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Thursday 15 May 2014

Giger: Healing in Unusual Ways

"Birth Machine", by H.R. Giger. Phot...
"Birth Machine", by H.R. Giger. Photograph taken by Ojw of a sculpture on display outside the Museum H. R. Giger in Gruyères (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The sudden death of H.R. Giger immediately prompted me to consider the value of legacy. Giger was a weaver of imaginative landscapes that sprawled out and overran into places even some of the boldest artists of today would not dare venture. He was the quintessential modern surrealist who emerged in the 1970s with a vision that would have a profound effect on art, entertainment and culture. His most obvious home in popular culture was science fiction and fantasy, where his work as a set designer has assured his legacy in film. 

His most enduring creation will always be the titular creature of Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece, “Alien”. Touted as “Jaws in Space” to prospective producers, the film is probably Scott’s greatest achievement and Stephen King lists it as one of the greatest horrors ever made. Like Giger’s infectious influence, the film transcends genres and begs the attention of a wide range of audiences. This is in no small part down to Giger’s vision. King more than implied in his “Danse Macabre” that the very best horror built up suspense with the unseen – and in this respect 1963’s “The Haunting” was a truemasterpiece – but it must ultimately have the pay-off by revealing object of horror. This is often where cinema nearly always falls down, especially if the suspense element is done moderately well. Scott’s direction matches both Spielberg and even Hitchcock in the voyeuristic way he weaves camera angles through the twisted and claustrophobic corridors of Giger’s set designs and in the patient way he plays out some highly restrained drama. It is no small tribute to Giger that he delivers on Scott’s dark promise. 

Scott’s “Alien” was an organic machine that spoke to a terribly cold sexual part of the human mind. The film also had Ash, a completely synthetic copy of the human form, as antagonist. Both these monsters rape in their attacks, Scott carrying over Giger’s insidious creep into the psyche. The face-hugger alien orally rapes Kane, impregnating him with the main alien antagonist of the film. This will then burst from his chest and grow into a huge destructive beast. Ash will later try to assassinate the character Ripley by attempting to stuff a rolled up pornographic magazine down her throat. Lambert’s death is even more overtly sexual with the fully grown alien making slow and tortuous moves towards her, its sharp phallic like tail slithering over her leg. When Parker attempts to intervene he is dispatched swiftly and the alien resumes its slow progress towards the hapless Parker. The creature’s body shines like a metallic object whereas its mouth makes a clear reference to the mythological vagina dentate with two rows of teeth, the second set protruding on a long stork that will thrust into its victim to strike the killing blow.

English: Giger Bar in Gruyeres, Switzerland. T...
English: Giger Bar in Gruyeres, Switzerland. The interior shows the biomechanical designs that made H. R. Giger famous. Taken by Ben W Bell 30 July 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Surrealism has something of a reputation for its overt sexuality, violence and obscure reworking of the human form. The influence of the Marquis de Sade becomes very evident the more you look, not only in the obvious transgressing of sexual taboos and the occasional bit of unbridled cruelty, but also in the over-indulgent nature of the artist.  Giger regularly delivered all of this without trepidation, but often in a manner that wound itself around the human psyche like ascending, blossoming ivy rather than as a vomitus ejaculation of ideas that is unceremoniously splashed up in the viewer’s lap. There is a feeling of order in Giger’s sprawling biomechanical visions, where organic material and industrial machinery are not so much fused as grown from the same source. His colour pallet, whether he was sculpting or painting, was often highly disciplined with shades of grey dominating throughout and only occasionally highlighted by more colourful hues. 

Looking through my copy of the Taschen book of Giger’s work, I can’t help feeling like I am working my way through a long painted tapestry. Because of his regular use of repetition with hives of skeletal creatures, pods of foetus-like beings and cross-sections of humanoid forms as well as the complicated landscapes, painted using the same bleak colours, it feels like you are very contained within a world of linked events. I guess this might be why he was originally hired to work on the 1974 attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. The film was set to be directed by the cult-movie luminary Alejandro Jodorowsky and the incredible vision for the 10-14 hour (depending on the source) movie has since been the subject of the documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune”. Giger says epic, but not in the way a romantic or renaissance artist speaks of scale and majesty. Giger’s landscaping implies a sprawling and creeping dystopia, a living yet mechanical series of vine-like tunnels that engulf, penetrate and wrap themselves around eerily familiar objects from our memories. His influence and legacy acts in a similar way. Many ponder whether or not Giger has influenced a certain famous work.

