BY Jörg Scheller in Opinion | 29 AUG 14
Featured in
Issue 16

The Exorcist

Two new books offer a deeper insight into the works of H.R. Giger, who died in May

BY Jörg Scheller in Opinion | 29 AUG 14

H.R. Giger, Self-portraits, c.1986, Manipulated Polaroids, courtesy:

Though typical for the dystopic 1980s, Swiss artist and designer H.R. Giger’s (1940–2014) work regained surprising relevance toward the end of his life. When ‘Bio-artists’ like Stelarc or Eduardo Kac morph the human body with technology; when drones assume the bloody business of war; when porn depicts sex between people and machines; when the horizon of Western progress is darkened by the return of religious delirium and authoritarianism, then many of Giger’s morbid visions have come true.

Today, the boundary between people and machines, between organic and inorganic, is fluid. The ubiquity – and therefore normalcy – of sexual practices once identified as perverse can be easily shown by a quick Internet search. Giger spent decades culling these and similar topics into ingredients for his aesthetic, which he initially implemented with airbrushing – a technique then derided in the field of fine art. By the 1990s, he had come to rely instead on a structural and sculptural approach. Two new publications invite a not new, but certainly deeper look at the creator of the phallic monsters in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), an artist also known for his nightmarish picture books Necromicon 1 & 2 (1977; 1985) as well as sinister film sets (like those recreated in the H.R. Giger Museum in Gruyères or in the H.R. Giger Bar in Chur).

H.R. Giger, Manipulated Polaroid, c.1986, courtesy:

Alien – The Archive: The Ultimate Guide to the Classic Movies (published October 2014) dissects the creation of the four-part film series, including the origins of Giger’s most recognizable creature. Here we learn the curious (and disturbing) fact that the first Alien monster was inspired by Leni Riefenstahl’s photographs of a towering Nuba warrior. This statement, isolated as it is, would have benefited from a contextual note to obviate any misun­derstanding. Instead, it only invites unfair speculation: unfortunately the editors chose to print a quote by artist and director Ron Cobb stating: ‘Giger created this black cockroach straight from hell’ directly next to the text in question.

A visit to the H.R. Giger Museum in Gruyères makes clear why much of what was perfect in the films is only partially convincing outside of them. In the movies, Giger’s artefacts are unmoored from bonds of the man-made and absorbed by the atmosphere. In the real world of the museum, the elements of these very real objects take centre stage.

Models posing for H.R. Giger’s Erotomechanics VII, 1979, courtesy:

‘Fantastic realism’, a term often slapped on Giger’s work, feels more realistic that fantastic. It’s inherently more disgusting when the creature Sil shoots lethal tentacles from her nipples in the film Species (1995) than in the museum, where the stale materiality of the lifeless prop is accentuated by a faint layer of dust. Not to mention the time that, as Giger put it in a documentary for the German television channel 3sat (2005): ‘an idiot stole the [Species alien’s] nipple.’

Alien – the Archive offers astute insight into Giger’s aesthetic. In an interview in the book, director Ridley Scott says: ‘perfect technology is beautiful. Think of a weapon. A Vulcan bomber is beautiful. Stealth bombers are beautiful. And I don’t think that beauty is the result of trying to make something beautiful. It happens when you want to make something that works perfectly. It’s like with an insect.’ Whether consciously or not, Scott’s remarks begin in line with the tradition of futurism (technology, weapons and beauty are all related), then shift to the basic principle of the Bauhaus movement (functionality and beauty are two sides of the same coin) and conclude with a common comparison to the animal world (the perfect organization and efficiency of insects, the threatening beauty of their metallic armour).

Interior view of the H.R. Giger Museum in Gruyères, Switzerland, courtesy: Stefan Alt / ant-zen

Now we understand why Scott turned to Giger. It was exactly these types of simultaneously repulsive and fascinating combinations of unlike concepts that contributed to the artist’s controversial reputation. Call it Giger’s crypto-Catholic side. Catholicism specializes in harmonizing contradictions: metaphysics vs material obsession, disallowing pictorial representations of holy characters vs painted propaganda etc. Lawyer and political theorist Carl Schmitt once described the Roman Catholic Church as a ‘complexio oppositorum’, a union of contradictions. Just as the immaterial in Catholicism is paradoxically supposed to materialize (consider the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body of Jesus), Giger described his art as bringing the inside out; like ‘exorcism’ the menacing interior bubbles to the surface.

In relation to art and in terms of newsworthiness, the second recent pub­lication is more interesting than Alien – the Archive … The 52-page picture book titled H.R. Giger – Polaroids (2014) includes many never-before-seen Polaroids by Giger. They range from Warhol-esque ‘selfies’ to documentation of his work in the studio (Killer Condoms, 1996) to plans for sculptures (female models in erotic play with an Erotomechanics mons­ter in the 1970’s) to Manipulated Polaroids (c. 1986). The last reveal an entirely different Giger than the well-known fetish-psycho-guru. In the seemingly painted over and etched photographs – the book is not exactly over-informative when it comes to the artist’s technique or otherwise – Giger plays with expressive and abstract painting, which generally lie outside his scope so rooted in applied arts and ornamentation. The view widens and vibrates. Even a cheerful interplay of colours makes an appearance. Of course these pictures are just a footnote to Giger’s complete works. Yet they indicate that he was capable of other things when he felt like it.

Exterior view of the H.R. Giger Museum in
Gruyères, Switzerland, courtesy: Stefan Alt / ant-zen

But why did he feel like it so rarely? The answer: why fix what isn’t broken? Many of his contemporaries may have seen Giger as an oddball. Yet in true Swiss tradition the certified industrial designer was a pragmatic businessman who knew how to nurture his brand. The most egregious affront to the buttoned-up Swiss had less to do with his predilection for the occult and perverse, and more with the fact that he could use it to earn good money. He didn’t need to stop for Hollywood; even his moneyed compatriots couldn’t beat him at opportunism. In 2000, Giger let the Boehse Onkelz, a band often accused of Neo-Nazi leanings, shoot a music video in his museum. He did this not because he was a fan but simply because they were paying customers. As he explains in the above-mentioned 3sat documentary, he saw himself as an artist only after he had ‘sold something’. He meant art. He hoped for critical acclaim from the public throughout his life but suffered from the fact that the Kunsthaus Zurich, a bastion of Zurich’s bourgeoisie, never offered him a solo exhibition. Of course Giger relied heavily on kitsch. But so did Marc Chagall, whom the Kunsthaus honoured with a retrospective last year. From Chagall to Giger – wouldn’t that be something.
Translated by Yana Vierboom

Jörg Scheller is an art historian, journalist, musician and contributing editor of frieze. He is a professor of fine arts and art education at Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland.