Beyond the Mists of the Katarakt: Geeked Presents A Retrospective of H.R. Giger.
By Bob Pastorella
I first discovered Hans Rudolf ‘Ruedi’ Giger’s work when I was just a teenager, though at the time, I was much too young to put all the connections together. The science-fiction horror film Alien was playing on the Showtime premium channel, and I admit my motivations for watching the film were not in hopes of finally seeing a popular scary movie. Several of my peers made mention of the scenes at the end featuring the main actress wearing only a tank top and tiny underwear, trying to exit her space ship in an escape pod, unaware the film’s alien antagonist was hiding in the escape pod as well. The moment of reveal, when the creature is finally exposed to our heroine, and the audience, burned into my mind’s eye, captivating my imagination even more than the beautiful, scantily clad star of the show, Sigourney Weaver.
This was years before the internet, and at this time, it was difficult finding any information about this monster maker, this H.R Giger, pronounced Gee-ger with two hard g’s, whose name was frequently mentioned in the pages of horror movie magazines such as Fangoria and Famous Monsters of Filmland. Those glossy photos were mere seeds of inspiration, forming tenuous connections within my fertile imagination, compelling me to create my own fantastic worlds. Yes, it was Ray Bradbury that made me want to write, but my stories were filled with the monsters Giger created.
It’s not difficult to pin down exactly what it is about Giger’s work that makes him so popular. Beautiful, yet grotesque, disturbing and erotic, his art brings our nightmares and fantasies to life. To understand his art, you must know his background. Giger suffers from night-terrors, and turned to painting as a form of therapy. He studied industrial design in Zurich in the mid 60’s, giving him the skill set to create the stunning landscapes he’s painted throughout the years. The majority of the art he is most known for stems from this education. With an airbrush and acrylic paint, he utilized pieces of metal grids as stencils to paint the backgrounds, his imagination filling in the rest. Heavily influenced by Austrian painter Ernst Fuchs and Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, Giger blazed his own trail by using his inner demons with the techniques of the masters.
Alien became such a monumental success that it spawned several sequels and made Giger a household name for people in the horror business. He had several exhibitions through the years, and has published books of his art, some of which are now out of print and fetch rather high prices online. A new copy of his first collection, Necronomicon, is listed online from private collectors from $250 and up. I managed to find a copy of his second collection, Necronomicon II, for a reasonable price online. Used, but in pristine condition, that particular tome is one my most treasured possessions.
It’s both odd and comforting to know that Giger does not maintain an online social persona. His website, http://www.hrgiger.com contains links to his museum website, his publisher here in the states, and Amazon links for his books. I say it’s comforting because his reasons for not maintaining an online presence is to not come under the influence of things he might come across on the internet. He doesn’t do email, or surf the web, and will only conduct interviews at his museum. He is a pure artist, harnessing his inner demons for the art he produces, unfettered by outside influences.
There is one tidbit of information I found very strange at his website was the mention of Giger signing autographs. He dislikes signing mere pieces of paper, but is more than happy to sign one his books, prints, or posters.
“Please note that Giger feels very uncomfortable when the interest appears to be more about his person than in his artwork and he tries to discourage celebrity worship and cult mentality.”
In this day and age, one can never be too careful.
Fortunately, the internet is filled with low resolution copies of his art, which is how most people have actually come to appreciate him. This is how I found the majority of his art, and often spend hours looking at the digital prints. Upon looking at Giger’s art, one can see particular motifs appear in practically every piece. Surely one can observe the ‘biomechanical’ aspect, the insertion of machine into living flesh. But if one was to look closer and reflect on the piece, they would find glimpses of their own nightmares depicted on the canvas. I’ve read Carl Jung’s theory of Collective Unconscious, how personal stimuli is collected, ingrained, and shared in the mind of each member of a particular species.
The question is, are these shared imaginations, or shared memories?
I believe I’ve found evidence of this in several of Giger’s paintings. One piece in particular, Katarakt, is a beautiful waterfall with hints of some rock formation barely visible behind the cascade. Upon closer inspection, it’s apparent that this is no naturally occurring waterfall. The entire rock shelf and overhang appear to be made of the bones and skulls of strange creatures, while the rocks at the base are actually masses of squirming tentacles that flow out from the plunge-pool into the river. The skulls behind the waterfall appear to be staring back, fully aware we can see them.
Long before I ever heard of H.R. Giger, before I even started writing, I suffered from terrible nightmares. I dreamed of drowning, being chased by tornados, or running away from an unseen force trying to grab me. But the one nightmare that has stayed with me longer than any other is me wading through a river of tentacles, staring at a waterfall that was staring back at me.
The exact same waterfall Giger painted in Katarakt.
Painting is an artist reaching out to the viewer, attempting to make an emotional connection, presenting a single moment in time that will provoke a reaction. Giger’s work is no exception, though sometimes it takes several viewings and careful study to make all the connections. Art is subjective to the viewer, and infinitely more personal once that first bond is made. Through the years, I have had the time to study Giger’s painting as one who appreciates fine art. One must look past the technique, past the methodology, into the heart of the imagery. Only then can the relationship begin.
The artwork that influenced Alien was created long before the film’s concept was put on paper. The film’s writer, Dan O’Bannon, was working on Dune, albeit a radically different version of the film that wouldn’t be made until years later. It was O’Bannon’s nightmares of how braconid wasps lay their eggs inside their host that inspired the infamous ‘chest-burster’ scene of the film. When he saw Giger’s artwork for Dune, and subsequent artwork from Necronomicon, O’Bannon knew he had found his man. The connection was made, and the nightmare visions were released to the masses.
