Metal, flesh and monochrome

Sunday Magazine
May 18, 2014

Hans Rudolf Giger, the Swiss artist who conceived of the alien xenomorph in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), died on May 12 at the age of 84 in Zurich. Here was an artist who was not awkward, harboring no pretense of subtlety. Giger was an artist suckling on a vein of psychotic posthumanism like a fat, usurious pup. His influence on various artists and art-forms cannot be overstated. From Alejandro Jodorowsky to Ibanez, from Dune to Doom, from gamers to tattoo aficionados, Giger’s biomechanical fusion of metal, flesh and insipid monochrome was the perfect picture of the macabre.

It would be wrong to remember him for just Alien. The author of dozens of paintings, sculptures and lithographs as well, perhaps his most profound accomplishment was the surgical depiction of posthuman fetishes. His 1977 book Necronomicon, a compendium of his pictures, was breathlessly celebrated for the psychiatric grimoire that it was. At the same time, it was one of the first complete impressions of unhuman lifeforms – beaten in time only by H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos from the 1930s – where creatures aspired not to be ape-like, not to present distended limbs in an effort to approximate familiarity, but were beings in their own right.

What better example of this idea than Necronom IV and V, the conceptual beings that inspired the xenomorph. The Necronom had no eyes, and only the mouth to give its face any semblance of being facial. At the same time, the way Giger assembled these beings into an iconoclastic portrayal of sanity – such as with Vlad Tepes (1978) and the dharmic horror that was Goho Doji (1987) – drew forth chills, sleepless nights and confused arousal from very-human adolescents. The faces in his paintings weren’t screaming. They were staring even while they were penetrated by translucent metal proboscises. They were existing for pain and confusion.

When Ridley Scott arrived for his first meeting at 20th Century Fox for Alien, he was shown Giger’s Necronomican. “I took one look at it,” he said, “and I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life.”

To look at them was to realize the composition of the human psyche was independent of the human body, that the human mind was frightened not by the disfiguration of familiarity – such as the image of a mangled corpse or by someone jumping out from behind the shower curtains – but by its reconfiguration. Giger put fear and gratification where they didn’t belong, and the product always had a sheen of otherworldly Gödelian inaccessibility. That even alien constructions could inspire empathy and distress was a disturbing revelation, if only for me. And no, I have not made it as a normal adult.

While cinema may have moved on from the genius of Giger, the best collaboration being The Last Megalopolis (1988) and the last Species (1995), he did not suffer from the same decline in prolificity or skill that artists are wont to after tinsel-town toss-outs. He seemed not to work toward the shock factor that the screen is adept at reproducing because his success lay in his ability to parallely evoke and inhere humankind’s tendency for abuse, a chronically relevant motif. Giger’s sculpture Birth Machine (1967) on display in the permanent museum dedicated to him in Gruyeres, Switzerland, stimulates this sensation of an existential vertigo, like the thematically similar Doodlebug (1997) by Nolan. Better yet, consider Aleph (1972), or Li I (1974), dedicated to Li Tobler, his partner from ‘66 until she killed herself in ‘75 – both potent with occultist interpretations.

Such images, rather experiments with the triggers of strangeness, populate the breadth of his work. Growing up in the Swiss town of Chur, where his father ran a pharmacy, Giger admitted to having been fascinated by dark alleys between buildings that he could see from his room’s window. He also had serial nightmares, and took to art first as therapy. No wonder then that his work is effortlessly visceral, drawing as it does from the inviting darkness that pervaded Chur’s alleyways.

Long live H.R. Giger.