This contains spoilers for the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker and the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
Films have become a mainstay in our house during Lockdown 3. Our taste is indiscriminate, but films-we-think-we-should-have-watched has been a recurring theme. So it was that last Saturday night we settled down to watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
Does it expose me as a philistine if I tell you it was the first time I’ve seen a Tarkovsky movie? It makes me feel like one, anyway. His name is so often referenced in the art world, usually in tones of hushed reverence. I’ve had him on the must-watch list for some time but just never got around to it. Worse: I didn’t really enjoy it. It’s very long, very intense, and very slow.
These qualities cam as a particular surprise because I knew it was loosely based on Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky. Loosely is a word doing a lot of work in that sentence. I love Roadside Picnic. It turns out that Stalker bears practically zero relation to the book in terms of plot, or even particularly of spirit. One is a short sci-fi novel written in concise chapters, the other is a viewing experience – a phrase which feels more correct than story – drawn out over almost three hours.
I don’t mind saying that I didn’t enjoy watching Stalker. It’s very long, and very slow. And very full of deep discourse. These men do love to talk about very serious things in very serious conversations. But it didn’t leave me unaffected. Once the boredom of the watching has dissipated, I was left with thoughts about , The stories which build over the long, long walk of these three men finish up as something complete in themselves.
Weighing this up got me thinking about the things the film does have in common with its basic source material. It’s absolutely a loose translation, but it can nevertheless be called an interpretation because the sense of several things I like in the book does remain.
This then got me thinking: if I’ve found these profoundly affecting in these two sources, can I find similar themes in visual art? Who else is trying to tap into these themes? And do they work in the same way?
When I think of detritus, I think of Chernobyl. To our eyes, it’s easy to see in Stalker an uncanny mirror of the future wastelands around the site of that disaster.
I’ve been to Chernobyl. The trip had this weird balance between reassurance and very real concern, You can walk around some sites fairly freely – but not if there’s a gap between your socks and trousers. The land is, like The Zone, unpredictably unsafe. The guide’s Geiger counter goes off at random times, just as Stalker’s nut-throwing will occasionally reveal death traps.
Chernobyl is also full of things left behind. Before I went I was familiar with photo essays about the floors of the building strewn with things left behind in an evacuation everyone believed would last a few days at most.
But though apparently obvious, Chernobyl is actually a bad parallel to what makes the detritus of The Zone so powerful. Visiting the abandoned orphanage feels voyeuristic, whereas The Zone is unexplained. One of the things I love about Roadside Picnic is how unknown it is – and how that’s not what matters. Who left these objects behind, or what their effects are beyond their names, is mostly left unexplained. The detritus only comes into our view in relation to what it is to the characters: danger, commodity, research object. Even then, we never know it as much as they do.
Most of these objects don’t make it into Stalker – they’re too sci-fi for Tarkovsky. But there’s long shots of detritus floating, indistinctly, just under the surface. The effect is similar: what has happened here is unknown, who left these behind also unknown. Tread carefully.
I actually first heard of Roadside Picnic through the visual arts. It’s reference by Mike Nelson in this interview about his 2019 Tate Britain show ‘The Asset Strippers’. And I understand why: out of context in this environment, most of these objects have indiscernible meanings. They’re as alien to our post-industrial everyday as an ‘Empty’ is to the world of The Zone.
On the other hand, it wasn’t enough to leave visitors adrift in puzzlement. Nelson has the human need to fashion a particular story out of his assemblage. He admits as much in the press release, which tells us that he’s “interested in the cultural and social contexts behind the objects he has carefully selected, as well as their material qualities”1. It’s a human thing, this, to need order in the universe. Consciously or otherwise, we can’t help but create narratives to rationalise what objects exist for. It’s what makes Stalker and Roadside Picnic so disarming. There’s little for us to grasp onto as comprehensible within human frames of reference. Perhaps this is a particular issue within visual art because the sense of sight is so fundamental to how we build worlds to be perceived. That’s not to say it’s a fault, just an inevitability. And one which maybe even the Stalkers fall prey to.
How real is The Zone? On the one hand it’s a real geographic space, heavily guarded and entered with strictest caution. On the other hand, it’s far more than simply a geographic location to the Stalkers of both book and film. Some of Stalker Red Schuhart’s thoughts in the first chapter of Roadside Picnic are laughable: “I don’t like the look of that tire.” On the other hand, he might well have a connection with the Zone others don’t. He’s the only one who sees the glittering cobweb that, we’re led to believe, kills Kirill Panov. The same can be said of Tarkovsky’s iteration of the Stalker, too. Writer & Professor question more than once why Stalker insists on taking them such a long way round to The Room. Stalker’s route, especially at the start, is based on an instinct for which way he should through his bolts.
