To say the artwork of surrealist painter Hans Ruedi (H.R.) Giger is bizarre would be an understatement. It is strange, kooky, grotesque, and alien in the truest sense of the word. His biomechanical landscapes - where flesh and machine spiral together like some kind tornado from hell - will remain fodder for my nightmares for years to come, and maybe yours too! So check for monsters under your bed, turn on your night-light, and let's talk about H.R. Giger.
Take a look at the guy on the right for a second. He's what we in the science world would call "creepy" (why is he holding that egg-thingy like that? It's a fake egg, right? Is he aware that it's fake? Should someone tell him?). But more than just looking nuttier than a squirrel working overtime, he is also - in my book - brilliant. He's the kind of artist who made going to the museum fun when we were kids. He's the kind of artist who makes scary movies, scary. He's the kind of artists who, for me - and I'm gonna gush here - gives his audience a chance to look at reality in a completely new way. Take a peek at some of his landscapes and tell me you disagree...
I can't speak for you, but for me, these "biomechanical" (really big theme in Giger's work) paintings are consciousness-expanding. They are alien art forms, and while they are pieced together with elements of reality (we'll talk about this more later), their points of focus exist in a dimension far removed from our own.
So what causes an artist to become as freakily psychedelic as Giger? All jokes aside, Giger actually lived a very troubled life. While he never said anything explicitly - or at least he didn't to my knowledge - he strongly hinted that some kind of trauma occurred in his youth, maybe even infancy. In interviews, he often cited recurring dreams, particularly those revealing painful truths about the darkness of the past, as primary sources for his art. In fact, what's interesting about Giger, and perhaps what makes him such a natural creative, is that his artwork doesn't seem to have arisen from a want, rather it arose from a need, an urge to self-heal and cope with the murky evil lurking in his psyche.
Giger never set out to be a professional artist (the interest was there, but his family didn't approve). He studied industrial design and architecture in Zurich, this period of schooling probably being the source of his masterful skills of drawing and painting which would allow his later career to flourish. Unfortunately for Giger, these college years sound like they were a stressful time. He struggled with severe anxieties about pain, women, and death; and always below the surface - lurking in the shadows of his unconscious and popping its head up in dreams and fantasies - was some terrible psychological force of unknown origin. For Giger, art became a tool for externalizing his emotional darkness. In his words, when he felt the need to "work it out" he would turn to drawing or painting, giving form to the invisible monster breathing down his neck. His artistic process became "like a kind of exorcism". Doing a little research, this "exorcism" that Giger described sounds like a legitimate, psychological event, and one I would imagine lots of artists experience. Through the functioning of a mental mechanism that psychoanalysts have termed: the creative imagination, people (and artists especially) can enter a state of extreme creativity, during which "the barrier between the id and the ego...temporarily [becomes] permeable. Impulses reach preconsciousness more easily than under other conditions, and their translation into formed expression can proceed painlessly" (K Ernst 485).
For those out of the psychology loop, an id is a psychological structure that exists, for the most part, below conscious awareness. In it is contained all carnal instincts humans inherit at birth, most of which are negative and aggressive in nature, and that are suppressed by the ego. Creative imagination is the capacity to suspend the ego-id conflict and express one's impulses more easily. Granted I'm not a licensed psychologist, but I've got to believe there is some validity to this theory, and I'm really compelled to think that Giger was victim to an extremely tense ego-id relationship, which he attempted to pacify through his creative expression.
Giger's "exorcisms" eventually paid off...big time. Famed director Ridley Scott was in the business of finding an artist brilliant enough to create a monster that was terrifying enough to make his movie Alien a box-office hit. Around this time, Scott was introduced to Giger's work and artistic style through Giger's infamous Necronomicon, a bound collection of some of the artist's more...shall we say...grotesque pieces. Scott ate it up and Giger was hired to design the film's monster and extraterrestrial set, earning the little-known artist an Oscar. From this point on, there was no turning back. Giger was launched into world-wide fame which allowed him to realize some of his far-fetched dreams. Giger eventually designed and built the H.R. Giger Bar, a "total environment" which welcomes its guests into the belly of the beast. The place is hard to describe in words, so take a look...(and yes, that is a wall of baby-heads...but they're not real...I hope)
So beyond the fact that I really like the guy, what makes H.R. Giger so special compared to any other run-of-the-mill creative? I could go on and on, but I'll try and narrow it down to only a few points. First, he has the ability to completely shift reality in whatever direction he wants to. The imagination's creative capacity is limited by its owner's perception of reality, which basically means that our fantasies can only build new images using elements that already exist in the real world. Therefore, a person's creativity can be judged by the degree to which he or she is able to break down these "elements of reality" into progressively smaller pieces and create something completely novel out of them. Take a look at any one of Giger's paintings and you'll see he was a master at this.
Second, but kind of going off of the first, Giger was able to depart from reality, while still holding on to it. It's really hard to explain, and kind of paradoxical to the first point I made, but basically you can look at Giger's work and find things that are concrete and recognizable - like the images of robots, pipes and wires - but they exist at a level that is completely surreal. For example, in the picture below, you can pick out metal and mechanical materials, but they're all mushed together in some kind of fluid, vibrating mess. Giger described this quality best in his own words: "having been a professional industrial designer it means a lot to me to have a design show its symbolism as well as its functional aspect clearly". One of Giger's biggest fans, direct Ridley Scott, cited this relationship between reality and unreality as the most powerful aspect of Giger's style. In Scott’s words, Giger's art had “an extra quality…of one of the most frightening things of all, a quality of reality, combined with his own form of fantasy”.
Third, and in my mind this is what makes him a truly great creative, Giger's aesthetic has the incredible power to completely polarize his audience, i.e. people either love or hate his work. There are lots of people out there who find his paintings grotesque, and then there are weirdos like me who eat them up, but for as long as I have loved Giger, and I have loved him for awhile, I have never encountered anyone who didn't feel something extreme - in either direction - towards his work. When it comes to Giger, people don't sit on the fence.
So hopefully those of you reading this post will have come to adore Giger as much as I do. On a side note, I am very sad to say that H.R. Giger died in May of last year. In the words of his family, Giger was a "loving husband, selfless friend, and supremely talented artist". My heart goes out to those closest to him as they mourn the loss of such a miraculous person who brought such terrifying beauty into the world.
R.I.P - H.R. Giger
Sources and further reading/watching:
K. Ernst (1953). Psychoanalysis and the study of creative imagination.