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H.R. Giger

Interview by
Patrick Frey and Hans Ulrich Obrist
From Issue 34 – SS 2019

As the late Swiss artist reminisces in this unpublished interview from 2014 by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Patrick Frey, his early Surrealist-inspired work progressively shifted from abstract to figurative, from organic to apparatus, until culminating in his concept design for Alien, which catapulted to fame his daunting vision on death and futurism.

HANS ULRICH OBRIST  Mr. Giger, did it all begin with an epiphany of some sort? How did you come to art in the first place? Did you start drawing in school?

HANS RUEDI GIGER  Actually not until I was about twenty.

CARMEN GIGER  Yes, right, but you were already drawing comics, all sorts of stuff, at five or six years old.

HRG  Yes, a little. (Grins)

HUO  So you really got going at twenty, around 1960. And what were your first works?

HRG  Drawings. In A4 format.

PATRICK FREY  And what sort of a world did you draw at the time?

HRG  Well, when I was small. it was castles and palaces. Later, of course, women.

PF  Castles, palaces, women…

CG  Also instruments of torture already at eight or nine years old. (Laughs) Just recently we rediscovered them in the attic.

HUO  What were your influences, your inspirations?

HRG  Dalí, of course! I discovered his works when I was about fourteen through my brother-in-law, and I was immediately riveted.

HUO  What was it about him that fascinated you?

HRG  Everything. (Laughs) Just yesterday I dreamed for about four hours. I was in old apartments Dalí once lived in. I was like a cat, stealing into the house through the cat flap, crawling through the tunnel on my belly! That was funny.

HUO  Were there other influences. Kubin?

HRG  Kubin came later. Then Hans Bellmer, too.

CG  And of course the mummy!

HRG  Yes, there was an Egyptian mummy in the basement of the old Rhätisches Museum in Chur, donated by the von Planta family.

PF  You saw it as a kid?

HRG  Yes, I must have been eight or nine years old. I was utterly fascinated.

CG  You would always go to the museum on Sundays and then downstairs to where the mummy was. It was all right there already! The apotheosis of the woman, death, the bones, Egypt, the basement.

HUO  Chur is the oldest city in Switzerland, in the Rhine Valley. I read a passage about it in Paul Nizon’s book Diskurs in der Enge (“Discourse Confined”), which is essentially about mountains and claustrophobia. This sense of confinement must have been quite acute while you were growing up in that setting.

HRG  It was oppressive. I wanted out. Zürich was the big city to me; I thought it was exciting.  After I flunked out of high school in the early ’60s, I moved there, where I passed admissions for the school of applied arts.

HUO  What was your first artwork?

HRG  Around 1960, I painted Atomic Babies. It poked fun at the military chain of command, at what they told you to do in case of a nuclear strike: “Duck and cover”—close your eyes and dive under the table.

PF  You also painted deserted futuristic, psychedelic architectural landscapes. Some of them are on display at the HR Giger Museum in Gruyères. Stylistically indebted to classic Surrealism, they are, so to speak, the abstract counterpart to your later, figurative pictures. A whole fictional world was already evolving fairly early on in your work.

HUO  From student to artist is a significant step. After leaving school, where did you go from there? What was the next epiphany?

CG  Ein Fressen für den Psychiater [“A Feast for the Psychiatrist”, Giger’s first portfolio, 12 prints, self-published, 1965].

HRG  Of course! Look here, this is a birthing machine. (Points to an illustration in a book.)

HUO  How did that come about? Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD, was a friend of mine. He told me a lot about the day he made that discovery. He remembered the atmosphere and the weather that day very clearly. How about you? What was it like the day you made this picture?

HRG  We knew Albert Hofmann too, though we met him years later. He got a big kick out of the museum in Gruyères. But anyway, I always wrote down my trips and dreams.

HUO  Ein Fressen für den Psychiater was the upshot of an acid trip, is that right?

HRG  Yes, that’s right.

HUO  Where does this mechanical side, the birthing machine, come from?

HRG  You can see the transition well here from organic to mechanical in my work. The organic increasingly becomes an apparatus.

HUO  That’s also along the lines of Harald Szeemann’s Bachelor Machine or Duchamp’s apparatuses. Are they related?

HRG  Definitely!

HUO  Before the airbrushes, your early oil paintings of toilets and bathtubs made quite a splash in the art scene. It clearly looked like an artistic breakthrough. In purely technical terms, how did you produce these oil paintings?

HRG  First I took photographs and enlarged them, projecting them to trace the construction. Then I did the detailed elaboration. But sometimes I painted copies of the photographs.

PF  Were you sort of waiting for a technique like airbrushing to come along? The Swiss Pop artist Hugo Schuhmacher from Zürich, who did plenty of paintings of domestic consumer culture – his Woman with Car, for example, in a hyperrealistic style – started out with airbrush painting.

HRG  He was fantastic! He came to me with an airbrush gun and explained the technique to me. He was having a hard time getting the hang of it. He said he’d been practicing on it for five years, whereas I figured out how airbrushing works right away. It took me two or three days to master the technique, and then I airbrushed. That was the end of the friendship! (Laughs)

CG  After a few small works, came the temples.

HRG  Exactly, those were my first works using the spray gun. They weren’t memories or dreams, but simply emerged spontaneously from my imagination.

HUO  I read about your insomnia in several articles and you told me about that during a visit in the ’80s. When did it set in? What was your sleep pattern like?

HRG  It started back in the ’60s, when I was 20. In those days I worked mostly at night and didn’t go to bed till early morning. I slept at most six hours. Later on, even less—only three or four hours. Now I sleep more, partly thanks to sleeping pills.

HUO  What came after the temples? What was the next epiphany?

HRG  I did three temples. Spell was next.

