I have had a long standing interest in the work of the Swiss artist H.R. Giger. It started back in 1982 (which immediately dates me) when I was looking through my nan’s Radio Times and came across a feature on Alien, which was to get its British television premier that weekend. The feature centred on the artwork of Giger and I was intrigued. I was aware of the film, but at the time of its release the publicity focused on the thriller plot rather than the design values of Ridley Scott’s science fiction masterpiece. Despite my tender years, somehow I persuaded my parents to allow me to watch the film and have been a fan of it and of Giger ever since.
H.R. Giger chose the unlikely location of Gruyères for his museum and bar. I say unlikely because Gruyères is the most twee and touristy place I have visited since a childhood trip to Disneyland. Not surprisingly most of the shops there sell cheese and the other retail outfits supply cow related kitsch. The town itself is a medieval pedestrianised theme park perched atop a sort of miniature alp and enclosed by a high stone wall. Visitors park outside the wall and enter the town through an archway leading onto a wide cobbled square, which narrows down into the one and only road that leads to Château Gruyères. The H.R. Giger museum and bar are located near the château.
The slow walk up through the town only increased our anticipation. Then through another narrow archway and there it was on our right, with the bar opposite the museum entrance. Giger bought the building at auction in 1997 to house his extensive body of work in Gothic splendour. The museum opened on 20th June 1998. The works around the entrance have changed since the opening but currently consist of female biomechanoid and Goggle Baby sculptures. These are complemented with a large relief, based on an ink drawing from 1967, entitled “The Birth Machine”, depicting a cross section of a Walther PPK pistol firing baby bullets. The paving in front of the museum is also designed by Giger and the handrail alongside the steps is an alien tail.
On entering the museum, we were asked to leave our bags and cameras in the lockers near to the entrance desk. No photography is allowed within the building and all of Giger’s works on exhibit are copyright, so I can’t reproduce those images here. However, photography of the museum bar and entrance was permitted. We walked up stairs onto a landing lined with early work from the 1960s, a series called “Homage to S[amuel] Beckett”. From here we entered the Alien room.
The exhibits are accentuated with black walls and ceiling with a dark floor echoing the biomechanoid design of the paving outside. The lighting is subdued and the ambience dark. The genesis of the alien design existed before the film was even conceived, but this room is filled with conceptual art for the film. The first exhibit is not immediately obvious upon entering this room, it is a life sized alien suspended from the ceiling, crouched in the gloom and ready to strike at its prey. More immediately noticeable is the full sized Alien standing in a glass case at the far end of the room and one of the mechanical heads used in the film, created by Carlo Rambaldi from Giger’s design.
Giger’s artwork is spread out over two floors, the ground floor being the reception and shop and the top floor housing Giger’s collection of work by other artists. Within the two main floors of the museum, we found the highlights to be the spell room, the Li and Mia room and the black Harkonen furniture. The spell room houses a series of spectacularly large works incorporating occult themes into the biomechanoid style. Spell IV has the Baphomet of Eliphas Levi at its heart while the influence of occultist Aleister Crowley pervades all of the images. The Li and Mia room is lined with art dedicated to both of his muses: Mia, his first wife, and Li, an actress and his great love, who committed suicide in 1975. On the next floor, the vast black Harkonen dining furniture dominates the space. As the name suggests, it was designed for an aborted film project inspired by Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novels. The spine, pelvis and skull motifs are echoed in the furniture of the museum bar.
The Giger Museum Bar opened on 12th April 2003 and walking through its door is a total biomechanoid immersion experience. Every surface has been exposed to the Giger aesthetic. We ordered drinks and took them to a table by the window looking back at the museum. At this point I decided to suffer for art’s sake. How could I travel all this way, after all these years and not sit in a Giger designed biomechanoid chair? However painful, it was worth it for a short time and the litre of cold beer certainly helped. For any reader not understanding why this was painful for me, please read my earlier blogs, in particular “My Back Story”, which will explain the medical cause of my discomfort. My husband found the Giger chair to be perfectly comfortable.
During the brief time I sat in the vertebrae and pelvis decorated chair musing on my own crutch using biomechanoid existence, I noticed a young couple who had passed us while we walked to the bar. They had returned to the museum and were waiting for a break in the intermittent crowds of international tourists heading for the castle. As soon as the area in front of the museum was deserted, the guy knelt down before the door, overlooked by its guardian angel, and raised his arms in worship while his cropped haired, combat trouser wearing girlfriend photographed the scene. Giger’s art radically divides opinion: devotional or repulsed.