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H.R. Giger: Against the Gigeresque

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by Matthew Cheney
May 16, 2014 1:40 PM
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With any metaphor, we must read it and ourselves closely and minutely in order to reach its radical potential.

—Samuel R. Delany, "Reading at Work"


In the land of esque, the one-trick pony is king, and the king is made into a one-trick pony. Art and artists get reduced to their broadest strokes, their most easily perceived gestures, their monotypes. Esque means “resemblance”, but it also means a set of expectations, because resemblance requires types than can be quickly, easily recognized (the rich paradoxes and disturbing ambiguities of Franz Kafka get corralled into the kafkaesque). The esque is a side-effect of commodification hardly limited to the highest of high arts, as the marioesque attests. The danger of the esque is that the resemblance may overtake the original.

H.R. Giger's imagery so deeply influenced the imaginations of film production designers, tattoo artists, fashionistas, magazine illustrators, skateboard designers, and just about everyone other than My Little Pony animators that at this point it's difficult to separate Giger from the gigeresque. What was once outré, repulsive, and disturbing became the Thomas Kincaid style for the cyber/goth set, a quick kitsch to perform a certain idea of taste. You hang Christmas Cottage in your living room to display your pleasant, unthreatening Christianity; I put a poster of Giger’s Li I on my bedroom wall to show how transgressive I am in my deep, dark soul. Each is a sign that communicates immediately, without any need to look for more than a second, because each communicates not through itself but through all the associations is has accumulated.

Of course, this is not fair to Giger the artist, who was much more than his most popular tropes. But that's about as useful as saying van Gogh is much more than a sunflower, a starry sky, and a bandaged ear: obvious, yes, but also beside the point. Giger is mourned and remembered because of the gigeresque.

The rise of the gigeresque occurred soon after the release of Alien in 1979, for which Giger designed the titular creature. He didn't work on any of the other Alien movies, and was especially annoyed not to have been able to help with Aliens, but it didn't matter: Hollywood just wanted a whiff of Giger, something for the technicians to replicate and make acceptable to the studio execs.

Giger's life in film did not begin with Alien. He made two shorts with Fredi M. Murer in the late '60s, "High" and "Heimkiller", as well as the 45-minute science fiction movie Swiss Made 2069, for which he designed his first monster costume. In the mid-'70s, he created various set designs for Alejandro Jodorowsky's planned film of Dune (about which a new documentary has recently been released), but it wasn't until Alien that his work became generally and internationally famous. Before Alien, he was avant-garde and shocking. After Alien, he was trapped in a gigeresque nightmare.

My favorite Giger moment comes from 1987, when Jello Biafra and Michael Bonanno of Alternative Tentacles Records were put on trial in Los Angeles for distributing harmful matter to children because the Dead Kennedys album Frankenchrist included a pull-out poster of Giger's 1973 Penis Landscape (Landscape XX). Biafra later explained to Wired.com that he'd been interested in using the art for the album because when he first saw it "I thought: 'Wow! That is the Reagan era on parade. Right there! That shows how Americans treat each other now.'"

The biological and mechanical are mixed in what Giger depicts, but they are also reproduced, reiterated: not just cyborgs, but clones. The Penis Landscape reduces the human to the genital over and over and over again. It attracted the attention of the anti-pornsters not because it was obscene, but because it so perfectly depicted their stereotype of pornography, the ideal form obsessing them: organs without bodies.

Putting a poster of Penis Landscape into the LP of Frankenchrist was an effective use of Giger to prod the sensibilities of the status quo, to distribute Giger outside the gigeresque, perhaps the first (and maybe last) time after the release of Alien to do so.

It's too bad Giger never got to work with David Cronenberg and David Lynch. In a 2012 interview with Bizarre magazine, Giger said of Lynch's Eraserhead, "No other film has affected me quite like it." Lynch, though, moved toward a kind of all-American surrealism that wasn't really what Giger was up to. Cronenberg is the one director whose career seems to me to return now and again to ideas and images that Giger was also drawn to, and whose work often manages to be gigeresque, but not banal. The biomechanical metamorphoses and horrors come from Cronenberg's own obsessions — obsessions very much in tune with Giger's, almost in conversation with them. It's unfortunate that Giger and Cronenberg never worked together.

Giger participated in his own commodification, though for him it seems to have been an attempt to at least partly control the image being spread. By sanctioning Giger Bars and opening a Giger Museum, he could say what was and wasn't appropriate to associate with his name. Once a trope enters the popular consciousness, though, it's impossible to regulate its transmission and mutation. When only a few qualities become associated with an artist's name, the artist's own work can become unrecognizable as the work of that artist. The esque becomes the echt. Commercialization takes over, mining the predictable for profit. Art ends where expectation rules.

We can see this process in a revealing one-star review at Amazon.com for H.R. Giger's Retrospective: 1964-1984, where a reader says, "I didn't like this book at all. I expected paintings of aliens and supernatural creatures. Instead I got art that's nonsense, from my point of view. The paintings look nice, but they're meaningless to me." The gigeresque is familiar, reproduced, and thus meaningful; the Giger that is not gigeresque cannot be known, cannot even be evaluated or analyzed — it is nearly invisible, just nonsense.

What we should celebrate and recover is the Giger beyond the gigeresque. The gigeresque is too familiar now, too rote, too replicated. Whatever meanings it still possesses are meanings comfortably assimilated into the status quo, easily packaged and transmitted, emptied of all but the least interesting, least challenging values. In 1979, a Giger alien was shocking, terrifying, repulsive — but even as early as Aliens in 1986, the effect was dissipating (Giger's own absence from Aliens represents the triumph of the gigeresque: the artist himself was no longer necessary). All these years later, slimy biomechanical monsters have no power to surprise, no power to awaken awe. To rediscover the alien, we must reject the gigeresque, for though it may still possess the basic ability to gross us out, even that gross-out has dispersed into pure familiarity.

What would be the equivalent today of packaging a poster of Penis Landscape in a record album? What would lead to trials and hoopla and revolutionary fervor? How could these images once again be made harmful for children? What do we need that has not yet been leached out of the art? How might we honor Giger and subvert the gigeresque?

Matthew Cheney's work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.

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