Even though I’m a hard core scifi fan, my first experience with the art of H.R. Giger was not ALIEN, it was the other worldly cover art of Emerson Lake and Palmer’s 1973 masterpiece “Brain Salad Surgery.” The disturbing woman of light with snake like hair looked out from the porthole below a skull of the strange foldout vinyl I had bought out of the used bin at Reckless Records. I knew some ELP, ‘Lucky Man’ of course, ‘Welcome Back My Friends to the Show That Never Ends’ which I didn’t even realize was on this album I was buying in a glorious sprawling side-plus long version. The demonic image that stared out on the cover perfectly matched the bizarre and often frightening music on the record. I researched the artwork (this is before the Internet) and found very little about the artist, criminally underappreciated by the art world. But I did find out about Alien, and the work he had done on the initial stages of DUNE (pre-David Lynch) and I tracked down a copy of a coffee table book — Necronomicon — possibly the most disturbing images to sit on a coffee table.
Giger’s artwork touches upon the horror we each have in our souls, and it taps into our collective nightmares. Creatures from other dimensions, strange combinations of biology and technology, and oddly aware fetuses that reflect our own helplessness in a world we cannot understand, this is not easy art. And Giger offers very little to reassure us, rarely speaking about his work or just once painting a Roger-Dean-like idyllic landscape.
Belinda Sallin’s documentary DARK STAR: H.R.GIGER’S WORLD offers us unprecedented access to the man and his work, and with his passing in May of 2014, stands as fitting homage to one of the great artists of the last half century. I had a chance to speak Sallin with before the theatrical release of DARK STAR, which premiered last year in the artist’s home nation of Switzerland.
“When I met Sandra Berrata, his former life partner, she started to talk about H. R. Giger and immediately all these images I knew from my youth came back to me,” Sallin says; “I think this is a huge quality of his art. If you have seen it once, you don’t forget it.” In the last year of his life, Giger rarely ventured out into the outside world. Tired and exhausted, he slowly withdrew from the public sphere and looked back at his life, with his closest friends around him. Sallin had access to him at this time, as well as the giant archive in his house, filled with paintings and drawings and sculptures and articles and interviews about the man that the contemporary artworld passed over, even as he achieved worldwide acclaim through album covers and winning an Oscar for his design work on ALIEN. “It was the very first meeting with him, the very first time I entered his house, I thought I want to make this film,” the director says, “entering his house is like entering another world. And then I met H. R. himself, and I don’t know what I expected, I thought based upon his art this was a person who would have a dark character and be distant, but he was the opposite. I met a man, very ,very nice, very charming, very humorous, so I was surprised. I thought, wow this is great for film.”
DARK STAR represents the first attempt to deliver a full documentary on the artist, although Sallin is quick to point out there have been shorter films and television programs in the past, some of which she was able to incorporate into her own film. In fact, she was able, through the archives, to present outtakes in DARK STAR, early footage of H.R. Giger that has never been seen. For me, this is an odd film, it is more experiential than biographical. There is no attempt to tell Giger’s life story, or even really discuss the artwork in depth. “He didn’t like to talk about his art,” Sallin says, “he liked to talk about his inspirations. He said once ‘I’m inspired by life, everything,’ but he didn’t like to explain his work. That he told me very clearly from the beginning. And I accepted that.”
We are treated to a journey through his work, and in the new museum to house his work. His visit with the film production ended up being his last trip there, and he sat inside ‘The Spell Room,’ his favorite room in the museum, giving them a short interview.
DARK STAR suffers somewhat from a lack of structure. While the interviews with people in Giger’s life are illuminating, the subject’s reticence to say much about… well anything, leaves much of the ‘work’ on the viewer themselves. This is just fine, when it comes to the art.
As Sallin explains, “many of H R’s most figurative images tend to inspire abstract or philosophical thought. Two weeks ago I was in Paris at the Center for contemporary art of course I saw a lot of beautiful things and interesting things but also saw a lot of things that didn’t speak to me. The artists didn’t tell a story, or wants to tell that he has nothing to tell. H. R. Giger has a lot to tell I think. He shows fear and you can think about what are my fears, what is evil and how does it manifest itself. The aesthetics of his work may help us to look at that. I think he visualizes fears in such a way that after a while if we engage we no longer fear them.” Seeing the works, next to each other, in his collection, or in exhibitions allows the viewer a chance to confront these fears, as well as track the artists themes and interests over an extended period of time.
However, those wanting a more organized look at the man and his life in art may be somewhat disappointed. “It was absolutely not my intention to realize a conventional biography of H. R. Giger, it was my intention to show his art and his extraordinary houses, he lived in his art,” the director explains, when I asked about a more traditional, chronological approach to the film, continuing, “it seemed to me to not be adequate to him, to his art, to his life. You can read this, you can read this on the Internet, and his books, in numerous publications, so I didn’t want to do this.”
One of the most interesting topics covered in the film is Giger’s place (or lack there of) in the institutional art world, something which is slowly and thankfully changing. “I think it’s very sad that he never got the acknowledgement that he deserved,” says Sallin, “But I think it has already begun to change in the last years. For example in 2004, Giger was awarded ‘La Meédaille de la Ville de Paris,’ the Paris medal of honor. He has also had great exhibitions in France, Austria, Germany, and more, so I think it will change. But unfortunately he cannot experience the change anymore, this is the fate he shares with many great artists.
Whether Giger ever reaches the critical canon of the likes of Picasso and Matisse hardly seems relevant when his work has reached millions. The world of ‘Alien’ haunts our collective imaginations and in additional to the ELP cover, Giger has done artwork for French RIO (Rock in Opposition) band Magma, Debbie Harry, The Dead Kennedys, Celtic Frost, and Danzig. “Cover art is not something that is expected from the art establishment, but he wanted to do it,” says the director, “And I know he liked the music of Emerson Lake and Palmer. This is not always the case for the cover work he did. He was a very open-minded kind of person.”
DARK STAR: H.R. GIGER’S WORLD plays in Austin at the Alamo Ritz, in Houston at the Alamo Vintage Park, in Dallas at the Texas Theatre, and in many more cities (for a full list, see here)