H.R. Giger: Against the Gigeresque

H.R. Giger: Against the Gigeresque

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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