For better or worse, many artists come to be defined by a single piece of theirs, a work that looms so massively over their career that, inevitably, when they die, it’s in the opening line of every obituary written for them; Marcel Duchamp *is* Fountain, Captain Beefheart *is* Trout Mask Replica, David Foster Wallace *is* Infinite Jest. When H.R. Giger was designing the xenomorph for the film Alien, I doubt he saw it as his future iconic creation, a work so deeply synonymous with him and his aesthetic that news outlets didn’t even bother to hold off until the first line yesterday; his claim to fame was in every headline Google brought up. Yet here we are, a world with one less incredible artist, and a bunch of people grasping for something to say beyond the god damn xenomorph. Hogwash, I say; there will be plenty of time to explore Giger’s sadly disrespected art at a later date. When you grapple with a death, you grapple with the legacy, and Giger’s legacy is cast in shadow by his crowning achievement, an iconic monster for the modern world, a vampire or werewolf for an alienated, techno-fetishistic society, a truly new myth, original and powerful, able to survive irreverence that would turn a lesser terror into a parodic mess of “scary” signifiers turned dull in the daylight.
I can only speak for myself, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say that Giger’s alien is the greatest monster of the 20th century; no creation, save maybe Godzilla, strikes me as so perfect, so terrifying, so iconic and so singular. The xenomorph is an amalgamation of fears, melded seamlessly into one creature; it’s fear of sex, fear of our bodies, fear of parasites, fear of disease, fear of technology, fear of progress, fear of the other, and fear of ourselves. It is an external threat, unknowable, hateful, and ceaseless, that uses our bodies as conduits for death. Its form — whether facehugger, chestburster, or fully grown bad mama jama — pushes together yonic and phallic imagery, distorting and reflecting sex and the western sexual binary into something violent and grotesque. It haunts us because we push and push further into space, expanding the reaches of our controlling arm into the homes of others that are actually able to fight back against our progress. It’s no coincidence that its body is black as tar, shiny as an oil slick; it is a ghost of imperialism and the industrial revolution, acid running through its veins, single-mindedly seeking total dominance; it is our tactics, turned against us, by an other that uses our bodies to reproduce.
Of course, all that wouldn’t mean shit if it wasn’t viscerally scary, and it is; it’s a monster with two separate mouths that’s invisible in the dark, movies silently, bleeds acid, kills without remorse, and acts without fear. Many art critics deride Giger’s work as tacky, a bunch of obvious signifiers a bit like a gothic version of Thomas Kinkade. This ignorance is, of course, because most fine art critics hate the visceral the way blockbuster film producers hate the subtle; to create a monster like the xenomorph is an immense act, an artistic fulfillment of so many themes Giger obsessed over continuously in his art. It resonates because it works as an action movie villain and a horror movie haunting; it is blunt and complex, a seamless creation in every way, born out of a culture-wide collective unconscious and channeled through an extraordinarily talented man.
Alien helped make me a sci-fi fan. It’s the reason I track down every sci-fi horror film I can find, sucking each one dry for just a few drops of that wonderful experience. It’s a singular achievement, completed and enriched by Giger’s wonderful, terrible vision. I’ve watched it innumerable times, each time enraptured by the film, each time frightened by it. H.R. Giger is dead, and I mourn in the strange way we mourn the deaths of those who touch our lives despite never directly entering them. But his myth, his monster, will continue to resonate, to inspire, and to horrify far into the future; it sits in the chest of our culture, a black coiled mass next to its beating heart.