Home / All Media / Of sex, death and biomachinery: h.r. giger’s legacy in pop culture

Of sex, death and biomachinery: h.r. giger’s legacy in pop culture

(© H.R. Giger)
Detail of ‘No. 250, Li I’ (© H.R. Giger)

It’s difficult to overstate the influence of H.R. Giger (1940-2014) on pop culture, but it’s also hard to precisely gauge it since influence is not always explicitly acknowledged nor is it always conscious and direct. But in honor of the dark meister’s legacy, these are some of the things that come to mind:

Genre fiction

By genre fiction I include all narrative media (film, books, comics, games) and the overarching genres of fantasy, science fiction and horror and their various sub-genres, particularly cyberpunk, splatterpunk, erotic horror and the biomechanical aesthetic which often appears in all of these genres.

Obviously, Giger is best known among the general public for his work in the 1979 film Alien. Given the enormous influence of the Alien franchise on genre fiction—and how pivotal Giger’s iconic design was and is to the enduring popularity of it—this alone could have earned him his belated 2013 induction into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

hr-giger-necronom-iv
‘Necronom IV,’ the original painting upon which Giger based his design of the ‘Alien’ Xenomorph (© H.R. Giger)

But as big and wide-reaching as the influence of Alien is, Giger’s reach goes far beyond that.

The biomechanical aesthetic of fusing man and machine—not in clean, shiny ways like RoboCop or DC Comics’ Cyborg but in dark, messy, twisted, gruesome and sinister ways—has certainly in itself become a popular and persistent genre trope. Think of the Borg in Star Trek or the icky, slimy body horror of David Cronenberg. To my knowledge, Cronenberg has not publicly cited Giger as an influence (though he very well may have and I’m just not aware of it). However, I’d be genuinely surprised if the these two artistic soul mates did not mutually influence each other as they are both obsessed with sex and death and how the body serves as the wet and slimy conduit for both.

Clive Barker is one popular artist who has publicly spoken of Giger’s influence on him, though even if he hadn’t talked about it it’d still be pretty obvious, both in his fiction and in his visual art. Like Cronenberg, the first half or so of Barker’s career was marked by a heavy obsession with corporeal and erotic horror. Just take a look at the cenobites of 1987’s Hellraiser, which he wrote and directed. Do they not just scream H.R. Giger?

hellraiser-cenobites
(New World Pictures)

Then there’s Giger’s influence on the cyberpunk subgenre. William Gibson makes Giger references in two novels from his so-called Bridge trilogy:  Virtual Light (which I’ve not read) and Idoru (which I have).  Of course, one of the most popular films ever to be informed by cyberpunk, The Matrix trilogy, also contains a lot of design very obviously inspired by Giger.

And speaking of The Matrix I am quite certain Giger’s vision has had an abiding impact on manga and anime, particularly the adult subgenre of hentai.

Video games, of course, frequently incorporate the dark biomechanical aesthetic. I’d be surprised if the creators of the Doom/Quake games (and all their imitators) and the first two Fallout games, for instance, weren’t fans of Giger’s work. There are many, many more examples, surely, but I’m just speaking from what I’ve personally played. Even in fantasy games like Dragon Age, some of the monsters and bosses struck me as somewhat Giger-esque.

The boss in 'Fallout.' Note the coils, tubes, and vertebrae. (Bethesda Softworks)
The boss in ‘Fallout.’ Note the coils, tubes, and vertebrae. (Bethesda Softworks)

It’s hard to know all this for sure, of course, partly because many of the visual motifs used in these works have become so common. It’s almost like they’ve just become a part of the public imagination in the same way that the production design of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was so seminal that artists and designers nowadays draw from it without even realizing they’re doing so.  But that in itself speaks volumes for Giger’s legacy because although the Giger-esque aesthetic is very common now, back when he was first making his mark there weren’t many other well-known artists exploring the same material as consistently and as obsessively (some might say redundantly) as he did.

Music

H.R. Giger was one of the most sought after album cover artists, particularly for heavy metal artists like black metal pioneers Celtic Frost on their classic album To Mega Therion. It’s no wonder. His work is dense with the kind of classical and modern symbols from myth and occult folklore that metal artists love: snakes, skulls, demons, vertebrae, gonads, orifices, naked bodies and of course machinery. His paintings and illustrations are also very often symmetrical, something else that naturally suits the album art genre.

celtic-frost-to-mega-therion
(Noise)
debbie-harry-kookoo
(Chrysalis)

It wasn’t just metal bands. Punk band Dead Kennedys used one of Giger’s most notorious works (Penis Landscape, 1973) as an insert inside the album Frankenchrist. It caused such an uproar that lead singer Jello Biafra’s label Alternative Tentacles (itself a very Giger-esque name) almost went bankrupt in the aftermath.

And in her first solo album, KooKoo, pop singer and ex-Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry commissioned Giger in one of the most striking album covers I’ve ever seen and which (of course) caused quite a bit of controversy when the album was released.

Across musical genres, then, artists sought Giger for the dark allure and sinister majesty of his images.

Fashion / Bodyart

H.R. Giger just might be among a small handful of visual artists who have influenced body art more than anyone else. There’s an entire biomechanical subgenre of tattoo art that borrows from Giger’s vision, for instance. Instead of just representing an external object or symbol, biomechanical tattoos seek to simulate the look and feel of skin being ripped away or exposed to reveal engineered parts within (Terminator style).

biomechanical-tattoo
(via tattoostime.com)

Aside from that, of course, many of Giger’s actual works are often duplicated as tattoos as well.

hr-giger-tattoo
(via tattoostime.com)

And while architecture, industrial design and production design are fields where artists might logically seek to apply Giger’s aesthetics, fashion might not seem like the most obvious medium to translate the Giger feel. But that hasn’t stopped designers like the Polish Malgorzata Dudek from trying in her “Giger’s Goddess” series. Was she successful at doing so? Hmm, not so much to my own eyes, at least not at first glance. But take a look and judge for yourself.

DudekXGiger101
(Malgorzatad Dudek)

Aside from elite fashion designers, among the populace I’d bet that 9 out of 10 aspiring teenage goths have at some point at least thumbed through a Giger album book looking for some inspiration. I sure did as a teen, regularly. I’d put on my best black clothes, head over to Tower Records, stand in the books section and conspicuously browse through Necronomicon hoping some hot emo or goth chick would notice how cool I was. 😉

So these are just some thoughts regarding Giger’s legacy. I’m sure there’s plenty that I’ve missed, but the point wasn’t to be comprehensive. The point was to simply take a moment to recognize the impact this man has had on contemporary popular culture.

May his black soul be basking in some dark, biomechanical netherworld, eternally fornicating demons, aliens and robots with indiscriminate glee.

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About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.