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HR Giger

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First, the bad news: we will never again see a new painting from Hans Ruedi Giger. “I’m not working any more – I’m not doing any more paintings,” the world-famous surrealist explains. “I’m already 68 years old and it’s time to retire! After all, that’s normal.”

As devastating as that might sound, rest assured that Giger – pronounced “Geeger” with a hard ‘G’ – doesn’t intend to sit around wearing his slippers and reading the paper. “It might sound very strange that an artist can say he’s retired, but just because I’m not doing any more paintings, it doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking about things,” he continues. “I still write my diaries and my dream book, where I record my dreams. And drawings too, sometimes. But now I’m mostly concentrating on sculptures and overseeing my bar and museum.”

Fortunately, there’s an awful lot of Giger’s work still to admire. Over the past 40-odd years, the Swiss artist has gradually transformed from a cult figure into an acclaimed master of dark, nightmarish visions. His trademark style, often incorporating biomechanical mixtures of flesh and machines, is as much copied as it is admired, and like them or loathe them you’re almost certain to recognise one of his creations.

Real-World projects
Now, though, Giger has his sights set on real-world projects, as he explains in his sometimes halting English. “I’m working on the fountain in my garden. That will be in Gruyères, just in front of the Giger Museum… the local people wanted to erect it. It looks fantastic, right next to the bar.

“I’m also working on a show in Berlin, in the citadel in Spandau, for the end of June. It’s a kind of castle surrounded by water. It’s quite famous in Berlin and was also named by Hitler,” he chuckles. “During the war, the Nazis’ money was hidden there.”

The museum and bars are very important to Giger, a sign of the recognition it has taken him many years to achieve. There are two bars, one in his hometown of Chur and one as part of the museum – both featuring custom interiors and furniture designed by Giger. The museum is 10 years old this month, and plans are in motion to celebrate that.

“We’ve produced a commemorative book, HR Giger in Gruyères: The First Decade,” he explains, (available now for $25 from the museum website, www.hrgigermuseum.com) as well as a catalogue, in conjunction with his friend Martin Schwarz. “It has everything I’ve ever done in it – older sketches, the diaries, and so on. The works are printed very small, postage stamp sized, mostly to act as a reference for all my work.”

It must be strange, we muse, seeing them that small when his paintings are famously so big. “Some of them were. The bigger ones could be 2x2.4m. That was important to me somehow, because at that size you’re surrounded by the image. I liked to say these works went from one ear to the other! The size makes them more impressive.”

Belly art
Whether it’s because of language difficulties or because he’s simply reluctant, attempting to coax any analysis of his work from Giger is nigh on impossible. “I had some ideas in my head, ways of realising images I had in my brain,” he tries to explain. “In the beginning I had no idea what I was doing – I just did some clouds or whatever, and then I would make an eye or something. It was just, you know, from the belly.”

As a boy, he says, he was always interested in trains – especially ghost trains – castles, skulls, mummies, “and all that mystery stuff. I couldn’t find many images about that so I had to do it myself. That’s how I started. I didn’t think it would ever really be important to other people…”

Erotic elements
But what about the erotic element in his work? Many images feature subtle (and often decidedly unsubtle) depictions of various human body parts, entwined in peculiar ways. He appears to ignore the question entirely: “The strongest thing in my work, I think, is the claustrophobic stuff. I still sometimes have shitty dreams with that in… being inside rooms that are like graves, a stone grave, a tomb. And I always think in the dream, ‘Oh my god, why am I here?’” He laughs. “Claustrophobic things are terrible. I used to think all that was finished but it’s still here. That’s more important to me than the erotic stuff.” He adds that it was “never in my mind” to try to shock people with that sort of imagery. “I like my work very much and I’m free to realise my dreams, all these childish dreams. Everyone has the freedom to think what they want about them.”

Alien audience
It was Giger’s design work for Alien, of course, that really brought him to the attention of a worldwide audience, and he’s still proud of his collaboration with director Ridley Scott. Much to his regret, he missed the opportunity to work on Aliens due to his commitments with the film Poltergeist II, and other film collaborations such as Species didn’t fare so well.

Perhaps having been somewhat spoilt with the level of hands-on enthusiasm that Ridley – a trained artist – brought to the concept design process, Giger found his ideas being diluted and changed in subsequent films. In any case, he has no plans to work in film again – at least, not other people’s films.

“When I worked on Alien, I was in Shepperton Studios for about seven months,” he explains. “If you want to do something really good, something effective, then you have to travel and work with the people making the film. If you work long-distance, it’s really not possible to get a good result. I realised that and so it’s not for me any more.”

Seeds of memory
The same, it seems, applies to video games. In 1992, he collaborated on an adventure game called Dark Seed, which sported unmistakeably and very impressive (for the time) Gigeresque graphics. It’s intriguing to think of how his visions could be interpreted with today’s graphic capabilities, we suggest. But Giger isn’t interested, and indeed doesn’t seem to remember much about Dark Seed at all.

“I didn’t have much to do with that,” he claims. “That was done without my real involvement, they just used my name. I didn’t create any new stuff for it. I wasn’t very pleased with that…”

Giger has said he was “painfully shy” as a boy, and in some senses that still appears to be true. He does what he does because he’s fascinated by his subjects and enjoys creating them. “I’m sorry I can’t say much about my work… it’s somehow very simple,” he apologises endearingly. “I can’t invent new stuff. What I’m saying to you I’ve said already, a long time ago. I’m sorry, you’re probably a little bit disappointed…”

It probably goes without saying, but nothing could be further from the truth.
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