HR Giger: Airbrushing the Horror of Hollywood

HR Giger Alien block print

This week, several disciplines lost HR Giger, an artist whose contribution to visual arts, particularly film, will live on as more than an adjective…

“BIOMECHANICAL”.  A WORD HR GIGER WASN’T IMPARTIAL TO HIMSELF, AND FAR BETTER FIT FOR HIS WORK THAN “SURREAL”.  While not mutually exclusive, there’s something about that mild oxymoron, both repulsing and attracting, that suits his oeuvre.  It doesn’t simply disorientate.

His two-dimensional work appears as sculpture in etching and when you hear his name it’s a short field of images that immediately spring to mind – most likely they’re from Necronomicon, the book that was fortuitously passed to Ridley Scott during pre-production of Alien. Like many of those images, Giger fitted tightly and compactly into the films, production design and media he contributed to.  His distinctive designs often overcame anything else, to the point that Alien may well be described as a Giger film as much as a Scott one.  Fortunately there are many traits in his work that don’t make for such a good metaphor.

In the New York Times, Timothy Leary, a man who knew something about ‘broad overviews’ and a friend of Giger’s, placed the artist’s work not so much in timelessness but perpetual contemporaneity.  In his self-termed work, there is no doubt about the deep atavistic blood that pumped through every form; the most primal instincts of all, pretty much sex.  But perhaps one key word Leary used was ‘enormous’.  No matter how small the artwork or reproduction of an artwork, it never seems to lose its scale.  As Leary suggested, that’s thematic and chronological as well as physically true.

Perhaps one of the most iconic images in Alien is that mysterious ‘space jockey’ engineer – haunting, even in the behind the scene shots.  It’s huge, innately mysterious and possibly the only compelling reason for Prometheus to exist.

For me, Giger’s an extension the great symbolist Gustav Klimt

Of his influences, there were of course the surrealists, particularly Dali, fantastic realism, particularly Fuchs and the multi-media influence of the likes of Lovecraft, all bundled in with his strong architectural training.  In his career, Giger quickly developed from ink to oil to the airbrush technique that typifies his greatest work.  The mechanic of his biomechanics was greatly helped, if not only effective, by that airbrushing.  And where greater home than the definitive horror science-fiction franchise?  Hi association with Alien spread all the way through the franchise, although Alien Resurrection failed to credit his original work.

The result: Alien and Giger are synonymous.  Two years later, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner would become just as connected with its production design.  But while the considered focus was on a synthetic world hiding the synthetic at its heart, Alien was all about the base fear of the parasite.

Alien is a haunted house film and a pretty much perfect one, for all its slasher influences.  It had pretensions that it lived up to and Scott’s direction works seamlessly with Giger’s contribution – something horror had never seen before.  Of course, the defining touch is the Xenomorph itself.  Scott kept it in the shadows, but even by the time Resurrection infected them with CGI and Paul WS Anderson threw them at Predators, their iconic design lived on.  The Alien life-cycle helps of course, the infamous John Hurt-destroying entrance as well, but it was Giger’s design that endures – perhaps his purest visualisation of ‘homicidal sex’ on the big screen.

His second largest franchise is undoubtedly Species, although those films are all but forgotten.  Unlike the over-reaching earnestness of Alien, the four film Species (only three of which used Giger’s designs) wore their B-Movie roots on their Giger organic sleeves.  It was all deliberate; Giger’s heavyweight work joined a cast including Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, Alfred Molina and Forest Whitaker.  All of them I hope knew what they were doing.

It would have been difficult for the Giger name to have been associated with multiple science-fiction franchises.  Still, it’s a shame that the concept art he made for it was only fleetingly picked up by David Lynch when he later came on board to direct the 1984 film.  Some of those designs would later find a home in Prometheus, his last great Hollywood contribution and in hindsight, a neat return to the film he’s most associated with and that Space Jockey.

A prescient point this week is perhaps his oddest miss – his aborted design for Batman Forever’s Batmobile in the mid-1990s.  More like Justice League opponent Starro than Anton Furst’s definitive design in Tim Burton’s two preceding films, it’s organic, leech-like cross wouldn’t have fitted in.  If you’re going to employ Giger, it has to be in everything.  And his Batmobile would have been blown up by the Riddler anyway.  A great shame.

If you’re going to employ Giger, it has to be in everything

If you wanted to use a Giger approach, it was best to get the man himself but his influence has worked directly and indirectly across multiple media.  Perhaps the most amount of Giger-esque design I’ve ever experienced was at the end of Duke Nukem 3D.  In films, he was lucky to bring his distinctive style to benefit films rather than have it adapted.  Imagine if MC Escher had lived on to actually production design Labyrinth, Nightmare on Elm Street V and The Fellowship of the Ring or Dore to tackle Dante’s Inferno in motion.

Giger also lived to see major retrospectives in his lifetime, oh and design some Giger bars that will hopefully last on for a very long time.  Not just in leisure design, his work, with its unflinching preoccupations and mechanical seediness would always have pervading links in fetishism, tattoo and alt culture music.

For me, Giger was very much an extension of the work of the great symbolist, and geographic neighbour to Giger, Gustav Klimt.  The self-confessed eroticism in both is overt, yet in Klimt’s time his work sparked more outrage.  As Klimt said, on his campaign to shake up the establishment, “All art is erotic”.  And as for Giger, well the man who will forever live on as an adjective once stated, ““If they like my work they are creative… Or they are crazy”.

There’s no better praise than seeing countless directors, game developers, bands, bar owners and The Academy have occasionally been both.

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