Sunday, December 13, 2015

Alien Aesthetic: H.R. Giger

by Drew Martin
Last night I watched a really good documentary about the artist whose surreal and bleak futuristic imagery influences us more than we can imagine - Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World.

Hans Ruedi Giger (1940 - 2014) was a Swiss airbrush painter who created a world of biomechanical creatures that cycle through themes of sex, birth, and death. 

It is easy to look at his work and dismiss it as a certain sci-fi fantasy style, but it's a look he introduced to the world and created from his dreams. In the documentary he talks about dreams, and laments the unfinished erotic dream from which one is unfairly pulled away to awaken to reality. 

Look closer and you will see the skills of his years of study in architecture and industrial design combined with an intuitive grasp of anatomy and references to Egyptian art. A friend of his, who does not believe in the occult, says he feels like Giger was channeling another world for us to witness. A psychiatrist in the film calls Giger an artistic reporter for the darkness in us. 

It was always a personal fantasy of mine as a kid to be able to bring something physical back from my own dreamworld, and Giger did just that. A delightful aspect of the film is that it shows his chaotic, overgrown house, which is a labyrinth of rooms full of his images, sculptures based on his world, curious artifacts and skulls. 

As a child Giger was scared of a mummy at a local museum. His older sister teased him about this so he returned every day until he got over his fear. Likewise, his father, a pharmacist, was given a human skull by the Ciga-Geigy pharmaceutical company. At first it scared the younger Giger but then he started dragging it by a string around town in order to show that he was no longer afraid of it. 

Perhaps this is part of his attraction for his devoted fans: no matter how much fantasy Giger creates in his images, there is an overwhelming sense of morbid reality, which is not sugarcoated and he is a totally uncensored artist, without moral apologies. His work has an honesty to it that is unparalleled. In one of the final scenes we see Giger shortly before his death signing books and drawings for his fans. Many of them extend an arm for him to sign. A few of them pull off their shirts to reveal tattoos of his work. These same, rough-looking individuals profusely thank him with such emotional intensity that they break into tears.

Giger's paintings sold well as posters and he was hired to do album design for musicians such as the American punk band, the Dead Kennedys. The first time I saw his Penis Landscape, which is featured on their Frankenchrist album was in a friend's dorm room in college. It is an impossible motif/collage of stacks of buttocks, and penises copulating with vaginas. 

Giger broke out on the world scene when Hollywood discovered him and he was hired to create the look of the creatures and their ship in the 1979 Academy-Award-winning sci-fi horror film, Alien, by Ridley Scott. It's an aesthetic that continues with Blade Runner in 1982, and we see used countless other times in sci-fi films such as The Matrix.

The term "airbrushed" shares the same cultural meaning as "Photoshopped" as a kind of digital makeup/plastic surgery but this film restores it to the original source and has some nice scenes of Giger airbrushing his work without any preliminary sketches. It's a lost art where natural arm movements are now replaced by bezier computer curves. From a graphics point of view, the documentary is worth viewing for those moments alone.

Pictured top is Giger with Swiss actress Li Tobler. They were together for nine years before she shot herself. Tobler's face and nude body are featured in much of his work during their time together. The image second from the top is representational of Giger's biomechanical creatures. The third image from the top is his design of the alien spaceship in Alien. And finally, the last picture is an interior he created for one of two Giger-themed bars in Switzerland.