Katarakt was the first connection. That initial revelation, that Giger painted my nightmare, was immediately written off as a coincidence. The rational man knows it’s impossible to share dreams. Perhaps it was just intense deja vu, or a repressed memory of seeing the painting earlier, its waterfall, the eyes looking from behind the water, imprinted in my mind long before I consciously remembered it.
The Tourist series of paintings were created for a film that never happened. Script, rewrites, budget, art design, millions of dollars aimed at all the right people, and no film. Giger was brought into the production in an attempt to gain some momentum for the project. Several A-List actresses were approached for the role of the main character, an alien living amongst us, interacting with us on a daily basis yet maintaining a close relationship with her fellow travelers. To this day, the script is regarded as one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets, with one studio literally sitting on the rights in fear that another studio will make them look foolish if they release it.
My first encounter with this series by Giger was again in a film magazine, and those images burned into my brain. One painting in particular, The Tourist VI, shows four alien creatures gathered as though sitting for a portrait. The style is classic Giger; monotone yet almost translucent where concerning the alien flesh, impeccable shading and detail. The internet again allowed me to collect some of the low resolution images of the series, which gave me an opportunity to study them much closer. Perhaps it was how the painting was displayed in the magazine when I first saw it, or maybe the memory of my nightmare has distorted, but I think there might be two different versions of this painting. The one I found on the internet depicted the same four aliens, only now they all appear to be smiling. On a deeper level, I find mockery in their cheeky grins, like they know.
One of Giger’s influences was the American visionary, H. P. Lovecraft. As we all know, Lovecraft’s greatest gift was presenting us with the means to dive into his vast and horrifying world as we see fit, on our own personal terms. Giger’s The Tourist is possibly the closest showing Lovecraft’s influence. It’s well known that the writer from Providence, Rhode Island also suffered from ‘night-terrors’ that fueled his tales of cosmic horror.
If Lovecraft gave the directions to the road to madness, then surely Giger is the cartographer of those desolate nightmare lands.
Dear reader, you know these lands as well as anyone. Is it any wonder that the dreams that affect us the most, the visions that seem the most real, are the nightmares that we all share? Once the connection is made, the dreams come more frequently, allowing us more than a fleeting moment to remember them. Once remembered, they are imbedded in the neurons of our mind, blending with our fantasies into our own personal reality. When the dream ends, we feverishly try to slip back into the nightmare, against our better judgement, because no matter how scared we are, not knowing what happens next may be even more terrifying.
Or is it that once that bond is made, the contours of the mind blending with reality, that we can’t stand not knowing the truth?
Simply called Facehugger, this piece of art immediately brings Lovecraft to mind. The original design called for an aggressive octopus with hyperactive tentacles, but when Dan O’Bannon saw what Giger was working on, the tentacles turned into fingers. And though tentacles illicit a squirmy, slimy reaction, fingers have more purpose. There’s something about a grasping hand, specifically the fingers, that illicit a sense of urgency, the need to get as far away as possible before the stranglehold begins. The Facehugger image is iconic. Once seen, we know what will happen if we’re trapped by the creature. We also know that some of us may not have been so lucky to escape. Giger’s original concept featured a single eye between the elongated digits, but he quickly removed it and opted for a more ‘instinctual’ approach for the creature.
This horrific hand, whose one purpose in life is to fill our belly with the beast, is an instant archetype of the night-terrors shared by all who possess the ability to dream. Are these the shared horrors, studied by Lovecraft, depicted by Giger, that haunt us all? The question remains; if these are shared by all who dream, are they from the depths of our imagination, or remnants of repressed memories? Are these memories mere totems that foretell out future? It is very likely that within the confines of our vast universe, maleficent forces plot our very destruction, that our creation was accidental and unintentional, yet because of our desire to unearth the truth, these forces wish to stamp us out completely so as to keep their secret safe.
Study Giger’s works of art for too long and you’ll hear one of the vile things skittering around behind your shower curtain. That soft tapping coming from the kitchen is not your water faucet dripping. And when you sleep, surely the creature will visit you, forcing you down dark corridors and unlit hallways. You pass through sticky cobwebs and slip on the slime on the floor. Deeper and deeper you go the never-ending path, twisting and turning, growing darker by the second. Reaching out into the pitch, you hope to find some place to hide. An open door, a hole you can pound away through the crumbling sheetrock. Once you find sanctuary, you try to hold your breath to listen for the creature, but your heart pounds in your head, louder and louder until you think it will explode.
Slowly, you calm down. Breathing back to normal. It’s only a dream, right? The night terrors getting to you once again. In the quiet, you hear a gentle tap…tap…tap…and you know what you’ve known all along, the realization coming so hard it makes you snap your eyes tight.
It doesn’t need eyes to find you.
And the tapping, you know what it is. The creature with no eyes, creeping closer to you, seeking you out from the vibrations of your pulse. And the others, with their eyes and mocking smiles, gathered to watch you slide into madness. The reaching fingers stretch into tentacles, a river of tentacles squirming to grasp at you, cascading over the skulls and bones of the ones that came before, that will come again. And when the final connection falls into place, your mind burns white, yet all you can do is stare at the abomination before you. You cannot help yourself as your prayers leave your lips. The fingers crawl upon your leg, whipping tail poised for the chokehold, and yet you still stare beyond the mists of the waterfall.
And you see yourself staring back.