ALIEN-ated in Gruyère: the frightening imagination of H.R. Giger

If you’re an expat living in the Lausanne area and have friends and family who plan to visit, then sooner or later you will end up going to the nearby village of Gruyère … again and again … like it or not. Its charming medieval architecture, hilltop view of the bucolic countryside, abundance of fondue restaurants, and close proximity to Lausanne (40 minutes by car) make Gruyère an essential day-trip for entertaining out-of-town guests. It’s not unusual for expats to make the trip half a dozen times per year, or more.

Chateau Gruyere

Chateau Gruyere

Gruyere's charming, cobblestone and pedestrian-only main street.

Gruyere’s charming, cobblestone and pedestrian-only main street.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Gruyère. The hilltop setting and remarkably well-preserved chateau and medieval village are like something out of a fairytale, and the pungent odour of delicious fondue (made from the famous local cheese) hangs heavy in the air. If you can look past the weekend crowds, tourist restaurants, kitschy souvenir shops and alpenhorn concerts, a visit to Gruyère can be quite charming. But after you’ve been there a half dozen times the charm starts to wear off.

Alpenhorn concert

Alpenhorn concert

Fortunately, for visitors in need of respite from all the Swiss charm and stinky cheese, I have just the place for you – the H.R. Giger Museum – located in the Chateau St Germain, located in the village near the top of the hill. Dedicated to the works of the Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger (pronouced “Gie-grr”) – the creative genius behind the the creatures and sets for the Alien movie series – the museum provides a fascinating and at times disturbing counterpoint to the wholesome, folksy charms of the rest of the village. Feeling a little alienated by Gruyère? Then step into the Giger Museum for a truly ALIEN-ating experience!

Entrance to the Giger Museum in Gruyere

Entrance to the Giger Museum in Gruyere

Original poster for the movie Alien

Original poster for the movie Alien

Born in Chur, Switzerland in 1940, Hans Rudolph Giger studied architecture and industrial design before becoming an artist. Giger began to emerge as an artist in the 1960s, producing dark, surrealistic dreamscapes in a fantastic realist style using ink, oil, and airbrush techniques that would become his signature. Giger explains that he suffers from night-terrors and that he originally took up drawing and painting as a kind of therapy. Among his artistic influences were the painters Salvador Dali and Ernst Fuchs, as well as the American horror fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft.

One of Giger's large airbrush canvasses

One of Giger’s large airbrush canvasses

Central to Giger’s artistic vision is the melding of flesh and technology, most often realized in large-format oil and airbrush paintings featuring nude, almost cyborg-like female figures erotically entwined in machinery. The museum collection includes a handful of these large paintings. Some viewers find Giger’s work shocking and the museum even includes an “adults only” room displaying his most explicit works.

The melding of flesh and machine - Giger's biomechanics - is evident in this painting (not in the museum collection)

The melding of flesh and machine – Giger’s biomechanics – is evident in this painting (not in the museum collection)

What strikes me about Giger’s erotic subject matter, however, is the absence of the representation of pleasure on the part of the figures in his paintings. There is a drone-like automatism to the interconnection between bodies and machines represented in his paintings, which is accentuated by the monochromatic grey and black colour palate that dominates his work. Giger himself referred to his works as “biomechanical,” which seems fitting for the bloodless interactions between flesh and machine depicted in his paintings. There is also something involuntary, even coercive, in the way that the figures are connected to and penetrated by various cables, tubes etc., as if there is no way to extricate themselves. Giger’s is a dark and disturbing vision indeed, and yet some of these works are hauntingly beautiful. No doubt Giger is commenting on our growing dependence upon and involvement with technology as well.

Giger at work with his airbrush

Giger at work with his airbrush

A series of Giger’s illustrations published in book form as Necronomicon in 1977 caught the attention of film director Ridley Scott, who was looking for a creative team to work on the film Alien. One illustration in particular, Necronom IV, provided an early glimpse of what the creature in the film would eventually look like.

