A busy schedule has, as usual, made it difficult for me to address current topics in a manner as timely as I'd like - but better late than never, I suppose. The recent death of the enormously influentual H.R. Giger has generated a wealth of encomia and reflections upon the life of the late fantasist / surrealist designer (who often prefered that professional designation to "artist"), ranging from rushed and insipid to graceful and heartfelt. The Swiss master's inimitable fusion of mechanized and fleshly forms, more often than not rendered in a hyper-real monochrome, earned him an untold number of acolytes and oozed effortlessly into the parallel worlds of film and music. With clients ranging from Hollywood studios to insurrectionary music acts (Magma, The Dead Kennedys, etc.), Giger's appeal spread farther and wider than what might is normally accorded to the radical and uncompromising - finding his way onto the walls of college dorm rooms without ever fully forsaking his roots in the 1960s counter-culture of his native Zurich. Like the best artists working with the speculative, the imaginary and the 'Gothic', he achieved this by making the implausible seem much closer to consensus reality than what might be within our comfort zones.
My personal recommendation, for those already have some fundamental knowledge of the artist, is to view a screening of the informative new documentary Jodorowsky's Dune, which details Jodorowsky's tragically failed attempt to film Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel before David Lynch took on the same task (and forever regretted doing so.) Though that film's action mostly centers upon another notorious psychonaut - the director Alejandro Jodorowksy - Giger's kinship with the director plays a major role in the film. We are given plenty of insight into the erotic horror ingrained in Giger's 'biomechanical' style, and into the eventual broadening of its appeal. We are helpfully reminded that, at the time Jodorowsky enlisted Giger as one of the "spiritual warriors" who would help realize his numinous cinematic vision, the latter had not yet ventured into design for film - a process which Jodorowsky proudly traces to their Dune collaboration. Though Giger was enlisted only to design part of the Dune universe - namely, the sructures belonging to the malevolent House Harkonnen - his contributions would be essential to strenghtening the contrast between the avaricious villains and the more noble and enlightened House Atreides. Giger set to work on fashioning the Harkonnen homeworld of Giedi Prime into one that was "ruled by evil, a place where black magic was practiced, aggressions were let loose, and intemperance and perversion were the order of the day."[i] Even as funding for Jodorowsky's dream became impossible to secure, the partial construction of this inverted world would not be a matter of wasted energy.
My introduction to Giger came well before Jodorowsky's Dune, though, and I have to reach back into my childhood to supplement the already formidable stack of Giger eulogies with one of my own. I first encountered his work while nervously waiting in the reception area of my local doctor's office, where some issues of Omni magazine were on display along with the usual light reading on housekeeping and celebrity gossip. I no longer remember what written feature of the magazine Giger's illustrations was accompanying, but I remember that first encounter with his visual style as if it were yesterday: chilled, totally overcast landscapes dominated by non-orthogonal structures, which were protected with exoskeletons made from both human bone and alien circuitry. These creations were 'perverse' in the purest etymological sense, as Anne Quema helpfully points out ("the word 'pervert' means 'to turn round or about'…and this is what has happened to [Giger's] pictorial bodies: the body has been twisted so that the inside is on the outside, and viscera and tissues are spreading over skulls and foreheads.")[ii] The Giger world seemed inverted also in the sense that 'repressed' information, relating to unfettered desire, was literally shaped into his fantastic terrain and the built exteriors, while it was the banal transactions of everyday social life that remained hidden from the spectator's eye.
What I saw before me was a simultaneoulsy futuristic and primordial netherworld, and a realm where libidinal flows turned into concrete manifestations simply by willing this so. One scholarly paper after another would eventually be written on Giger's exposition of the collective unconscious - or maybe the "oceanic" consciousness as Gene Youngblood called it - but this was so clear that even a child of average intelligence like myself could understand this. Normally fidgety beyond hope, I sat and patiently stared at this imagery as if waiting for it to come to life, gradually unveiling more faces and living features within these images, and only 'snapping to' when it was my turn to get jabbed with needles by the good doctor. Shortly thereafter, the Alien film and its more action-oriented sequel became two of the most talked-about pop culture items of the 1980s, effectively cementing Giger's popularity as well as his hold on my impressionable young mind. The multiple rows of gleaming "xenomorph" teeth were a reliable feature of my hypnagogic night terrors, and my bouts of stomachache would be accompanied by mental replays of the scene in which the Alien "chestbuster" comes into this world with a screaming violence (as inspired by the real-world reproductive behavior of the ichneumon wasp.)
Alien confronted viewers with parasitic monsters that, despite having the apparent intelligence needed to develop technology and culture, exist for no other reason than to propagate until they completely encrust whatever world they inhabit. They achieve this goal with such brutal and uncontested efficiency, with their human prey facing such insurmountable odds in repelling them, that I couldn't have been the only viewer seeing this monstrosity as a warning against the fragility of anthropocentrism. However, this cinematic reduction of life's purpose to self-perpetuation was just as easily interpreted as a comment upon contemporary illnesses like the arms race. The weaponization of the world - and, indeed, of space - seemed to promise nothing but steadily mounting oppression and a distillation of life to something as binary and monochromatic as Giger's landscapes. Such a world would be populated by abject beings as incapable of philosophical inquiry as Giger's own recurrently used characters (e.g. his overly fattened columns of infants, or limbless and leering bodies being swallowed by their own tech-prostheses.) This understanding of Giger's work was, admittedly, what led counter-cultural agitators like Jello Biafra to feature his artwork inside record albums that treated similar themes.
Though they fit the geopolitical ambience of the 1980s like a glove, these works were just an extension of visual motifs that Giger had been weaving for decades already. One of his most famous visuals, the Birth Machine of 1967, expressed this dystopian view with an iconic cross-section of a Luger pistol, whose magazine used babies for ammunition, and which showed these babies ready to go out into the world already equipped with identical pistols of their own. Wearing military accoutrements and prepared for battle before their moment of birth, Giger's baby-bullets were harbingers of a life which would be stripped of any meaning save for infinite conquest, in which peace - rather than any single nation or people - was the true enemy.
In the final analysis, Giger's work remains - for me - much more than a cynical comment on a world in which the binary of sex and death governs all else. Despite Giger's regular placement of grim death imagery in the same frame as the erotic, his unique phantasmagoria does not see these twin inevitabilities as tragedies in and of themselves: rather, he shows us how these fundamentals of existence are made into monsters when we allow our fear of them to control us. The compelling darkness of Giger's imagination is a light onto the coercive individuals and organizations that take advantage of this discomfort that we feel in our own skins.
In Jodorowsky's Dune, Jodorowsky is visibly upset over the non-realization of his project, given his sincere belief in its ability to literally alter the destiny of humankind. As is often the case with such over-ambitious projects, though, a host of lesser, but still beneficial effects do still manage to sprout from the soil in which the seeds of utopian dreams were planted. As Jodorowsky himself surely realizes, one of these unintended consequences was the dramatic expansion of H.R. Giger's creative range and influence. The applicability of his vision to both high and 'commercial' culture continues to hold out hope for artists working in media and idioms very different from the ones that he made his own.