Fearless Artist: Remembering Giger
EDITOR’S NOTE: Many of you are probably (surely) aware that H. R. Giger died last week. The obituary in The New York Times — which is just one entry in the outpouring of recognitions and appreciations that have flooded the media — opens with a concise and excellent summation of Giger’s master themes and cultural significance:
A thread running through Mr. Giger’s work was the uneasy meshing of machines and biology, in a highly idiosyncratic blend of science fiction and surrealism. From books to movies to record albums to magazine illustrations to a back-scratcher inspired by ‘Alien,’ his designs challenged norms. He kept a notepad next to his bed so he could sketch the terrors that rocked his uneasy sleep — nightmarish forms that could as easily have lumbered from prehistory as arrived from Mars.
The same piece also contains a worthy quote from none other than Timothy Leary, who knew the man personally: “Giger’s work disturbs us, spooks us, because of its enormous evolutionary time span. It shows us, all too clearly, where we come from and where we are going.”
Someone else who knew the man personally is Teeming Brain columnist Jason V. Brock. Here, Jason offers a tribute and farewell in which he describes the time he met Giger and shares his reflections on the artist’s legacy and importance.
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H. R. Giger and Jason V Brock
In 2006 my wife Sunni and I met the late visionary artist H. R. Giger at his home in Zürich, Switzerland.*
We were there to interview him for our forthcoming documentary Image, Reflection, Shadow: Artists of the Fantastic, and he, along with his lovely wife Carmen, entertained us for several hours. His house was a fascinating place, as one would imagine, and he was in a fine mood, laughing and discussing his artwork, as well as inquiring about a mutual friend, filmmaker Dan O’Bannon (writer of Alien, director of Return of the Living Dead and The Resurrected), who was still alive at the time. There was more to that fantastic encounter, including a fine meal, bottles of wine, the telling of amusing anecdotes, etc., but much of it is of a private nature; it is something that Sunni and I will always cherish and hold dear in our hearts. What I can share, however, is that Giger was very pleased that I had brought along a recent picture I had taken of Dan. He kept looking at the image in astonishment and muttering, “Mein Gott. ” I could sense that he was traveling back in time and reliving those moments so many years ago on the closed set of what would become the classic horror/sci-fi film Alien.
During the creation of that movie, Dan was one of the few people who would approach Giger and visit with him when he was working. Giger told me that between his uncertain English and his personal intensity, he had the impression that people were afraid of him, and so he and Dan ended up having many heartfelt talks. Dan was something of an outsider as well, and I suspect that each man deeply appreciated the other’s companionship. They enjoyed discussing their contributions to the current film, of course, as well as their mutual lifelong fascination with the writings of H. P. Lovecraft. (Indeed, perhaps no other figures in history have had as much widespread impact on the popular legacy of the writer from Providence as O’Bannon and Giger had, with the possible exception of S. T. Joshi.)
They also shared a common history of working on the ill-fated Alejandro Jodorowsky version of Frank Herbert’s masterpiece Dune, which was the first major enterprise to use Giger’s singular talents, and which, through the collapse of this ambitious project (now the subject of a documentary called Jodorowsky’s Dune), created the strong bond between these two like-minded geniuses. The failure of Dune to materialize as a film was such a profound experience for O’Bannon that, after he was back in the US and able to get another film (Alien) green-lighted, one of his first priorities was to bring Giger to the attention of director Ridley Scott, which is how Giger began his career in cinema.
Jason with Giger’s Baphomet
An aspect of Giger that is often overlooked was his generosity of spirit. For example, he assisted many neophyte artists in their careers by giving them retrospectives at his Museum H. R. Giger in the charming village of Gruyères. Also little known is the fact that he had a very kind disposition. He was a gentle soul, and quite humble. It is a curious thing that, though his artwork was at times erotic and deeply disturbing, the man himself was full of joy and enthusiasm. He seemed to relish life, and in his relationships with other people he was quite open with his thoughts and feelings.
His impact on the world of images and iconography cannot be overstated; he was one of a handful of artists in the twentieth century whose creations are instantly recognizable. Thus, he ranks alongside a tiny group whose work is of such importance that they are commonly known by just their surnames: Dalí (whom Giger met), Picasso, Fuchs, and so on. Of course, there are throngs of insubstantial and slavish copycats of the master, but as the saying goes, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
“Giger’s impact on the world of images and iconography cannot be overstated; he was one of a handful of artists in the twentieth century whose creations are instantly recognizable.”
It should be noted that visual art is not the only place where Giger has had such a tremendous impact; his work has been intensely influential on many other media as well. As stated above, it has unquestionably changed film history. It has also affected music: Giger himself was a musician, and he created many highly regarded album covers for acts such as Celtic Frost, Debbie Harry, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer (to name just a few). His work has affected industrial design, as seen in, to name one relevant example, the astounding Giger Bar. He has also had a significant impact on the writing and publishing industry; there are numerous books of his work available, many containing key insights from Giger himself — some in the form of excerpts from his personal diaries — about his artwork, film design, and recollections. Then there is the wonder that is The Mystery of San Gottardo — part film script, part graphic novel, part sketchbook — which “exhaustively collates illustrations, texts, photographs, letters, and notes from a covert, personal project” that Giger pursued for three decades, and which “illustrates the surreal science fiction of a dystopian Switzerland where man is rendered into three bio-mechanical life-forms at the age of 60.”
Jason in the garden of H. R. Giger
Even as our hearts go out to Giger’s family, and as the world mourns his tragic and sudden passing (he died of injuries related to a fall in his home just this month), we must not lose sight of his legacy. Selfishly, we want him back, but in fact he has not truly left us. His vision persists, and it always will. Yet the human impulse to deny reality is difficult to release at times such as these. We feel loss, sadness, emptiness, shock. So we must step back and consider not only his impact and influence, but also his deep message, his personal perspective that can be applied to our own existence.
Giger, the individual uncoupled from his works, was unafraid to explore his most disturbing reveries, to give expression to things that most of us have felt or thought, yet rarely articulated publicly. He appeared undaunted by the lack of public understanding that inevitably flowed from his decision not to flinch from his post-modern mirror, which served at times as a reflection of culture and at other times as a prism. This was a fearless artist, a challenging and intellectual man, a deeply feeling human being. We’ll not soon see his like again, and for that we are all the poorer. But we are also, in a twist of irony, all the richer, for he has left each of us much to ruminate upon, to ingest, and to marvel at.
Rest in peace, H. R. Giger. You have more than earned it.
* The specific date was September 21, 2006, which is Sunni’s and my wedding anniversary. I remember it vividly, because when Giger and Carmen learned about our special occasion, they gave us each a ring. These were copies of their own wedding rings in silver.
Photos courtesy of Sunni Brock