Jun 17, 2012

What can HR Giger teach you about writing?

Subtract Giger’s vision and you wouldn’t have Alien, but yet another silly movie about a bug-eyed beast hacking away at terrified spacemen.[1]

You wouldn’t have Prometheus, whose visual vocabulary is heavily reliant on Giger’s style.

Nor this popular rock album cover.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Brain Salad Surgery, 1973

Hans Ruedi Giger (b. 1940) hails from Chur, Switzerland. His father was a chemist who loathed the prospect of his son becoming an artist. Young Giger wanted to design palaces and castles and ghost train rides.

Little Ruedi always enjoyed making things with his hands and running experiments. A regular customer of the Giger family drugstore, whom the burghers painted as crazy, taught Hans Ruedi how to fix firearms – to solder, change and temper springs and other parts. Although he lost interest in ghost trains and weapons upon kissing a girl for the first time at the age of 14, Giger’s obsessions would resurface in his art. And how. An exasperated teacher once blasted him thus: ‘Giger, stop drawing things that look like cows’ necks!’

He didn't listen.

So, what can a painter of extraterrestrial cows’ necks teach you about writing a novel, story or play?

1. The value of consistency
HR Giger’s first wife was Li Tobler, a Swiss actress who took her own life. From what I’ve read, the love between them was profound – how sad, then, that Li found the world and herself wanting.

Giger painted a few portraits of her. Here’s one:

Do you find this picture depressing to look at? Can you feel the morbidity of it pervading you? If not, study it for a couple of minutes. I'll wait.

Are you still feeling... rational? Good. Let's proceed.
This portrait is a man’s way of telling a woman, the best way he can, that she’s a part of his world. Weird way to show one's love, you say? Perhaps.

The thing to realize is, by the time they got married in the early 70s, Giger’s style had already matured. It would have been a departure for Giger to try something like this: 

Rembrandt's wife, Saskia. I once stood on her grave.
(Unwittingly, I must add. Sorry.)

Get it? Rembrandt paints like Rembrandt and Giger paints like Giger.

We discuss the painter’s style and the writer’s voice (or diction) and forget that they are the same thing. A few years ago, HR told an interviewer that he wouldn’t paint a bunch of sunflowers unless he could make them look strange and unusual.

Style/voice/diction is not entirely a matter of choice. Think about this for a moment – how much effort do you put into the way you talk? How carefully do you choose your words? How many factors, including personal decisions, have a bearing on the way you read and write?

There’s schooling and then there’s education. They’re not always the same. Your voice is an ever-evolving attempt to strike a balance between the things they taught you and those you learned by yourself. That balance is never perfect, you never achieve creative homeostasis; you walk the tightrope ’till the very end. That’s why acts of creation are so engrossing. 

Finding out what really matters to you, you plant a seed of consistency. Working on your expressive capabilities every day, you become consistent. More and more of the person you really are comes through. This applies to painters, writers, musicians, politicians, community leaders, you name it. Consistency is the bedrock of passion.  

2. The value of horror
I’ve said this once and I’ll say it again: horror is a teaching tool. The original fairytales were intended for adults, as spoken, four-dimensional maps of human folly. The hidden truth about the pettiness and assorted jealousies of the gods is that deities are masks for the treacherous world, for the relentless hostility of the universe.

We live in a fragile bubble of warmth and safety that was much, much smaller ten thousand years ago. Tales of horror and tragedy are meant to keep you inside that bubble; however, they remind you that it is your duty to know that there’s something out there. David Sheinkin wrote that there are paths to God through evil, but they are forbidden to us human beings.[2]

Horror movies tend to show you what happens when ordinary people stumble across one of those forbidden paths, one of the monster-filled, nightside tunnels that lead to a distant godhead.[3] These stories, wherever they appear – screen, canvas, webisode or podcast – are of immense value to us as civilized beings. They demonstrate how easily we lapse into barbarism and how fragile human categories can be.

This is why you need the kind of art that makes you uncomfortable. Breaking taboos and challenging established opinions is something you can do. Not so long ago flying machines were an impossibility – everybody knew so. They were wrong. The same with telephony, television, restoring sight to the blind… The list goes on.

Convention and common sense are good places to start from, but they’re terribly crowded.   

Castle Harkonnen
One of Giger's designs for the Dune movie that never was.

[1] Had artists of Giger’s caliber not been involved, today you might regard Alien as an unintentional comedy, such as Galaxy of Terror (‘It’s always midnight in space!) or Starcrash (‘You are about to be HURLED through the blackness of a hundred million nights…’).
[2] My being an atheist doesn’t stop me from recognizing the value of religion, nor its efficiency as a delivery system for psychological truths. Even the non-religious must recognize that ritual and myth are powerful organizational tools.
[3] Nightside of Eden gives me nightmares. Read at your own peril.

Giger's Lilith. Compare with the Burney Relief, then with John Collier's rendering.
You'll see where Giger's coming from.


A personal view of Giger’s art

Giger is consistent not only in style but also in theme. I wrote as someone who's admired his art for 20 years and knows dozens of his paintings plus the motivation behind them.
Hans Ruedi Giger's work is profoundly gnostic -- it is about sex, violence and death in a universe ruled by invisible archons that trap, bind and twist living beings to their inscrutable ends. There's a huge amount of explicitly sexual imagery in his work that I chose not to include here to keep this piece family-friendly. (*wink, wink*) 
HR’s paintings are hauntingly erotic, and whoever keeps going toward the erotic ends up at the gates of the sacred.

Giger has been on the same path for decades and that I find consistent. He's committed to the titanic, monstrous and mysterious outback of the human mind; his characters, themes and landscapes recur in a universe that is vast but closed, where mutation, symbiosis and mutilation compete as ways to organize matter. No one principle wins the contest and the struggle appears infinite.

I don't know whether Giger intends it consciously or not. What I can tell you is that, thanks to his mastery of form and willingness to explore the same inner landscape for decades, a recognizable, unified vision has emerged. As someone I admire once put it, quantity begets quality. 

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.
Read more in this series.

No comments:

Post a Comment