Friday, 13 December 2013

HR Giger in Basel - March 2007

On Friday, 16th of March 2007 and only three days after my birthday, I embarked on what was my next expedition into Gigerland and consequently, I considered this trip to be a personal celebratory treat.

Little did I know however, whilst best trying to find comfort in the restrictive space allowed by an Easyjet flight’s seat from Liverpool to Basel, that events which were to follow would culminate in treats so far unimagined.

I arrived in Basel on the Friday evening and soon, once more found myself as being the beneficiary of Switzerland’s public transport efficiency.
I departed the shuttle bus from the airport at Basel’s railway station which was only a very short walk away from the hotel I had chosen for my two nights’ stay in this Swiss city.

This exhibition of HR Giger’s work that I had travelled to attend, was being held at the privately owned Galerie Hilt under the title of ‘Spaces’.

Galerie Hilt was first opened by its founder, Balz Hilt, in 1955 on Aeschenvorstadt 43, Basel.
1990 saw the opening of Galerie Hilt at its current location of Freie Strasse 88 and in 1993, Christian Ragni joined the gallery’s employment.
Ten years prior to my visit to Galerie Hilt, HR Giger’s work had been exhibited at Hilt by Christian Ragni, in 1997, under the title of ‘Projects’.

Ten years on from that date and HR Giger’s work was being exhibited again by Christian Ragni, under the title of ‘Spaces’.
This exhibition featured the commercial sale of HR Giger’s sculptures, portfolios, limited edition prints, Artist’s edition prints, digital lithographs and original drawings.

In the late morning of Saturday, 17th of March, I embarked on the walk from my hotel to discover the exact location of Galerie Hilt.

My hope was to gain access to the exhibition floor space inside the gallery so as to photograph the works on display of HR Giger prior to the arrival of the attending crowd of that day.
However, some initial issues of communication and understanding existed and it took the sanction of an explanatory phone call from Carmen Giger to pave the way of passage for my camera and I to enter the areas of exhibition.

Once my access was allowed to HR Giger’s exhibition, I was left with only a limited amount of time to cover the artworks on display before the doors of Galerie Hilt were held open to the visiting public of that day.

Then being the only person at that time with official permission to photograph, I made my tour as quickly but efficiently as I possibly could within the exhibition of ‘Spaces’.

I first used a roll of 35mm Ilford Black & White film, followed by coverage with 35mm Fuji Colour film to capture what I could with my hand held Canon EOS.

Some of the images you see here can be found in the ‘Exhibitions’ section of and others are shown here for the first time.

A short while later and I had finished photographing, which then allowed me to enjoy and absorb my surroundings of Giger’s art on display as well as the small crowd of like minded people whose company I shared that afternoon at ‘Spaces’.

I still remember the atmosphere inside ‘Spaces’ at Hilt being charged with a vibrancy of affection and affiliation for the works of HR Giger by the select attendance of those loyal to Giger’s work.

With the arrival of early evening soon upon us, I joined closer company with Alf Battig, Matthias Belz, Sabrina Epifani, André Faust, Flaminio Gaggioni, Hans Kunz, Markus Lion, Stephan Stucki, Marco Witzig and of course Carmen and HR Giger, to dine in a nearby restaurant named ‘Noohn’.

Hours passed by at our table before we said our farewells, with the time that we shared having served as being the perfect ending to a very eventful and memorable day.

Still with adventures and discoveries awaiting their encounter on this trip to Switzerland, I made my way back to the hotel for my last night’s stay in Basel.

Zurich Trips and The Splendid Coincidence

During the days and weeks leading up to this expedition to return to Gigerland, arrangements had been made and co-ordinated from New York by Les Barany to enable me to visit Carmen and HR Giger at their home in Zurich.

As stated at the beginning of this chapter, all of these events were taking place only a very short while after my birthday of 2007 so, as you may imagine, with this trip to Zurich now becoming a reality, there came a sense of further celebration and excitement, despite my increasing age.

It was also whilst making plans at home that suggestions were made by Hans Kunz and Marco Witzig during our email exchanges, regarding hotel ideas for me.

Out of the choices gained, I decided to book myself into a hotel by the name of ‘Splendid’, as this seemed suitably named at the least.
Coupled with advertising itself as having a piano bar for evening entertainment, my mind was then swayed toward choosing this hotel for my adventures in Zurich to be based from.

As time would tell, in a very short amount of time from my arrival at Zurich’s main railway station, the choice I made was in itself a splendid one.