Both are guided as much by feelings as by knowledge; in both cases, it’s left an open question whether they’re deluded. But just because they’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re wrong. The Zone is a slippery place, one which can’t be entered with rational convictions. Geting too comfortable gets you killed.
The sense of uncertainty and that nothing is what it seems makes a comparison to Surrealism easy. The movement deliberately set out to throw us off from images of reality as we know it: melting clocks, spirits, faceless men. But while they get to the possibility that there are forces in the world we can’t quite understand, they generally miss out on the uncertainty. The thing is that to represent something visually is to make it, in a sense, a reality. I feel this about not just Surrealism, but most representative art that tries to depict an ‘other’: that’s there’s only so far it can actually succeed.
Personally I find abstract work more analogous. Take one of my favourites, Bridget Riley. You can never get a proper grasp of a Riley. You can briefly feel grounded on one particular point – say, a dot – but then it slides away from you. They’re arranged just so because they couldn’t be any other way, but what that way is shifts with each view.
The importance of hope is one of the main conclusions arrived at in both Roadside Picnic and Stalker.
Through ‘The Golden Sphere’ or ‘The Room’, characters have the opportunity to make a wish that is guaranteed to come true. Or rather, to see their deepest desires fulfilled. This difference is significant, and characters change as they realise this and grapple with the question of what that is. What would it mean for that to happen?
My source materials conclude this search in two very different ways. In the first a wish is made; in the latter plans are left unfulfilled. But all choices are motivated by the need for hope. There’s a very real risk that the fulfilment of these desires will end in disaster, or at the very least regret. What’s particularly clear in Stalker is that the need for this belief is too valuable to risk sacrificing. A world without hope is too terrible to bear.
If you google the words “art” and “hope” together in any form, all the top results are listings of the 1982 Gerhard Richter quote “art is the highest form of hope“. It’s an easy line for motivational quote websites to pick up on, vague enough to inspire listicles, and an easy hook for articles.
But what can it be pinned to beyond these trite uses? I’ve been thinking about whether what Richter mean by “hope” bears any relation to the way it’s such a desperate, necessary element of the life expressed in my sources.
In one interview, Richter gives the example of the Isenheim Altarpiece (as an example of hopeful art. Hopeful because it captures very real human pain with what he sees as a distinctive, yet undeniable beauty. Using religious art as the exemplifier, on hand, makes me sigh a little because it’s so obvious. Religious art is meant to point to hope. Shit out of luck in this life? Don’t worry, things will get better eventually. This is maybe especially true of Medieval religious art because everyone’s lives were shit most of the time. This art had a pretty blatant function to smooth that over.
But using the Isenheim Altarpiece as an example makes me think that actually, Richter’s getting at the exact same thing. Not just for the beauty as an objective force – that’s a different kind of force – but more practically, on what effect such beauty may have on the viewer.
The Altarpiece is particularly notable for its stark medical/anatomical detail. Jesus’ pain is obvious and grotesque: he’s a rotting corpse, not an ideal. This is a context-driven aesthetic: it was created for a monastery which specialised in treating a grim disease called Saint Anthony’s Fire, the plague-like symptoms of which are painstakingly recreated2. If I was suffering from disease-induced gangrene and insanity and believed my symptoms to be a sign that I was destined for hell3, I’d be desperate for a hope, too. Seeing Christ depicted so truly enduring my sufferings might be as powerful a promise as Room offers – a proposition which makes suffering not exactly bearable, but less fearful.
Does Richter get to this in his own work? Sometimes, almost. I feel some for of it in his mirror paintings. Whether we get to see the world beyond us or gaze into a dark abyss, he spares us from the existential crisis of having to confront ourselves in a glass darkly.
What exactly was I looking for when I started thinking about this piece? I guess what all Art History does – looking for parallel thoughts, different iterations of ideas , to find out whether I can fashion my own answer to how the human condition has been explored. If I haven’t found precise mirrors to Stalker or Roadside Picnic in the visual arts, I’m not at all concerned. what you can achieve in a film or novel is quite different to what you can in visual art, and that’s as it should be. It makes each of their worlds more unique, their impact more significant as novel parts of a jumbled puzzle, as messy and uncertain at The Zone worlds.