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Afraid Of His Visions: HR Giger at the Aleš South Bohemian Gallery

By Olivia McNeilis

As the world faces existential crises, this nightmarish retrospective of the Swiss-born artist, HR Giger, feels all too timely.

An expressionless women stares straight at the viewer, strange forms such as snakes and skulls and tentacles protrude from her head symmetrically
Li I (1974). Courtesy of Aleš South Bohemian Gallery

Walking in the grounds of Hluboká Castle is like stepping into a fairy tale, but venture through the doors of its cast iron glasshouse and you’ll find a nightmare. Here, the Aleš South Bohemian Gallery is hosting Metamorphoses, one of the largest exhibitions of HR Giger’s work to date.

HR Giger (1940–2014) is not a household name, but he’s left a blot on the public consciousness. Born from the horrors of World War II, the Swiss artist and designer was, in his childhood, afraid of his visions, and kept a notepad by his bed to sketch whatever terrors visited him in the night. What emerged occupied his life’s work: a surrealist style, called biomechanical art, that combined organic structures with machines. Inspired by his art book, Necronomicon (1977), director Ridley Scott hired Giger to design the planet and central antagonist — the vicious parasitic xenomorph — for the film Alien (1979), winning him an Academy Award for Visual Effects and transforming the science fiction genre forever.

In Alien, Giger and Scott unleashed a new kind of movie monster. Before, monsters were equally deadly, but they were terrestrial. They could be killed with a stake through the heart or a bullet to the head, they were things of flesh and blood. They were governed by the laws of nature, a full moon or daylight, or were a product of trying to subvert them, as with George A. Romero’s radiated zombies or Ishirō Honda’s atomic Godzilla. Now, in the vastness of space, lurked something far beyond humanity's understanding or control.

It’s fitting then, that the Xenomorph takes centre stage in Metamorphoses. A sculpture of one, with its elongated head and mechanical body, sits on a plinth by the entrance. Here, in the first room, curator Adam Hnojil has created something of an amuse bouche. On the right are the large airbrushed paintings that are most typical of Giger’s work, filled with erotically charged images of women merged with machines. On the back wall are a series of life masks, including one of Debbie Harry who collaborated with Giger for the artistic direction of her solo album, KooKoo (1981). On the left are inky sketches embedded with Freudian motifs and symbols, clearly influenced by the work of Salvador Dalí.

But where Dalí captured dreams, Giger captured nightmares. In The Voice of America (1967), an emaciated man hangs in space as a circular saw dismembers him. His blindfolded face is pulled up and away by a spider-like robot so that he can’t bear witness to his own mutilation. It is a grotesque image, but as the man’s severed arms lift into the air, his pain has transformed into ecstasy.

Babies are crammed tightly together with their eyes shut, they are wearing straps and have warts.
Landscape XVIII (1973)

It’s a taste of things to come. Behind a curtain, we descend into a small square room where a large painting covers each wall — more dystopian paintings and props from KooKoo — before we tumble into the black heart of the exhibition. Here, we fully appreciate the ingenuity of Hnojil’s curation. The darkened room gives the impression of a cinema, where an invisible audience is free to gaze at the spectacle. It’s a shrewd move. Here, some of Giger’s most confronting pieces from his landscape series are on display, including a writhing mass of babies in Landscape XIV (1973) and Landscape XVIII (1973), where something innocent and beautiful has become monstrous en masse. To Erato Magazine, Giger's wife and widow, Carmen Giger, explains that the babies' faces actually look like the Giger's, a reflection of his humour.

The most famous Landscape XX (1973) shows a repeating pattern of human genitalia in the act of sex, with one wearing a condom. This artwork gained notoriety when it was included as a fold-out poster in the record sleeve for the Dead Kennedys album Frankenchrist (1985) — and nearly got them thrown in jail for obscenity. The incident came at a time when the USA was hotly debating the limits of artistic freedom, and made Giger an icon for counterculture and free speech. For the lead singer of Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra, Landscape XX perfectly captured the feelings of the period, “This picture is like Reagan America on parade.”

For Giger, however, the motifs in the landscapes were connected with anxieties in his personal life and his fears around overpopulation and the impact on identity, disease, and environmental destruction: “For me, the overpopulation results in non-individuality, because a person can only develop a personality when he has enough room to breathe.”

Staring in the dark at the Aleš South Bohemian Gallery, Giger’s artwork transforms. Or perhaps, we've become more receptive to it. The airbrushed paintings appear to glow, built up with translucent layers of paint, and the sinuous curves and lines of women and machines recall the elegance of art nouveau. We begin to appreciate Giger’s technical skills as an artist and the strange sort of sensuality of his art. As Giger once said, “There is a kind of beauty in there, if you look for it.”

With this revelation, we emerge into the bright light of the final room. Beneath the vaulted ceiling, we are treated to the full range of Giger’s work; from sculptures to statues to furniture to film props. It’s mainly a feast for science fiction fans, who gather to be photographed by the derelict space ship from Alien or the large sculpture of the redesigned xenomorph for Alien 3 (1992), though it was never used. Giger wanted the creature to be more sensuous, which he achieved by adjusting its proportions and giving it full lips supposedly inspired by the actress Michelle Pfeiffer.

At times, the work on display verges into the kitsch — as if we’ve taken a wrong turn into a comic convention — threatening to undo the transformative magic of the exhibition. The rusting metal installations towards the exit, with their allusion to vaginal openings, remind us that Giger is capable of restraint and subtlety, but that he rarely felt compelled to do so. Despite its occasional pitfalls, perhaps his work is more potent for it.

Steel and carbon fibre sculpture of the xenomorph designed for the film Alien 3 in the vaulted room of the Aleš South Bohemia Gallery.
Necronom/Alien III (2005)

Almost a decade since his death, Giger’s work feels more prescient than ever. Not since the Cold War has there been such a prevailing feeling of existential dread: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has renewed a war machine that treats young men like cannon fodder; the global rise of right-wing populism is driving natalism and threatening reproductive rights, climate change promises social and ecological catastrophe, and artificial intelligence raises questions about what it means to be human at all. All renew anxieties about the relationships between identity, autonomy, self, and other — and what the future will bring.

“Giger’s work disturbs us, spooks us, because of its enormous evolutionary time span,” said Timothy Leary, a friend and psychedelic self-called guru. “It shows us all too clearly, where we come from and where we are going. Giger, you see all of us deeper than all other primates.”

Perhaps Giger’s nightmarish visions provide a warning, if we’re brave enough to look.

HR Giger: Metamorphoses runs until 19 November 2023 at the Aleš South Bohemian Gallery, Hluboká nad Vltavou, Czech Republic. Find out more and book tickets here:


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