can make sense of the other. A lot the images feature a child or teenager, people of the age where they’re still sounding out their surroundings and to whom, having a huge robot roaming around must be the introduction to questions of existence and what it means to be human.


We reflect on our past with the freedom provided by hindsight. Limitations of immediacy, the very constraints of time, no longer operate to influence our perspective. Lingering feelings of sorrow, jealousy, anger or confusion may tint how we see it, but we rarely evaluate the past better than now. 


Yet, overwhelming nostalgia is there too. In Stålenhag’s work, the past - regardless of looming spaceships and robots - seems like a freer place and time. Young boys seek out a robot in a field, older boys agitate robots in yet another field. Although boasting a futuristic aesthetic, these are illustrations of a strained coexistence that feels exciting - almost like the artist is telling his children the story of simpler times of his own youth.

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It has become a well-worn trope to describe ourselves as yearning for a past that never was, as our memories seem to blunt the edges of reality, our minds construct an idealised version of the past. Stålenhag takes this idea to its logical conclusion. The clothes, the cars, the aesthetic is clearly of the past - but the sci-fi tech on show betrays it as mere fantasy. Despite this time’s glaring imperfections, it’s hard not to look at those images and wonder what it might be like to experience first-hand.


This feeling must be common. It’s not every day that an illustrator’s work is so evocative that it becomes a hit show on Amazon Prime. Yet, Tales from the Loop develops a premise based around exactly that. Alongside the show’s great critical reception, it’s success highlights how popular the Swedish illustrator was and is, as well as hinting as what will be.


His imagination and visual style have that rare quality of being able to make us think and feel together, to want something immaterial in a world where we are programmed to long for the material. He didn’t sell high fantasy, sex or political intrigue; no cars, diamonds or riches. Stålenhag manifested a feeling that many, many others wanted to feel.

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