PF  I remember the Kunsthaus exhibition with you, Mario Comensoli and Alfred Hofkunst in separate rooms. Hofkunst drew very softly shaded birch trees in colored pencil. Your room was a veritable tunnel of horror, a ghost train in comparison!

HUO  The ghost train was already a theme in your childhood, wasn’t it?

HRG  Exactly, as a child I built a ghost train in the long corridor in my parents’ house. There were ghosts and monsters like at an amusement park. I was really into that. I also re-created those doors you have to go through and then the creatures descend from above.

HUO  But we’re still in the period when you exhibited in Switzerland, and were anchored in the art scene. Through Dalí your work made it to Jodorowsky and, as a result, into the movie world…

HRG  In 1976 I met Ridley Scott. He probably saw the picture Necronome V (1976) on the cover of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s album Brain Salad Surgery or in the book Necronomicon I. In ’77 I got the request for Alien. That elongated, somewhat Egyptian head then became the prototype for Alien and was exhibited in the Kunsthaus Chur.

HUO  Tell us a little more about Necronomicon.

HRG  Sergius Golowin—a library assistant, archivist and writer, and a real connoisseur of the fantastic— told me about H.P. Lovecraft’s writings. He felt that my works were the illustrations to this book that doesn’t exist.

PF  So the term Necronomicon is from Lovecraft?

HRG  Right. Necronomicon is a book that doesn’t exist. Lovecraft is always talking about this book in his fiction.

CG  For a while you thought the book actually did exist. An old Arab is supposed to have collected all the secrets of magic in it.

HRG  Abdul Alhazred is the author’s name.

PF  A fictitious secret book, in other words, which many believe exists, but which in fact does not. And you did the illustrations for it. This is a terrific story! What happened next? Ridley Scott saw your book?

HRG  No, the other way around: I sent the book to Hollywood and then they came to me. Twentieth Century Fox. It was quite an honor. Three people paid me a visit. There was no screenplay yet, only the film concept. But as soon as I’d signed the contract, I immediately got started drawing and writing. I went through customs with a tube full of drawings and airbrush paintings, and then I spent five months at Shepperton Studios in England, where Alien was filmed.

HUO  Like you, Jeff Koons paid a visit to Dalí very early on in his life. He told me it was crucial to Dalí for an artist to reach not only the art scene, but a much wider audience. He wanted to be recognized on the street and reach millions of people with his work. That’s what Alien did. That catapulted you way beyond the art world.

David Weiss told me the Academy Award story. He was in Los Angeles when you won the Oscar. What was that like?

HRG  I remember it well! It was incredibly hot and unpleasant. I was sort of expecting the award. I had the feeling I had to get it, that I deserved it.

HUO  And that made you world-famous! The art world always finds it a little suspect when someone becomes famous above and beyond the art world. What was it like for you?

HRG  It was embarrassing for me, too. After all, I was a serious artist. But nobody could tell me how to behave! (Laughs) After that I got plenty of requests from science fiction filmmakers. Poltergeist, Species—that sort of pap. Unfortunately, Jodorowsky’s Dune didn’t come out.

HUO  But tell me a little more about Species. Maybe that was pap to you because it wasn’t a complete world, a Gesamtkunstwerk [total artwork]. Can you say a little about how you went about it?

HRG  I sent more designs and concepts. Cornelius de Vries executed a lot of the stuff. I immediately delegated that. But I reconstructed the train in 3D here, for example, to see how it looks. I even cast it in polyester and fitted an engine. I sent off a 5.5-meter station, including train and all, as a model. That was a rather elaborate undertaking!

HUO  Which brings us back to the ghost train of your childhood! What impressed me a lot, when I paid you a visit as a teenager, was the fax machine next to your bed, which was littered with drawings you were faxing to the movie studios. Your movie props were then included in museums as works of art. Harald Szeemann exhibited the train from Species in his “Visionäre Schweiz” [“Visionary Switzerland”] show (1991) at the Kunsthaus Zürich. You brought the film props back into the art world, so to speak, as sculpture. Young artists from those days talk a lot about props.

PF  Did you consider your props finished artworks? The train, for example?

HRG  Yes, definitely! I basically just loaned the props to studios to serve as prototypes, not as models for them to keep.

HUO  And this train, which is big enough to sit on and is now parked in your garden, brings us to the furniture. When did that start?

HRG  That was 1980.

PF  Was it commissioned? Who manufactured it for you?

HRG  No one. I did it myself because I wanted to make furniture all by myself. And I actually pulled it off. (Laughs)

HUO  What intrigues me about the furniture is that it’s made for an imaginary architecture, but then it actually gives rise to real architecture. It goes from furniture to a bar—in Chur and Tokyo—and then to the HR Giger Museum in Gruyères, which opened in 1998. A real, walk-in Gesamtkunstwerk, like Alfred Loos’s American Bar in Vienna. Since that, what’s your latest work?

HRG  I don’t make anything anymore. I quit twenty years ago.

HUO  No drawings or even sketches anymore?

HRG  No, nothing at all. I quit. I was fed up.

PF  What put you off? The success?

HRG  I just got tired. The inspiration dried up.

HUO  What would be your advice to an aspiring artist?

HRG  Oh! (Laughs) A little more humor.

H.R. Giger (1940-2014) was a swiss painter, designer and sculptor. In 1980, he won the visual effects academy award for his work on the cult sci-fi movie Alien.
Hans Ulrich Obrist is Artistic Director at Serpentine Galleries, London.
Patrick Frey is a publisher and founder of Edition Patrick Frey, Zurich.
Image courtesy of Estate of H.R. Giger and Edition Patrick Frey, Zurich.
©Carmen Giger, Marco Witzig, Matthias Belz

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