Science fiction robots and Soviet-era cosmonauts are juxtaposed in a series that playfully blurs the line between the real and the unreal, while hinting at a more sinister mistrust of mainstream media reporting.
The post-war years of the 1950s and ’60s saw huge technological advances in the fields of medicine, mechanical engineering, computing, and space travel. Heavily precipitated by the technological stand-offs of the emerging Cold War, speed of scientific progression and production soon became the defining characteristic of a powerful nation.
Prior to the Second World War, robot servants and spaceship rockets had been the stock-in-trade of Hollywood films and young boy’s pulp magazines. Now they were ever-increasingly the subjects of national news bulletins as America and the USSR boasted of new inventions and discoveries that pipped their rivals to various scientific posts.
(above) ‘G – Space Age Archaeology Fathers / Sons’; (below) 50s era robots feature heavily throughout the suite
Paolozzi’s response to the techno-hysteria came in the form of the Cloud Atomic Laboratory, a suite of 8 photo-etchings published in 1971. In it Paolozzi presented a series of images that, like the title of the suite, danced between science fact and fiction. Diagrams of monkeys in space-shuttle cockpits or photographs of chrome-pipe laboratories are made to seem as strange and unreal as a cartoon robot hammering nails into a wooden box.
Produced in the same grainy black and white tones as the newspaper photographs and television broadcasts of the 1950s, Cloud Atomic Laboratory posed a simple question: in a world where scientific truth was fast becoming stranger than fiction, and where superpowers were frequently exaggerating claims of technological capabilities, how reliable were these messages relayed to us by the media?
By the early 1970s, Paolozzi had begun experimenting with etching techniques and the production of photogravure plates. After witnessing fellow printmaker Gordon House preparing a set of photo-etchings in his studio in 1970, Paolozzi sought out the help of Lyndon Haywood of Editions Alecto to help develop his own method in the medium.
The process involved in translating each image was carefully chosen in order to mirror the ‘acts of illusion’ that Paolozzi had sought to undermine with the suite. Haywood was a trained artist and designer in commercial advertising, and was tasked with using an airbrush and industry techniques to recreate genuine photographs chosen by Paolozzi.
These images were then contact printed onto a prepared copper plate which had been coated in a photosensitive film. When exposed to light, the lacquered film would harden into an acid-resistant barrier, while unexposed areas were left unaltered and washed off as the plate was submerged in the acid bath.
Each plate was kept small and, once finalised, cut tight to the borders of the print, retaining the small-scale, closely-cropped feel of a newspaper photo or a television image. The plates were then printed on presses by hand to maintain as great a control as possible on the quality of the printing and to achieve their unreal tone.
The cumulative effects of the printing process transformed ordinary journalistic photography into bizarre propaganda-esque illustrations or science fiction concept art, a series that presented, in Paolozzi’s own words, Content enlarged by precision. History shaded into the grey scale as in the television tube.
Though Paolozzi had been collecting the photographic materials used throughout the suite for almost two decades before it was published, the fuzzy black-and-white shades of Cloud Atomic Laboratory marked a significant break from the usual psychedelic colours of his 1960s pop-art prints. Instead, each image was doctored just enough to maintain a sense of pseudo-scientific fact, the possibility of a truthful record that, if discovered in years to come, could be puzzled over by future historians.
An unusual series from an artist familiar with the unusual, Cloud Atomic Laboratory demonstrates the impressive technical know-how that Paolozzi possessed in order to successfully realise his ideas, and offers an incisive view into a particular period in the history of science reportage that speaks powerfully of its time.
Weird and wonderful in equal measure, these etchings constitute a significant work in Paolozzi’s extensive graphic oeuvre.