The Skull Beneath the Skin [Scott Thill, Wired]
Born in Chur, Switzerland, H.R. Giger (pronounced Gee-ger with two hard g’s) followed a different path from his chemist father. But his admittedly idyllic childhood in mountainous Chur was nevertheless shot through with dread and darkness. Giger’s vivid imagination created early nightmares that morphed into night terrors as his life wore on.
His childhood home’s cellar became, as Giger described, a monstrous labyrinth, where all kinds of dangers lay in wait for me.” Similarly, his early fear of worms and snakes were sublimated by skeletal sculptures of wire, plaster and cardboard.
Giger departed In 1962 for the more cosmopolitan Zurich, where he studied interior and industrial design at the School of Applied Arts. He created his first significant works two years later, culminating in a debut solo exhibition in 1966 and poster edition in 1969. By that time, he had discovered the airbrush for which his resolutely monochromatic work is best known.
But it was the ’70s on which Giger would leave his most lasting biomechanical mark.
Shortly after graduating in 1966, Giger began a doomed relationship with actress Li Tobler, who committed suicide in 1975. Before the troubled Tobler took her leave, she was immortalized in two of Giger’s most famous works, Li I and Li II, both created in 1974.
Tobler was reportedly so deeply angered by her portrayal in Li I that she tore the painting into four pieces. Luckily, one of Giger’s friends persuaded the artist to let him piece it together, and in the process birthed what remains one of the most popular lithographs ever made.
Speaking of popular, it was also Tobler’s memorable face that peered out from behind the fold-out cover of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s epochal prog-rock classic Brain Salad Surgery, one of only two works Giger specifically designed as album art. (The other was Deborah Harry’s debut 1981 solo effort Koo Koo.)
The other album covers championing his iconic art, from bands like Danzig and Celtic Frost, were lifted from previous art. That includes Work 219: Landscape XX, more infamously known as Penis Landscape, which captivated Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra so deeply that he controversially lobbied to make it the cover of his legendary punk group’s 1985 classic Frankenchrist.
“I was totally blown away the minute I saw it,” Biafra told Wired.com by phone. “I thought: ‘Wow! That is the Reagan era on parade. Right there! That shows how Americans treat each other now.’ He captured it in a nutshell.”
The graphic mechanical sexualization of Landscape XX also influenced the lyrical and thematic concerns of Frankenchrist, fusing its songs “together as a concept album,” Biafra added. “I’m not sure that would have clicked in my mind, if I hadn’t had that spark of inspiration from seeing Giger’s work for the first time.”
But the release of Frankenchrist led to a protracted obscenity trial in Los Angeles that nearly bankrupted Biafra’s label Alternative Tentacles. “I’m not necessarily sure whether the picture was worth going through a year-and-a-half of hell,” Biafra said. “But at the same time, if I had known that it was going to happen, would that have stopped me? Probably not.”
Tobler’s suicide turned Giger’s work darker, as many of the recognizable human elements of his nightmarish cyborg tableaux were replaced by terrifying aliens. He collected them in 1977 into his most well-known book, Necronomicon, named for the fictional grimoire created by horror legend H.P. Lovecraft.
After Dark Star brainiac Dan O’Bannon brought the collection to the attention of Ridley Scott, the director latched onto the horrific aliens in the paintings Necronomicon IV and Necronomicon V like an Alien egg-spawn to John Hurt’s face.
“I realized we had the ability to create a monster that would be superior to most of those from the past,” Scott wrote in the introduction of H.R. Giger’s Film Design Book in 1996. ” I had never been so sure of anything in my life.”
Scott’s confidence paid off huge, as his nightmarish 1979 corporate sci-fi classic Alien became an instant legend, winning Giger an Oscar for visual effects in 1980 and birthing a franchise that persists to this day. The acclaim led to further film work for Giger on franchises like Species, Poltergeist and others, including unused designs for Dune and Batman Forever.
But even those designs spawned further pursuits: The Harkonnen chairs Giger created for Dune — back when Alejandro Jodorowsky, not David Lynch, was the chosen director — sparked forays into furniture design.
Giger’s urge to bring his dark, suggestive work into full dimension continued with efforts in sculpture and even installation. In 1988, he designed the first of what would be four eventual H.R. Giger Bars in Tokyo. (Only two, both in Switzerland, remain open.) Experiencing his artwork’s cavernous, skeletal environments in the cybernetic flesh proved to be a thrill for fans of his work, famous and otherwise.
“I loved the first Giger Bar in Tokyo,” tweeted cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson, in response to a query from Wired.com. “My kind of Disney!”
The Art of Darkness
Seven decades after his birth, Giger’s uncanny merge of human and machine has crept outward like a cultural virus. There is probably no other artist alive whose work is as instantly recognizable. And, for that, we have Giger’s itinerant fears to thank.
Like David Lynch — whose brilliant feature-length debut Eraserhead, Giger admitted, was the closest that cinema ever got to his tortured art — the Swiss-born icon has capitalized on his nightmares and visions like few others. Mapping the territories of the unconscious and its dark mash of birth, sex, death and technology, Giger has created a legacy as substantial as that of his inspiration Salvador Dali.