Heaven just got a little more unsettlingly penis-shaped. The Swiss artist and designer H.R. Giger, best known for creating the original Xenomorph for Ridley Scott’s Alien, died on Monday, at the age of 74, after suffering a fall at his home in Zurich. As fandoms go, science fiction geekdom, prog-rock nerdery, and metalheadedness overlap to the point of redundancy, but no creative person ever bridged those worlds like Giger did. One way or another, if you were into hard stuff or weird stuff and/or horrified by your own body, the sinister “biomechanical” imagery that flowed from Giger’s airbrush inevitably found its way into your life, your record collection, and your nightmares.
Born in Chur, Switzerland, in 1940, the son of a pharmacist, Giger grew up obsessed with torture chambers, secret passageways, bottomless shafts, impalement, haunted-house rides, and the guillotine. He attended art school in Zurich, worked for a time as a furniture designer for Knoll, and took erotic photographs of garbage trucks, which inspired some of his earliest great paintings, the so-called Passages series, which did for industrial machinery what Georgia O’Keeffe had done for petunias.
“In these paintings,” his friend Timothy Leary once wrote, “we see ourselves as crawling embryos, as fetal, larval creatures protected by the membranes of our egos, waiting for the moment of our metamorphosis and newbirth … Here is the evolutionary genius of Giger: Although he takes us far back, into our swampy, vegetative, insectoid past, he always propels us forward into space.”
Soon he traded oil for airbrushed ink, which he’d apply to enormous canvases in marathon painting sessions that could last days. In the studio, he’d listen to Miles Davis, David Bowie, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. In 1973, ELP’s European tour promoter, suspecting the admiration could be mutual, convinced keyboardist Keith Emerson to visit Giger when the band came through Zurich.
“Giger struck me as ‘heavy’ to say the least,” Emerson would say years later. One painting in particular caught his eye — a photo-realistic image of a human skull pinned inside a stone vise apparently designed solely for skull-crushing. It became the cover of ELP’s fifth album, 1973’s Brain Salad Surgery, an iconic image of the progressive-rock era and one of the creepiest gatefolds anyone ever cleaned weed on. The cover folds open to reveal a picture of a woman with wire dreadlocks. It’s a portrait of the actress and artist Li Tobler, Giger’s longtime girlfriend, who struggled with depression and shot herself in 1975; in a 2009 interview with Vice, he casually revealed that he still owned the .22 she used to do it.
Before that, when he painted women’s faces, it was usually Li, emerging with android calm from a forbidding tangle of cybernetic wire and bone, like Alice Krige’s Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact. (You can also see Li in the amazing bring-me-the-head-of–Deborah Harry image he created for the Blondie frontwoman’s first solo album, Koo Koo, in 1981.) Supposedly it wasn’t until she died that Hans Ruedi really became Giger, dark-magus illustrator of phalluses, spikes, tubes, vaginal vents, emotionlessly grinning teeth, beetle-black carapaces, and hyperarticulated spinal columns, a man who would spend the next 30-odd years restaging a primal-scene congress between flesh and steel over and over and over, coming off in the process a little like cyberpunk’s crazy uncle and a lot like a fixated outsider artist.
Except he wasn’t an outsider, exactly. When Jello Biafra included a poster of Giger’s (profoundly NSFW, unless your office makes human centipedes) Work 219: Landscape XX in the packaging of Dead Kennedys’ 1985 album Frankenchrist, the resulting obscenity charges nearly bankrupted Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles record label. A Los Angeles city attorney named Michael Guarino compared Giger in court to Richard Ramirez. (It was not his last legal battle; after someone acting on behalf of Glenn Danzig printed unauthorized T-shirts of Giger’s cover for Danzig III: How the Gods Kill, Giger sued Danzig for infringement, employing a crowd-surfing process server to slap him with papers during a live show.)
But Giger also became a countercultural cottage industry, a cheerful exploiter of his deeply uncheerful art. By the end of his life, he’d put his mark on watches and jewelry, snowboards, skateboards, a line of guitars, and home furnishings fit for intergalactic tyrants; presumably the only reason you can’t buy a menacingly penile Giger Collection coffee pot at Target is that nobody asked him to make one. The Giger-designed bar inside the Limelight in New York closed when the club did, but if you really need to get drunk inside a room that resembles a sandworm’s birth canal, the Giger Bar one in Chur remains open, as is the one at the Giger Museum, located in a castle in the walled Swiss city of Gruyéres. His work inspired Alexander McQueen’s final women’s collection, but also countless biomechanical tattoos — an enduring tattoo subgenre he’s basically responsible for inventing — and more than a few crazy-looking custom cars and motorcycles. His style became kitsch, which really just means people without art-world credentials liked his work enough to want it around all the time.
This might have happened no matter what, but in large part it happened because of Ridley Scott. Giger had come close to seeing his work in a major sci-fi film before Alien happened. In the mid-’70s, he was part of the weirdo production-design brain trust Alejandro Jodorowsky assembled to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune for the screen; Jodorowsky had discovered his work in an exhibition catalogue slipped to him by Salvador Dalí. As chronicled in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, the project eventually fell apart, but not before Giger produced some fairly astounding designs for the home planet of the evil Harkonnens, including chairs he’d later manufacture and sell through hrgiger.com, starting at $15,000 plus shipping.
Alien coscreenwriter Dan O’Bannon had met Giger on the Jodorowsky project and passed a copy of Giger’s H.P. Lovecraft–inspired art book Necronomicon on to Scott, who quickly recruited Giger to create a monster based on the image entitled Necronomicon IV. Sequestered for months in a workshop at Shepperton Studios in England, Giger refined the Alien and the rest of its world, including the face-hugger egg and the derelict Space Jockey, reused (along with many other Giger designs) to great effect in Scott’s 2012 prequel Prometheus.
Nothing has ever looked, in retrospect, more like a job for H.R. Giger than Alien, a movie in which helpless humans are orally raped and destructively impregnated by eyeless, possibly soulless, beetle-black killing machines from the depths of space. His work on the project won him an Oscar, reappeared in a string of sequels and spinoffs, and inadvertently led to this and by extension this. It may have also become a kind of albatross. The Alien became so iconic that everything Giger had done before and after that kind of looked like the Alien. When David Lynch finally made a Dune movie in 1984, he decided against using Giger’s designs for fear that they’d appear derivative of Alien.
Giger would continue contributing ideas to the movies in the years to come, often grousing after the fact that his vision had been tampered with. On 1995’s Species, he paid for the construction of a skull-faced ghost train (another image that had been a private obsession of Giger’s since childhood) out of his own pocket, only to see the sequence reduced to eight seconds in the finished film. And the X-shaped Batmobile he designed for Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever didn’t even make it past the concept stage. Even if his experience with Hollywood was ultimately disappointing, there is something bleakly hilarious about a Swiss painter of monstrous genitalia being chewed up and spit out by Hollywood, the biggest, most tooth-lined vagina-monster of them all. The Zurich home he died in had another ghost train that rolled around the garden and into the kitchen; that no amusement park ever paid this man millions of dollars to build a mind-shatteringly terrible haunted house is further proof that the universe can be a cold and brutal place.