When Hans Ruedi Giger was growing up in rural Switzerland, his father insisted that he train in industrial design so that the boy might have a proper vocation. At the same time, though, Giger’s mother openly supported the boy’s passion for art, and by the 1960s, H.R. Giger had somehow fused the two, fueled by what was for the time and place, a most unconventional interest in sex and morbidity. What resulted was a signature art style, supported by a technique of freehand airbrushing that Giger developed himself, that at first repelled and disgusted his audience. At one of his earliest exhibitions, the windows of the place needed to be cleaned daily from the spittle of revolted passersby.
This did not deter Giger, however, who stayed true to his artistic self, as dark and as twisted and as weird and as off-putting as it may have been. Perhaps his biggest break came in 1979, when he designed the eponymous title character for director Ridley Scott’s sci-fi blockbuster movie “Alien”. He even won an Academy award in 1980s for Best Design for his work on “Alien”. After that, it didn’t much matter that Giger’s critics dismissed his work as kitschy, overly obsessed with genitalia and death. Somehow, Giger had won a global audience with his work, and he ran with it.
Giger would go on to lend his unique, unmistakable design aesthetic to a number of acclaimed album covers, including “Brain Salad Surgery” for Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and Debbie Harry’s “Koo Koo.” He also worked on other movies, including a now-famous unmade version of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” that, had it been made, surely would have become known as the weirdest-looking movie in the history of cinema. “Un Chien Andalou” would have looked like “Police Academy” in comparison.
In time, Giger would become deeply unhappy with the Hollywood production process, which surely to an artist such as he felt almost oppressively collaborative. Giger would eventually disavow all work he did for Hollywood, including the “Alien” designs that made him so famous. But it did not matter. Giger’s influence had reached millions of fans, and had become so deeply ingrained in the modern science fiction zeitgeist that “Gigerian” became the go-to adjective to describe any look in which the mechanical met the organic.
Giger died on May 12 in a hospital in western Switzerland, after sustaining injuries in a fall. He was 74. Details on his funeral arrangements or his survivors were not made immediately available to the public after his death, which seems fitting for a man who very much embraced the role of the gloomy, unknowable artist. Giger was said to have worked only at night, kept his curtains drawn all the time, and always dressed in black (though that was mainly to hide any ink stains he might have accumulated while working).
Giger’s passing has already drawn intense outpourings from his many fans, who range from science fiction geeks familiar with his work in their own favorite movies, to art aficionados who, perhaps grudgingly or not, recognize that in the world of art, sometimes it pays to be conventional. Often times, it does not. And Giger was certainly unconventional. Perhaps aggressively so. That might explain why he never found any space in mainstream museums (he ended up building his own), but Giger-themed bars came and went to pay homage to him, instead.
One of his more interesting legacies is the fact that Giger artwork remains a popular inspiration for tattoos; while this only fueled his critics’ disdain of his work and those who loved it, Giger embraced the fact that he had fans so true that they were willing to impart his work on their bodies forever. He saw it as the ultimate compliment, and in the end, that is all that really matters when it comes to the public legacy of H.R. Giger – he did work that mattered to himself first and foremost, and his mixture of skill, vision and fidelity created a mix that either would find an audience or it would not. One imagines it might not really have mattered to Giger. But it did find an audience, and therein lies the central irony to people like him: those who work hard to master a skill and to achieve excellence at something have a way of finding success even if success is not the goal they seek. Being great at something is the goal; the other stuff inevitably follows.
This might not be the big lesson Giger sought to impart upon the world, but it is a lesson he has imparted, all the same. To those who spend their lives laboring under critical disdain (whether it is personal, or as part of a larger profession that all too often endures the slings and arrows of public disapproval), the goal is to know what you want to accomplish, to know why you want to accomplish it, and to pursue those with all the intensity one can muster. Doing that yields success on one’s own terms. Anybody else’s hardly matter.
(AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)