January 29–March 12, 2022
H. R. Giger’s work is stunningly imaginative and darkly enticing, but it also leaves me feeling empty. Why this is is something I’ve been trying to parse out for myself—maybe I’m not alone in feeling this way. But I was confronted with this feeling once again upon visiting the retrospective of Giger’s work at Lomex gallery. Straightforwardly named, HRGNYC (Hans Ruedi Giger New York City) is an effort to highlight not only Giger’s relevance as an influential contemporary artist left out of the mainstream canon, but also as an artist deeply tied to the cultural landscape of New York City. This exhibition follows right after another at the Schinkel Pavillon in Berlin that closed on January 16, 2022.
The relationship between Giger and the city at this point is fairly evident. Thus, it is surprising that Giger hasn’t been shown in New York City since 1980, considering that he would later go on to design the VIP room at the now defunct Limelight nightclub, which was deeply embedded in the counterculture scene until 2002. Though the exhibition feels overcrowded, while the wide collection of works seems oddly incomplete, HRGNYC is nevertheless a dynamic survey of Giger’s practice. Of course, there are the obviously Instagrammable centerpieces that bring people into the gallery, like the Harkonnen CAPO chair (1981) from Jodorowsky’s unrealized production of Dune and Necronom / Alien III (2020) a recent aluminum cast of one of the creatures from Alien, for which Giger is best known. Adjacent to these two is another work of film concept art, Poltergeist II, the Primitive Creature (1985), which, as the title suggests, was done for Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986). As exciting as these are, this exhibition is attempting to situate Giger as an influential artist in New York City, and his “N. Y. City” silkscreen series plays prominently. The exhibition also includes other 2D and 3D works: silkscreen prints on aluminum, acrylic paintings on paper and wood, drawings, and an aluminum urn. If that were not enough, a series of photographs taken by Chris Stein of the music video set for Debbie Harry’s 1981 album KooKoo, designed by Giger, is also included. But Giger’s drawings in particular could be an entire exhibition unto themselves. It seems to me that their business, and freedom of gesture, are more indicative of the city, especially in winter, with its piles of garbage reflected by glass and steel, wind tunnels and ice.
What Giger envisions is a techno-hellscape that might appeal to those in the city most ready to embrace the filth, decay, the concrete, steel, and vermin, the anti-nature (if nature is only human nature) over public gardens, coffee shops, and urban parks. It is also characteristic of a vision of the future that arose out of the neoliberal era between 1975 and 2008, expressed in films like Blade Runner (1982), 1984 (1984), Brazil (1985), The Matrix (1999, 2003), Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008), and of course Giger’s own Alien (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997), to name a few.1 These visions, though fantasy, are the aesthetic predecessors to the phenomenon Mark Fisher described as the “slow cancellation of the future.” New York City, with its gradually crumbling infrastructure and leaders’ aims of turning it into a high-tech utopia for the ultra rich, is maybe not far off from the gray landscapes of, say, N. Y. City XXVIII, Cross Opposite (1981–82), N. Y. City XII, Science-fiction (1980–82), or N. Y. City X, Chelsea Cockroaches (1980), all representations of the metropolis’s failure to deliver a better world through free markets and financial speculation. Giger’s paintings are not really about life. Cold and deadly, his subjects are only involved in necro-eroticism: intercourse between corpses and steel, reproduced endlessly among tangled wires. There is no necrophilia in it, because nothing living is ever present. The city and biomechanical nature have a negative but compelling force together. What results is something characteristically depressing and excessive that disturbs me, not because I don't enjoy it, but because I do.
The emptiness I feel when looking at Giger’s work might have to do with this: in his pictures one is given a glimpse into the land of the dead, a place wholly meaningless for the living. Giger’s work, insofar as it is relevant to our contemporary moment of ecological collapse, represents an extreme acceleration of capitalism’s death drive. Despite all the vibrant life and culture New York City has hosted, a feature endlessly praised writ-large, one finds its more enduring form in its shadow, a concrete and steel necropolis for the living. Maybe this is why Giger has been left out of the canon.
- Never mind non-dystopian horror films of the same genre, like the Hellraiser franchise (1987, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2011, 2018) that features biomechanical components and deeply necro-erotic tendencies.