H.R. Giger: Necromicon IV

H.R. Giger: Necromicon IV

Giger was hired by Scott and, along with a creative team, designed the Alien monster, as well as the various incarnations of its offspring, including the “facehugger” and the “chestbuster”. The museum’s collection features a number of Giger’s original drawings and models for these creatures. In addition, Giger and his team did design work for the interior of the derelict spaceship found at the beginning of the film.

One of Giger's models for the Alien.

One of Giger’s models for the Alien.

The "Rip", played by Sigourny Weaver, and a memorable encounter with the Alien.

The character “Ripley”, played by Sigourney Weaver, and a memorable encounter with the Alien.

I had my own encounter with the Alien.

I had my own encounter with the Alien.

So stunning and memorable was their work that Giger and his team won the Academy Award for Best Achievement for Visual Effects in 1980. Giger would continue to work in film, producing artwork and concepts for Alien III, Poltergeist II and a film production of Dune that never came to fruition.

The museum's collection includes some original Giger drawings as well. This one was for Alien III.

The museum’s collection includes some original Giger drawings as well. This one was for Alien III.

Giger and his creative team's Oscar statuette.

Giger’s Oscar statuette.

The museum collection also features sculpture, furniture designs, and other artifacts from his career, such as the Oscar he received in 1980, as well as his own personal art collection. A personal favourite of mine is a long rectangular table and set of chairs done in black acrylic, which looks like a dining room set for a family of his Aliens.

Alien conference table or dining room room set.

Alien conference table or dining room room set.

Giger does patio furniture?

Apparently Giger does patio furniture too!

Giger enjoyed a very busy artistic career through the 70s, 80 and 90s. He was a regularly featured artist in Omni magazine, and he did LP cover art and posters on commission for musicians such as the Dead Kennedys (which landed Giger in court on obscenity charges), Korn, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Blondie. He also provided graphic designs for a line of guitars by Ibanez.

One of Giger's designs for a line of electric guitars for the manufacturer Ibanez.

One of Giger’s designs for a line of electric guitars for the manufacturer Ibanez.

Giger bought the Chateau St Germain in Gruyère back in 1998, which eventually became a museum devoted to displaying his works. I’m not sure what his connection to Gruyère is, or why he bought the Chateau St Germain in the first place, but it is certainly a prime location with lots of tourist traffic, ensuring that his work gets lots of exposure. At 74 and now living in Zurich, he remains an active artist and has been featured in international solo retrospective exhibitions around the world in recent years.

The Giger Bar

The Giger Bar

No visit to Giger’s Gruyère would be complete without venturing into the Giger Bar just across the cobblestones from the museum. Based on designs originally intended for a bar in Tokyo, the Giger Bar features interiors and furniture designed by Giger himself and inspired by his work on Alien. The bar is a dark space, with striking vertebrae-like structures arcing across the ceiling, giving the space a macabre, cathedral-like feel. One also has the sense of being inside the belly of giant beast.

Panoramic of the Giger Bar interior.

Panoramic of the Giger Bar interior.

Giger Bar interior

Giger Bar interior

The Giger-designed chairs, while not particularly comfortable, have a similarly skeletal, organic appearance. It’s the perfect place to grab a drink or two while your guests tour the Chateau de Gruyère (which you’ve seen a dozen times already), or to steel your nerves before venturing into the Giger Museum itself.

Checking out the seating at the Giger Bar.

Checking out the seating at the Giger Bar.

Whether a first-time visitor or jaded repeat tour-guide, the Giger Museum and Bar are not to be missed. A warning though, perhaps not appropriate for young children or sensitive adults.

Perhaps not appropriate for children?

Perhaps not appropriate for children?

Here’s a video clip of a Swiss actress touring the museum for a local news show. Check out her facial expressions as tours the exhibits!

http://www.rts.ch/video/emissions/la-puce-a-l-oreille/3591506-adele-haenel-va-visiter-le-musee-hr-giger-a-gruyeres.html

For a stunning 360 degree panoramic of the Giger Bar, check out this link:

http://www.360cities.net/image/giger-bar-gruyeres-switzerland#-1153.39,-10.98,70.0

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