The director David Lynch would eventually take on “Dune” when the rights expired, and its commercial and critical failure would signal the end of his mainstream cinema hiatus that had begun with “The Elephant Man” [my review].  Lynch would take note of this flop and return to his surrealist roots, giving us one of his best works, "Blue Velvet". This would possibly be the peak of his career and he would maintain his brilliance with "Mullholland Drive", the impressive "Twin Peaks" TV series and, after the lowest descent in his career to date with "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me", he would give us one last flash of brilliance with "Lost Highway". Lynch’s visions are comparable to Giger. This is never more evident than in his nightmarish feature film debut, “Erasurehead”. The bleak industrial backdrop to this surrealist body horror seems to belong to the Giger legacy even if he is not cited as an influence. Likewise, Ridley Scott’s next feature after “Alien” was the dystopian “Bladerunner”, based on Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. This was a huge landmark moment in the artistic history of cyberpunk, and it is hard to view "Bladerunner" without thinking of Giger. In fact, it is difficult to view much cyberpunk, with its chaotic and often seamless fusions of the organic and the mechanical, without thinking of Giger.  

When it comes to the science fiction genre I see two very large areas of influence that dominate the mainstream. There is the futuristic fantasy of “Star Wars” and its many precursors and products of its influence, which are really manifestations of epic fantasy. Then there is the more purist scientific route that has its basis in H.G. Welles, Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov, and today is best represented by the “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek” franchises. The whole science fiction genre is very difficult to define and both have many subgenres and cross-weaving intersections. On this subject, it is interesting to note that "Alien" is largely considered to be a horror - and one of the purest type - as opposed to a science fiction thriller or fantasy. This clearly does have a lot to do with the way Scott handled the piece and its Jaws-like structure. However, Giger's role cannot be understated in the way his physical design seems to influence the invasive and dark sexual nature of the film's menace. Giger's surrealism opens up a different influence on the science fiction genre. His style stands way back from both the epic operatic side and the speculative science side.

Plot-wise “Alien” may contain some of the most accurate science in a space movie since “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but Giger would have cared little for these factors. His architectural training might have provided him with a keen understanding of structure and mathematical design – probably best represented in the incredible interior design of the two Giger Bars and the Maison d'Ailleurs science fiction museum in his native Switzerland – but Giger’s work is all about the imagination. Its sense of anarchy makes it a very tempting reference point for the cyberpunk genre and probably why the man was interviewed in the 1992 “Wall to Wall” documentary on cyberpunk movies. 

When Ridley Scott returned to the “Alien” franchise he featured a temple Giger designed for the Jodorowsky version of “Dune” along with the artist’s spacecraft designs. Giger’s designs can also be seen in “Poltergeist II”, “Species”, “Killer Condom”, “Batman Forever” (the batmobile) and “Tokyo: The Last Megalopilis”. He also directed several short films from 1967 and into the ‘70s. “Giger’s Necronomicon” is a film that reveals the artist’s most obvious influence: the great horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft. I have often found it very interesting how Lovecraft exerts a large amount of influence over many artists who have a strong scientific bent in their psyche. The atheist biblical scholar and sceptic Robert M. Price is an expert of Lovecraftian literature. The horror author Brian Lumley, another Lovecraftian disciple, weaves sensual worlds of fleshy vampiritic viruses that grow vine-like within human biology and human minds transcending to spectral realm. There are certain parallels in many of Giger’s works, where mechanical looking tentacle and tendril-like limbs echo similar Lovecraft’s own dark imagination.

