The arts attempt to convey visions and concepts from one mind to another. Is there value in translating nightmare?
A brain is only capable of what it could conceive, and it couldn’t conceive what it hasn’t experienced.
―Graham Greene, Brighton Rock
Everyone experiences at some point the fearful awakening from nightmare: the unelicited scream, the chest tight with overabundance of breath, the sudden jolt into consciousness. Whether the dream recoils quickly into oblivion or haunts us for hours or days, we know it has power over us, at least when we are asleep. Some artists are given to exploring their nightmares and fleshing out what lies there. The attempt to share fear, whether to amplify or dilute it, to bring others to a place where they can appreciate it, or simply to assuage loneliness has always been part of the human experience. If we recognize our own fears in the mind of another, there is both peace in realizing that we are not alone in our imaginings and horror in realizing that there may be something universal which operates inside or outside of our own selves.
H.R. Giger is among the greatest nightmare artists of our time, known best for his designs for Ridley Scott’s Alien films. Born in Switzerland during World War II, he grew up with severe night terrors. Instead of running from them, he learned to convert them into art, sleeping with a sketch pad and pencils at his bedside. Drawing the terrifying creatures of his mind is a complex conversation with his subconscious, a tenuous collaboration that draws a livelihood from something which disturbs rest and health. He has described it as exorcism. Resolution of his fearful dreams might mean an end to creativity. On the other hand, can you imagine having such visions and not being able to share them?
Growing up in a modest, middle class household, Giger left home to study architecture and industrial design in Zurich. This has proved invaluable in a career that ranges from painting, drawing and album art to sculpture and set design. In the late 1960s, he discovered the technique of airbrush, a means of spraying ink or paint, and developed his own style of surrealistic art, an unsettling combination of biological anatomy with mechanical design which he dubbed biomechanics. These dreamscapes were often rendered in near darkness, with just a hint of light revealing forms hidden there. It was this style that appealed to Ridley Scott, who was looking for an incarnation of pure evil to play the title character in Alien.
Giger would win an Oscar for his creation, a murderous alien stalking in the dark. He designed the alien Xenomorph in detail at all stages of its lifecycle as well as all of its environments. The monster progresses from egg to larva, shooting out of poor John Hurt in a scene that has been re-enacted by teenagers (and older enthusiasts) for decades. Eventually he grows into something dark, slithery and very biomechanical, which required an actor in a costume, Bolaji Badejo. The Xenomorph has aged well and is still incredibly scary, largely due to how little we see of it. The darkness allows us to imagine something much more terrifying and indulges our unique individual fears. Later films in the series never quite equalled the horror of the original, released in 1979. What is it that scares you most?
Other film projects would follow. In addition to the Alien sequels, he would design Poltergeist II, Species and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unreleased Dune. A new documentary on that film will be released in 2014 and has already garnered numerous film festival awards. I can’t wait to see Giger’s work there. You can see a trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune here.
Another great Swiss thinker, Carl Jung, spoke of the need to recognize, empathize and learn to love the dark side of our being, rather than repressing it and causing it to go rogue. He never said that this process was without danger or risk. Art allows us to give form to our shadow; it is up to us as artists and spectators to interpret this form. If we recognize a monster within, how do we approach it?