Published on May 19th, 2014 | by Swamp Thing0
Visceral Visions And Beautiful Nightmares
H R Giger: 5th February 1940 – 12th May 2014
It’s 1977. Two men are examining a print of a painting in a book of work by an artist basically unknown outside of his native Switzerland. The painting is called Necronom IV and the book is Hans Rudolph Giger’s Necronomicon. It’s a moment that will change the landscape of science fiction cinema forever because the two men are Dan O’Bannon and Ridley Scott, and they have just found the look they want for the alien protagonist in the film they are working on.
In truth, H. R. Giger’s influence on the look and feel of Alien predates this pivotal moment in the film’s development. Giger and O’Bannon had met two years earlier whilst working on a never completed Dune project, and O’Bannon described the nightmarish quality of Giger’s airbrushed paintings as having a “profound effect” on him. When it became apparent that Dune was not to be, O’Bannon moved on to other things. One of those things was working on the visual effects for a film called Star Wars. Another was a script for a film about an alien encounter on a spaceship, which O’Bannon envisaged as a scarier retelling of his 1974 John Carpenter collaboration Dark Star, with many of the same core elements, including the utilitarian nature of the spaceship and the disparate collection of bickering crew members. O’Bannon later stated that as the script for Star Beast developed and morphed into Alien, so the creature at the heart of the story shaped itself into one of Giger’s nightmarish visions that had been stuck in O’Bannon’s head for two years. In his own words, O’Bannon “ended up writing a script about a Giger monster”.
Hans Rudolph (“Ruedi”) Giger was born in Chur, Switzerland, in 1940. He moved to Zurich in 1962, where he studied Architecture and industrial design at the School of Applied Arts. A sufferer of Night Terrors, he often cited his nightmares as the inspiration for his art and kept a notebook beside his bed to sketch the visions when he awoke. Prior to his work on Alien, he received some international recognition for in 1973 when he designed the cover for Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s 1973 album Brain Salad Surgery, and he would return to the music scene regularly throughout his career, designing album sleeves for the likes of Debbie Harry and Magma, stage show props and, famously, the microphone stand for Korn singer Jonathan Davies. It was also his work in the music scene which caused some of the biggest controversies of his career. The original sleeve design for Brain Salad Surgery was considered to be too sexually explicit and had to be edited before release, and the inclusion of the Giger designed limited edition poster ‘Penis Landscape’ with the 1985 Dead Kennedy’s album Frankenchrist got front man Jello Biafra arrested and charged with the distribution of ‘harmful matter’.
The inclusion of both male and female genitalia and overtly sexual imagery, usually surreal, often graphically detailed, was to be a recurring theme in Giger’s ‘biomechanical’ art, which blends organic components with machines, and it has lead to him being both praised as a uniquely visceral visionary and derided as a misogynistic pornographer. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but one thing is certain – if the purpose of art is to elicit a reaction, then Giger’s work was always fit for purpose.
In a 1979 interview in Starlog, Giger said “My paintings seem to make the strongest impression on people who are, well, who are crazy. A good many people think as I do. If they like my work they are creative… or they are crazy.”
The global recognition that came with the success of Alien allowed Giger to explore other avenues for his creativity, including furniture design and designing entire rooms and public spaces, most notably the ‘Giger Bars’. The first of these opened in Shirokanedai, Tokyo, in the late 1980s, but Giger severed his involvement with it when the owners went ahead with the build based only on preliminary sketches. There are two Giger Bars still open: the first, the H.R. Giger Bar in Chur, Switzerland, and The Museum HR Giger Bar, in Château St. Germain, Gruyères, Switzerland. The third Giger Bar was in The Limelight in New York City, but shut down when The Limelight closed. At the time of writing, Sci-Fi Hotel LLC is seeking possible locations for opening a new Giger Bar in the U.S.
Some critics argue that Giger did not single-handedly create the biomechanical art movement, but he is so closely linked with it that the word ‘Gigeresque’ came into existence to describe anything even remotely in that vein of surrealism. Perhaps there is no greater compliment for an artist than to have his name used to describe an artistic style, though I can’t pass comment on what Rubens or Dali thought about it.
So let us end where we began, with Ridley Scott, Dan O’Bannon and Alien. The film’s success set Scott off along the road that would have him recognised as one of the truly great directors of his age (and not just as the bloke who made that Hovis advert with the bike in the early 70s). Dan O’Bannon kept on writing stories and screenplays, including Blue Thunder, Return of the Living Dead and Total Recall, but his name will always be most closely linked with Dark Star, Star Wars and Alien (which would no doubt have been referred to as ‘the Star trilogy’ had Alien kept its original title Star Beast).
Giger got an Oscar for his work on Alien, and deservedly so, but over the years he never shied away from making it known that the experience of working on films, including Alien, was not a positive one for him. The rigid constraints of film design and budgetary considerations were directly at odds with Giger’s creative processes as a painter and sculptor, and after Alien he didn’t again take such a hands-on approach to his film collaborations. His contributions to Poltergeist II and the Species films are easy to spot, and there’s no suggestion that his work on later films lacked dedication or commitment, but they don’t compare to the all-encompassing ‘Gigeresque’ look of Alien, and even his involvement in the Alien sequels was minimal in comparison. When he did get involved with a film, his uncompromising approach to his art meant that his vision did not always meet the requirements of the project (or could possibly be realized on the available budget); many of his concepts went unused on Alien3, though they did make it onto the DVD extras, and his Batmobile design for Batman Forever was too radical a departure from previous versions to be considered.
Giger was, first and foremost, an artist. He produced a significant body of work, of which only a relatively small percentage was created for or used in films, and whilst there’s no doubt that he will be best remembered for Alien, I’m not so sure that that’s the way he would have wanted it.