Nevertheless, Giger’s undeniable originality was a regular source for the music world as artists sort to sustain or re-event themselves with striking album covers. The Debbie Harry’s “Koo Koo” album cover is very simplistic for Giger and yet is probably one his strongest images. His “Landscape XX”, depicting a series of penises entering vaginas was the subject of an obscenity trial after it was featured as a posted inside the Dead Kennedys “Frankenchrist” album. Death metal bands like Carcass and Danzig used his work, and Korn’s lead vocalist, Jonathan Davis commissioned Giger design a biomechanical looking moveable microphone stand.  

Keith Stuart remarked on how Giger’s influence extended far outside of his “Alien” franchise when it came to gaming artists and designers: 

“His surreal biomechanical art, which explored the fusion of human, machine, sex and environment, provided the games industry with a new palette of Freudian horror.

“Capcom's Resident Evil series must surely have looked to Giger for its mutated human enemies, often loaded with strange sexual imagery. The lickers, the ooze, the Medusa-like Uroboros and the invasive Duvalia all played on the themes of bodily transgression and oral sexuality that Giger explored.”

The British sculptor, Cathy de Monchaux, seems to be influenced by Giger’s work. She creates overtly sexual and threatening looking sculptures. The use of imperfect repetition and impossible organic design, using both soft and hard materials, cry out Giger’s legacy within her own obvious brilliance.  

I first discovered Giger in 1998 via two friends. It was a strange coincidence and I cannot recall who got to me first. One was my old co-wrestling promoter, Stuart Allen who became the extreme wrestler known as The Dominator, and the other was my cousin, Sheila Chipperfield who had just left the band, Elastica, and would go onto become a successful DJ. Both came to me at the end of a disastrous relationship and the beginning of my performance career. Sheila even bought me the Taschen book of Giger’s work. I had heard about this eccentric Swiss surrealist only vaguely on a documentary on horror I watched, which centred on the ideas behind two horror films, “Alien” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street”.

His paintings and sculptures may be the result of his mental illness and the night terrors that disturbed his sleep, but they were a distraction from my own personal pain at the time. Furthermore, my memories of first going through those disturbing depictions of impossible dark landscapes and eerie mechanical yet organic figures happened in my parents’ old circus wagon. The place had become my escape pad, where I entertained my friends and where I slept some nights. It was a year of hot and sunny summers, of long walks in the Cotswolds woods in a small group and visiting my friend, Tom Wilson, now a successful teacher and performer, at his place of work, the Rollright Stones in the evening. It was all part of the build up to my first show and the début of my production, “Dead Souls” [the first of my memoirs on this subject]. It was a time of listening to new recordings of Sheila’s work, going through design ideas for the shows with Stu, training in the afternoons and I would create, and talking through literary ideas with Tom at the Stones [his work on the Rollright Stones]. He would eventually write a book on that stone circle. Giger’s dark images probably told me something about the harsh coldness of life that I only superficially acknowledged. I was hurting, but healing in unusual ways.

To bring this article to a close I will leave you with the words of Ben Graves. He describes and reviews Giger’s genius very well in the below passage, referencing the night terrors that served as a mental stimulus for his works and the reason why he is aptly described as the “Creator of Nightmares”: 

“Giger's artwork is indescribably dark and twisted, but in such a way I can't help but love it. He managed to capture in a single painting or drawing the entire scope of a nightmare. Much of this is because his inspiration had mostly derived from night terrors he suffered from for years. He managed to articulate many of these in a way that was uniquely his, and encapsulate the sexual undertones beneath the dark, cold exterior of his terrors. And the sexuality isn't so perverse that it reaches tastelessness, so it manages to stay within the realm of fine art.

“The vast array of art Giger has produced covers many of the connections between biology and synthetics, and it is clear that much of this art was a form of therapy for him. Giger's own struggles with mental illness, particularly depression, sparked the creativity that drove him into this dark world. His work transcends ethereal material and ventures into illogical surrealism, with a tortured aesthetic applied to the tone of the pieces. So much of his work alludes to emotional suffering and personal anguish, but instead of avoiding it or trying to escape it, the artwork revels in it and personifies the grotesqueness, making it darkly beautiful.”

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