During the late afternoon of Sunday, 18th of March, I disembarked the train from Basel into the stretching vastness of Zurich’s Hauptbahnhof and walked first to one of the many cafés inside the station’s concourse.

Once refreshed, after my morning’s travels, I gathered myself and my belongings together and made some enquiries as to which direction I should follow.

I had been told that the area of Neiderdorf was only a short walk from Zurich’s main station and, as it was, after ensuring that I left the station at the correct exit, I soon found myself on the other side of the river Limmat with the wheels of my suitcase hobbling over the cobbled stones of the old streets as I made my way toward Rosengrasse 5.

By the time I reached the hotel’s front door, I was feeling the full affect of the transfer of vibrations from the clattering wheels of my suitcase all the way up and through my now weary arms and shoulders.
Next, to be faced with the challenge of negotiating my way through a narrow doorway and into an equally narrow, wooden panelled corridor, with my accompanying luggage catching awkwardly on every protruding corner as we barged our way through, it was by then seeming quite an ordeal just to reach the reception desk.

With eventual success, I was greeted by a very pleasant lady who entered the reception area with a wave and a smile.

After soon establishing between us that we would only be able to communicate in the one language, this lady then switched effortlessly to an evenly paced but precisely spoken English voice and promptly handed me a registration card to complete.

This piece of paper I had just been given, although small in size, seemed to have been laden with as many written questions possible and each question written in four different languages with very little room to leave any response.

By that time, I had started to recognise the situation of my weariness from the day’s travels coupled with the seemingly endless ordeals I was facing just to register my already booked and paid for accommodation at this hotel, to the point where it had become a topic of humorous conversation between the lady in reception and I.

Within what seemed to be the remaining few square millimetres of space on this registration card, lay the closing question of the final category, “For Aliens?” it enquired.
“Yes!” I exclaimed, “I am an Alien, and this is for me”

It was with some exasperation, I think, and final admittance to being the stranger in that country and to its customs of overly detailed hotel guest registration cards, that I called out “Yes” in response to that final question.

Naturally, I saw the immediate coincidence that had arisen between the question on the registration card and in my being in Switzerland for my time with HR Giger and his work; so, I thought I might add some of this content, hopefully with humour, to our conversation in the hotel’s reception by remarking on this.
“Actually” I began, “you could say that I may well qualify as being one of Giger’s aliens.”

I followed on by giving a brief outline as to why I was then currently in Switzerland and I talked about the exhibition in Basel I had just attended on the previous day and about my passion for Giger Art.

The words next spoken by this polite and pleasant lady, from the other side of the hotel’s reception desk, had quite an affect.
“I am Giger’s ex-wife” she slowly replied, with a knowing smile that could be heard while she spoke.

To the point at which I had never been so amazed by a person’s response to me during the entirety of my life that had passed before that moment, I was truly amazed.

I was also totally impressed of course, by the events and revelations that were taking place in front of me, or indeed that I was taking part in, the only other participant in fact and without doubt, to my mind, the greatest beneficiary of all that was occurring.

Still as yet to have fully emerged from my then state of mind with a firm grip on the reality of this event; I remember my first attempt at doing so was to ask this lady her name, “Mia,” she replied, again with her smile that could be heard as she spoke.

At this point overwhelmed, I asked Mia for confirmation, just to ensure that what I thought I heard really had been spoken.

For what I thought necessary to prove the validity of my own previous claims to Mia, I produced from my luggage a couple of printed out emails from Les Barany which related to my then current trip to Switzerland.

Conversations between Mia and I travelled further as we discussed events and experiences from past and present, with all of this hanging from a newly discovered thread of common ground that we found to both share.

I felt privileged to be told some tales from the Gigers’ time at Shepperton Studios, while I offered to Mia some viewing of photographs I had with me from HR Giger’s previous exhibition, in Vienna.

Soon after the pot of coffee that we were drinking had emptied, I was able to consolidate my thoughts on that afternoon’s remarkable events. 

It was whilst alone in my hotel room for the first time that the pieces were fitted together.

On my journey toward visiting HR Giger and Carmen Giger at their home in Zurich, I had been booked into my hotel room by Mia Bonzanigo, partner to HR Giger during the days of Alien conception, cinematic ground breaking and genre pioneering art and design concepts.

This, to me, was an unforgettable occurrence and coupled with the hotel that all of this took place in being named ‘Splendid’, I find it unavoidable to say, and to see, that all of this was indeed a ‘Splendid Coincidence’.

