When you have spent over three days in Switzerland, the sight of endless stretches of snow is about as exciting as your hotel room. So, when I spotted ‘The Bitch’, all gleaming metal and unashamedly sexy, standing proud at the entrance of what looked like yet another grey castle in Gruyères, I gave up all pretence of being grown up. “Kornmic stand,” I yelled, after taking a moment to come up with a more polite term for ‘The Bitch’. The young Guillaume Schneuwly, who was showing us around Gruyères, was both surprised and amused. He didn’t expect me to recognise the aluminium microphone stand that is shaped like a woman and has toured with American metal band Korn since 2001. “Yes, it’s the Giger museum,” says Schneuwly.
Gruyères is a picture-postcard town in southeastern Switzerland, and a museum dedicated to the freakishly beautiful art of Hans Rudolf Giger in the middle of this cheese and chocolate wonderland is a charming incongruity. The Giger museum, it would seem, was meant to shock and rattle just like his art does. Giger is a Swiss surrealist painter, sculptor and set designer, and, apart from his work for the likes of Korn, he was also part of the special effects team that won an Academy Award for its work on the film Alien (1978). Schneuwly tells me that the museum never features in Swiss tourism brochures or itineraries. “Sometimes, people who come in here say that this is so scary and ugly. Girls hate it. I’m surprised you like the place so much.”
Giger, 74, bought and redesigned the chateau in Gruyères to transform it into a modern art museum like no other. In fact, he’s thoughtfully built a Giger bar right across the museum should visitors need to knock backa peg or two after they make a trip to the museum. The bar is no less an experience. The Harkonnen bar chairs, which look like medieval warlords’ thrones, prep you up for what’s to come at the museum. The ceiling of the bar resembles a ribcage with twisted vertebrae. Giger designed these aluminium and fibreglass pieces for a film adaptation of the novel Dune, which, after several delays, was directed by David Lynch. None of the furniture or props made it to the film. But, anyone who has watched Alien will tell you that not including Giger’s designs in Dune (1984) was Lynch’s loss. By the way, Ridley Scott was inspired to make Alien after reading Necronomicon, a book Giger wrote in 1977.
Walk into the first floor of the museum and you’ll see a full-grown alien ready to pounce on an unsuspecting victim. Mounting the alien on the ceiling is a masterstroke that makes you gasp when you eventually spot the damned beast. Snakes, heads of babies, ghouls, sexually-charged portraits of women — the singular purpose of these works is to jolt you out of the cocoon that Switzerland spins around you.
Giger’s attention to detail is striking — his intricate surrealist drawings, or what he calls the Biomechanical Matrix, have been carved into aluminium plates that have been fixed to the floor. He is so particular about design that he refused to have his name associated with a second Giger bar in Tokyo because the management went ahead with his rough design plans for the place and didn’t wait for him to add the finishing touches. The man, who resides in Zurich, hasn’t been open to an interview in ages, but the story behind his diabolical drawings and installations is well known. Giger’s works are informed by his dreams, or “night terrors”, as they’ve been often described.
Music has played an important role in his work — a self-confessed fan of prog rockers Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Giger painted ‘The Magus’ as a tribute to Keith Emerson. His album art for KooKoo (1981), the debut solo album released by Debbie Harry, lead singer of American punk band Blondie, and the cover of Brain Salad Surgery (1973), the fourth album released by Emerson, Lake & Palmer have both made it to Rolling Stone’s Top 100 Best Covers Of The Century.
The many dark turns that his life has taken, including the death of his first girlfriend, the Swiss actress Li Tobler, rumoured to be a suicide, have also inspired his work. Giger did a series of paintings in the 1970s titled ‘The Spell’, based on Tobler. Schneuwly’s guided tour of the museum is tame in comparison to Giger’s real-life story. “He’s obsessed with women and the themes of sex and overpopulation,” he offers. The first thought that pops into my mind is that Mumbai may just be a hotbed of ideas for Giger. Imagine him being faced with a local train at rush hour. Giger would transform the train into a mutated beast packed with baby heads. Title: Mumbai Birthmachine.