On May 12, 2014, about half a week before the Lok Sabha election votes were to be counted, ahead of the result that would catapult the BJP to power with an overwhelming majority in the lower house of Parliament, H.R. Giger passed away. I didn’t hear about it until two days later, on May 14. I remember dropping whatever I was doing – which was quite a bit because Counting Day was almost upon us – rushing over to the Sunday Magazine desk and pitching an obituary for Giger to Baradwaj Rangan. I was commissioned 20 seconds later, and I was done two hours later.
As far as I was concerned, it was very, very bad news. With his death, Giger’s repertoire was finished, complete, finito; there wasn’t going to be any more new material. I could complete his obituary in such a short span of time not because I was familiar with his creative output – familiarity would imply I understood what was going on; I didn’t. If anything, I was just a kindred soul – with many fears and terrors, and little faith in solace or hope. It was a world, and worldview, that Giger the artist had helped validate.
Yesterday, I’d met a friend for coffee and – as our conversation about the future of science journalism meandered on – we happened to be talking about sci-fi Netflix, Alejandro Jodorowsky and, soon, Giger. I don’t remember how we got there except that one of us had mentioned Dune and the other had been very excited to meet a fellow Dune fan. We hugged. After exchanging a few notes about having had a childhood equal parts traumatised and enlivened by the Necronomicon, my friend mentioned that there was a documentary about Giger released sometime in 2014. I couldn’t believe I’d missed it.
So yesterday, I completed all the tasks on my to-do list, grabbed some early dinner, and shut myself off in my room. I’d decided that for old times’ sake I was going to gift myself some masochistic mindfuck: I was going to watch the documentary, called Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World.
[One hundred minutes later] I’m incredibly glad I did.
[Early next morning] No excuse is weak enough for me to revisit, rediscuss, reanalyse and reconsume the brilliance of Giger – as if being able to enjoy an old and favourite track for the first time. And Dark Star was a fecund, almost extortionate, excuse.
For example, fifteen minutes into it, a few lines – spoken by Hanz Kunz, a poster-maker, and Leslie Barany, Giger’s agent – confirmed what I’d suspected about him for long: despite the intricate methods and symmetries depicted in his images, Giger didn’t have an artistic process; he intuited his symbols and their placement on his canvas. Barany: “I thought he was channeling something and I don’t believe in those things.” Stanislov Grof, a psychiatrist: “Giger was the medium through which Another World was introducing itself to us.”
That intuition was akin to a mysterious agent speaking guy through him, call it your subconscious or your true self or whatever. Giger really tapped into that, terrified himself with it, remained terrified with it as he worked; as he says, “When I put it on canvas, I have some sense of command over it. It’s healing for me.” Carmen Maria Scheifele Giger, his wife, says, “Giger’s art has the same effect as nigredo, the blackness, an alchemical ritual that begins by looking at the dark night of the soul.”
Li Tobler, Giger’s first partner and who committed suicide in 1975, embodied the struggle that he had won as a little boy of six – the struggle to recognise and acknowledge what it is that we’re truly afraid of, the struggle to not self deny, the struggle to honestly explore reprehensions. She had had a Catholic and puritanical upbringing but her lover was an artist so gleeful when, on the sets of Alien, he explains to someone that though he had to change the opening of the xenomorph’s egg from a vaginal slit because the producers hoped to be able to air the film to Catholic audiences as well, he was pleased that he could give the opening four flaps to “doubly offend the church”. But when he says in Dark Star that his art could not do much to help her deal with her depression, it’s as if his art was all he had to give her. That is a silencing moment.
In fact, Giger had a rare set of privileges: to have been able to explore the darkest recesses of the human condition, to have confronted those demons through his art, and to have ultimately reconciled with the shape of those horrors. His paintings and sculptures extend us – the viewers – that privilege. Sometimes that makes me wonder if there is something to be said for the creative process Giger uses, if that takes away some of the edge since Giger has visualised his demons from scratch. Is he as terrified as one of his fans when he beholds one of his finished products? Or, to Giger, is the process of creating his demons more therapeutic than is the moment of beholding his demons frightening?
Nonetheless, his privileges prevail. As I wrote in his obituary, Giger’s extensive journeys through the wombs of horror revealed that rotting corpses and camisado surprises are not the stuff of fear. We are. Our terrors are of our own making – fevers about the peri-normal, about what we’ll find when we open new doors, break taboos, burst into life from tabula rasa unto the innate. Kunz/Barany: “His art has this quality, an element of reality combined with his own fantasies, and what makes it stronger is the reality, not the fantasy.”
The metal in his paintings and sculptures twisted and bent in ways that no metalsmith would attempt to achieve. Semblances of humans, human forms, caught up in the workings of otherworldly engines, monochrome lips and spring-loaded breasts grafted around solenoids, crania tubula labia shot through with tentacular electric cables, Tesla coils and Jacob’s ladders of homuncular bullets. It was easy to get lost in this frightening order of symbols, for each one of us to behold this visage and to take away a seedling of serial nightmares. Giger’s visualisations were all together pareidolia as public good – where except faces you saw something you didn’t want to see, something you’ve known all your life but hidden away…
And in Dark Star, Giger himself looks terrified, as if he knows something is coming. There is a remarkable scene where his assistant says Giger’s house is big enough for the ageing artist to disappear into, to become one with the house itself, that he can’t be found unless he wants to be found. Right after that, the cinematographer goes looking for Giger in the house, slowly exploring passages, corridors, crawling with building apprehension through tubes crisscrossing the house in much the same way Giger contemplated perinatal misgivings.
It can be difficult to communicate the brand of horror that Giger stood for, a deep existential visceral soulful tension, an unassailable yet unspeakable awareness of a darkness, a knot of shame festering in our hearts and minds. But explore Giger’s house with the impending frightful sight of a terrified old man who’s seen the faces of hell and it will unseat you somehow. Whence that fear, that anxiety? What do we fill in the blanks of our reality with?
Featured image: H.R. Giger in a scene from Dark Star.