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It’s a steep walk from Gruyères railway station to the historic Swiss hilltop village of Gruyères, world famous for its cheese. But Gruyères (population 300) has a dark secret which only the most curious – or well informed – will discover: the gallery of H. R. Giger, Oscar winning designer of the alien in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and other things similarly subversive, erotic, fantastic and out of this world. Andrew L. Urban reports.

Inside the walls of this ancient village is a small cobbled ‘town’ square with a small fountain, several little restaurants and a modest souvenir shop – which also serves the best gruyere baguette sandwiches this side of cheese heaven.

But if you turn right coming out of this shop, walk through the square and through a narrow lane that leads to the udderlating cowtryside where the raw material for Gruyères cheese comes from, on the right you will find the entrance to the H. R. Giger Museum. You can’t miss it; the metallic silent sentinel by the entrance is a tightly squatting figure, eyes hidden behind large flying goggles from the bi-plane era, but with heavy screws around each eyepiece. The mouth is set in a firm ‘whaddayawant’ and there is a hose that winds around the neck. It/she holds a strange, slight weapon, its barrel extending up in front of her left eyepiece.

Small but muscly and carrying a strange little back pack, this bald figure (titled Gogglebaby) is at once provocative and intriguing. Enter with care - and leave your preconceptions (and children) outside. 

"the house seems to swallow us"

The entrance is a spacious lobby, within which stands a shiny black frame with curvy legs that remind us of insects, housing the reception desk. The receptionist is in her 20s, symmetrically pierced with studs in ears, nostrils, lips and even cheeks, her black hair in a straight fringe. She gives a gothic grin and takes our money (Є8). Behind this welcome installation are the shelves and display stands that you might find in any such gallery – except the merchandise and posters don’t look anything like your run of the mill tourist stuff. Books, furniture, portfolios, jewellery, posters, limited edition prints and sculptures, rarities and miniatures all echo the works on display elsewhere – radical, erotic, biomachinistic, complex. 

One of Giger's signatures in the Alien designs is exposed vertebrae - a theme echoed right through to the bar and barstools next to the museum. (Photo: Louise Keller)

As soon as we leave the entrance lobby and begin climbing the stairs the house seems to swallow us. Even the floor covering is imprinted with a Giger design. The real world has receded. Narrow stairs take us to the first level, past smaller artworks from or inspired by the designs for Alien. On the three levels of this old chateau, Giger exhibits an array of paintings, sculptures, replicas and posters that have a singular signature. The museum houses, intact, most of Giger’s film designs, including the artwork of Alien and Alien 3, Dune, Species, Poltergeist 2 and The Mystery of San Gottardo.

"ferociously striking"

The star exhibit, the Alien, famously called ‘the bitch’ by Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the film, is ferociously striking. Almost hypnotic in her stillness, her shiny, elongated skull and familiar double mouth with small, savage teeth and its powerful torso … we move closer for a sharper look, feeling a slight trepidation in the underlit space. Did the bitch just move her mouth?

A boardroom for a board with backbone ...(Photo Matthias Belz)

Why is all this here in tiny cheesy Gruyères? It all began in 1990, when to celebrate his 50th birthday, Giger was invited to mount a major retrospective of his work at the Château de Gruyères. The exhibition, Alien dans ses meubles (Alien in the Furniture), was a huge success, attended by 110,000 visitors.

After many visits to Gruyères, Giger fell in love with the place and when he heard that the Château St. Germain was up for sale, the idea to establish his own museum and a Center of Fantastic Art was born: on September 11, 1997, he acquired the Château. With the help of the architect Roger Cottier, the former museum director Barbara Gawrysiak and a team of supporters, the museum opened (most of) its doors on June 21, 1998.

Alien ahead ... (Photo: Matthias Belz)

H.R. Giger was born in 1940 in Chur, 300 kms across Switzerland from Gruyères and the country’s oldest town. Even as a child he had a passion for all things surreal and macabre. Meticulously detailed, Giger’s paintings are usually created in large formats and worked and reworked. His fascinating biomechanical style, a unique synthesis of flesh and machine, has been realized not only through his remarkable paintings but also via sculptures, elegantly bizarre furniture, and architectural and interior design projects. His paintings have been displayed in galleries and museums throughout the world. 

"Breathless with the intensity of Giger’s artistic embrace"

Breathless with the intensity of Giger’s artistic embrace, we step back into the real world and walk across the lane to the Giger Bar to catch our breath, but the biomechanical fusion of his world continues, offering more of the fantastic atmosphere. The black, high backed, swivel bar stools have humanoid spines, the décor is alien, as is one of the coffee options (with or without alcohol). 

It’s almost surreal to see normal humans sipping drinks and to hear them talking French, German, English and Dutch. What are humans doing in here…. Reluctantly, we eventually leave and walk down the cobbled lane to the medieval walls of the village, furtively glancing over our shoulder to see whether the bitch had escaped and was dribbling in our direction.

A section of the Giger bar - lit for the photo; in fact it's somewhat darker. (Photo Annie Bertram)

We head back down the hill towards the railway station, opposite which is the tourist heart of Gruyères, a building which houses the cheese storage unit (visible through glass walls as robotic arms move the cheese wheels around), a souvenir supermarket and the café/restaurant. We catch the 11.45, one of the frequent morning trains from Montreux (takes just over an hour); the first class wagon is the Classic Goldpass, reminiscent of the Orient Express with its wood panelled cars, shiny brass luggage racks and pale green padded velour armchair seats (74.31 euro, 1st class return for 2).

It’s mid afternoon and school is out; giggling schoolgirls clamber onboard, unaware that two aliens from Australia are in their midst, who have just visited the Giger of Gruyères, a world without cows, right in the middle of dairy country.

Published January 2012

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Death Birth Machine

The entrance area of the Giger museum (Pic. Matthias Belz)

Château St. Germain
1663 Gruyères, Switzerland
Tel.: +41 26 921 2200
Fax: +41 26 921 2211
E-Mail: info@hrgigermuseum.com


The village square (Photo: Louise Keller)

Louise at the entrance to the museum (Photo: Andrew L. Urban)

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