Later that evening, I retraced some of my earlier footsteps along one of the old cobbled streets and found what I was told to be one of the few remaining internet cafés in Zurich, where I sat and relayed that afternoon’s events and revelations, via email, to Les Barany in New York.

Awakening the next day, it was with a more defined sense of purpose and with a feeling of empowerment that I began my journeys of Monday, 19th of March 2007.

Not my first of Zurich trips of course, but these adventures that lay ahead were to allow me benefit gained from personal invitation.

So, to begin my discoveries, I travelled first to the home of one of the world’s most prominent collectors of Giger Art, Marco Witzig.
Marco is also one half of the collaboration that gives us ‘The Giger Work Catalogue’ which was founded in 2007 with Matthias Belz and is without doubt a most comprehensive and detailed database of HR Giger’s two dimensional and three dimensional Work.

I was met at one of Zurich’s suburban railway stations, by Marco, at exactly the time he had told me that the train would arrive there.
We walked to Marco’s home and entered what I would describe as being a Giger collector’s utopia.

I remember that we drank coffee on a sheltered balcony outside as a shower of very large hail stones descended, between one and two centimetres in diameter, clattering on all surfaces around us as they landed heavily before we returned to the collection inside.

Much to my delight, I was given detailed descriptions of works by HR Giger and their histories as Marco delivered his own private seminar in the surroundings of his extensive and amazing collection, within his home.

Later that afternoon, it was from Marco’s home that I dialled a telephone number given to me personally by HR Giger whilst in the restaurant in Basel only two nights earlier and, with this, Giger and I shared a short conversation to finalise what would be my arrival at their home of Carmen and him.

Equipped with a street map given to me by Marco to guide me through the maze of streets in which the Gigers’ home was to be found, I travelled by train from Marco’s home suburb of Zurich to the Gigers’ home suburb of Zurich.
It was with what seemed to be considerable ease that I found my way to the Gigers’ home and was warmly greeted by Carmen at their door. 

I remember, vividly, how instantly I was made to feel so welcomed into their home, by Carmen.

Walking together through to the kitchen, I was introduced to Ronald Brandt and to André Faust, both seated at the table and taking a short break from the work that they were involved in for HR Giger. 
I discovered shortly after this first meeting that Ronald and André were working together on a previously ordered black resin Harkonnen Chair, in HR Giger’s atelier.

Ronald Brandt had been working for HR Giger since the early 1990s, under instruction and as the Sculptor who aided to bring Giger’s two dimensional designs into the physical reality of three dimensional being.

At the time of my visit, André Faust was working alongside Ronald Brandt as his sculpting assistant for the works that were being brought to life in HR Giger’s atelier, situated behind the Zodiac Fountain in HR Giger’s garden.

The first two hours of my visit seemed just to evaporate, as if time itself no longer existed or registered as the entity by which we are so often bound, in everyday life.  These were indeed, exceptional days.

It was during those first two hours that Carmen guided me through some of the parts of their home; we talked as we walked, pausing at various locations to discuss what I was being shown, amazed and enthralled by all that surrounded me.

I had been told by Carmen that HR Giger was working in his room; however, it was whilst walking through those seemingly timeless passages that we all met together, in one part of the house.
Poised and dignified, our warm and cordial meeting was short but affectionate; to be fondly remembered although difficult to describe.  Here we venture into the realms of my own personal experiences and their affects upon me; but not necessarily to be revealed or shared in a public domain.

Early evening soon arrived and with it came the generous invitation to stay for dinner.  With acceptance of course, I settled into a seat at the kitchen table where Carmen and I shared further conversations on Giger Art and its affects upon us both.

A knock on the door and into the kitchen walked Alf Battig and Flaminio Gaggioni; familiar faces from recent encounters, laden with cartons of Chinese food for us to share between us.

So, there was I, on a darkening evening in March 2007, sharing a table in the house of HR Giger with his wife Carmen and in the company of truly uniquely talented people; artists and sculptors and lovers of all.

To be complimented upon my photographic endeavours on previously captured exhibitions of Giger’s works, by this small and select gathering of which I was a part, was probably more than I ever expected, but with this too came a sense of high achievement and personal satisfaction.

Finally satisfied by the food and wine that we shared at that table, a small group of us ventured upstairs for our evening’s entertainment of watching ‘The Blair Witch Project’ together.

