Tuesday, May 13, 2014

On the Passing of H.R. Giger

Man is nothing

What is finite and transient has relevance only in relation to what is infinite and eternal. Man can make nothing of himself, if he draws only on his own forces . . . . Led astray by humanism and blinded by the belief that man is the centre of the universe, he fails to recognize his true place in the order of things. He forgets the basis of his existence, and therefore he must perish.
--Excerpt from "Panderma 4," Carl Laszlo, art collector/publisher

The artist in 1972, when he was the age I am today.

By now you may have heard the Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger has died. The mainstream reaction is, of course, "The guy who designed the monster from Alien died." I don't think a law school colleague of mine will mind if I quote his reaction, which I think is a fairly typical one:
His stand-alone art, without the context of a backstory (such as in Alien), was disturbing, but only to the extent that a Metallica t-shirt appealed to me as a high-school student. Weird and grotesque just for the sake of being weird and grotesque.
This attitude toward the works of Giger bothers me much more than it would seem is rational. He is, after all, just one artist. So what if people don't get it?

In case you can't already tell, this is going to end up being about a lot more than just Giger. This is about the purpose of art, or at least one purpose of it, and what that means to me.

Painter, sculptor, filmmaker, designer, and more, his work has spoken to me on a primal level since my youth. So I will agree with the popular sentiment that there is a juvenile appeal to his work. But art that is disturbing--even disturbing for the sake of being disturbing--is almost the only kind of art that I care about. It's why I care about metal, it's why I care about Lovecraft or Poe, and it's why I care about Giger.

Why is that goal juvenile? Of course, it's not. If art is to be powerful, as I believe it should be, it can never be more powerful than when it disturbs.

The reality is that most people, as they age, convince themselves that they are "too mature" to be interested in these kinds of things. This is because people don't like to deal with it. They have a fear they don't want to acknowledge. Teenagers go for it because they are less inhibited, but no one really stops being interested in it. On the contrary, I think it often (but not always) takes a mature mind to get past the social taboo against disturbing art. There is a corollary here to fantasy. J.R.R. Tolkien was of the belief that children loved fantasy, but that adults had to outgrow a distaste for it. That belief that one is "too old" for such "silly" things is what is really immature.

But beyond that, it's frankly insulting to compare a work by Giger to a Metallica T-shirt. Presumably, the reference is to works by Pushead, the noted artist behind a lot of metal imagery. Not to slight Pushead, but his work touches on disturbing material in a surface manner, using garish, exaggerated tropes in a way that's more than a little on-the-nose.

Giger, far more than having "a hangup with respect to blades, phalluses and vaginas," delved deeper than that. True, he was a provocateur, satirically suggesting Switzerland adopt an underground rail system in the shape of a pentagram. He was not above drawing a face on a page out of Penthouse, or harnessing the symbolism of the Zodiac or Baphomet. But he didn't need to resort to such things. He created forms that speak to a much more primal part of us, that were so alien they couldn't piggyback on archetypes, but spoke to us in a powerful, new way, unburdened by such concerns. His images were, in large part, saturated with sexuality to an absurd degree, but it's unfair to characterize this as exclusively a violent sexuality. Instead, it's an uncaring, almost casual alien sexuality. It speaks simultaneously to our most deep-seated fears and desires.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the "biomechanical" themes of much of his work, which blur the lines between the organic and inorganic (a theme I have also explored). This goes to our human fears about loss of identity and our inherent fear of machinery (which as been explored from Tolkien to Asimov to The Terminator).

Finally, I must return to the quote I used to open this article. The quote was chosen by Giger for a book of his making, and he cited it as important to him. In it, and in much of Giger's work, I sense a kind of Lovecraftian nihilism. I agree with him, and with the nihilists, that humanism is an absurd and ultimately bankrupt philosophy. I agree that Man is nothing in and of himself. But if one must disbelieve in God, nihilism makes more sense than any other atheistic philosophy. Nihilists grasp this important concept which even the majority of Christians fail to see, though it's regrettable they stop with this half-formed philosophy.

All Giger photos are snapshots of pages in the Taschen H.R. Giger book.


  1. When you were talking about Tolkien and the hang up many adults seem to have with approaching fantasy and/or disturbing work, all I could think was:

    "When I became man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up." -C.S. Lewis

    1. I've read so much by and about Tolkien that I can't find the precise source I was referring to. He once wrote something about anticipating that one of his stories would be loved by children and by those who are old enough to appreciate fairy stories. I was also thinking in part of his essay "On Fairy-Stories," which can be found in a number of places but I read in A Tolkien Miscellany: "Is there any essential connexion between children and fairy-stories?"

      Anyway, that quote does capture it nicely. The two were such good friends that no one could likely tell you which one came up with the idea, unless one wrote it first in a letter to the other. Anyway, I cite Lewis so often that I thought maybe I'd go with Tolkien this time.