Within the room where we watched that film, there hung behind one of the leather settees on which we sat, a painting that I could have only dreamed of viewing for myself, before that time. 

It was while I had previously seen a draft version of the book ‘The Giger Work Catalogue’ that I found an apparently unfinished version of “Under the Earth” which instantly caught my eye and attentions; and on that evening of March 2007, there I was standing before it, dwarfed by its image and its overwhelming presence of purity and beauty.

Inevitably, the evening’s end arrived and I was offered a spare seat with Alf and Flaminio for the journey by car, returning to Zurich’s central location and to that of my hotel in Neiderdorf.

With the knowledge of my Zurich trip approaching the end of its time allowed to me, it was with understanding of this aspect that Carmen had invited me to return to their home on the following day, my last day in Zurich.

On Tuesday, 20th of March 2007, I walked away from the location of my ‘Splendid Coincidence’ without being able to wish a farewell to Mia, as she was not on the premises at the time of my early departure.

I retraced my footsteps for a final time along the cobbled stones of the old streets of Neiderdorf, as my luggage and I trundled our way toward Zurich’s main railway station where I deposited the majority of my luggage before heading once more to the home of the Gigers.

Welcomed again by Carmen into their house, I walked through to the kitchen where I was offered strong coffee and pear bread for my morning’s delight.

Unlike my visit of the previous evening, I now had the benefit of Tuesday’s daylight and with this came the opportunity to capture on celluloid some of my surroundings and the activities therein.

So, following the suggestion from Carmen, I walked through a set of glass double doors and made my way through HR Giger’s garden and into his atelier, found beyond the Zodiac Fountain.

Inside, were André Faust and Ronald Brandt, pictured here working together on the previously ordered black resin Harkonnen Chair of which I was told during my first meeting, the previous day.

I considered this as being one of the many insights that I experienced whilst visiting the home and gardens of HR Giger.

I found it to be very interesting and educational to share conversations with Ronald and André about the work they were undertaking for HR Giger. 
It was during these conversations that I was informed of the extent to which Ronald Brandt had been involved in working for HR Giger over the previous fifteen years or so.

A while later, I ventured back out into the garden and lost myself and my thoughts as I meandered my way around the railway tracks, through evergreen tunnels and around statues and structures, all of which had been designed and crafted by the mind and hands of HR Giger.

Pictured below, you will see a small selection from the images that captured me, whilst spending time in HR Giger’s garden.

It was during my time in the garden that HR Giger came out to meet me.  This was the most relaxed and by far the longest period of time that I have ever had the privilege of sharing with HR Giger.  

We walked around an area of his garden together as Giger explained to me some of his conceptual ideas and the mechanical workings of the Zodiac Fountain. 

We discussed the train and its tracks which snaked their way around the garden and its structures and through tunnels and out again, into the early spring sunshine of this wonderful March day.

Back through the glass double doors and into the house again we walked as we made our way toward one of the downstairs rooms.

Visually, I think there was just too much information for me to absorb on that one occasion and it occurred to me then to put down my camera from around my neck and to noticeably replace the lens cover, indicating that I would not be taking any further photos at that time.

I could see from his facial reaction that Giger himself was pleased by this action of mine; it appeased me too, to see this, as there was now acceptance that I was not visiting for the sole purpose of photographing at every possible occasion.

Inside this room, I was given explanations and previews of what was hopefully to become the published version of ‘The Giger Work Catalogue’.  There was a soft covered draft of what this volume could become, of which we worked our way through its pages and imagery.

Also, another draft version of a soft covered book and with this too came more explanations and histories; this volume contained a vast collection of copies of sketches that had been drawn by HR Giger and collected together, possibly to become another published body or Works.

So absorbed was I, by all that was around me and all that was presented to me, that my thoughts of posing for the statutory ‘visitor’s seat’ photo in the aluminium Harkonnen chair and in HR Giger’s presence, evaporated away, just as did the time that we shared on that monumental day of memorable experiences.

And so it seemed that the time had come for us both to move on; Giger had said that it was time for him to return to his work in his private room.
We stood, facing each other, locked in the gentlemen’s handshake and both said, “Good-bye”.

For me, it was back through the glass double doors once more and into the garden, pausing for a while to assemble my thoughts although, clearly, that was by no means fully achievable at that precise moment.

A few photos later and the time had come to gather myself and my belongings before saying farewell to Ronald and André, from within HR Giger’s home workshop.

Walking slowly through the garden and looking back for one last glimpse, I entered the house and through to the kitchen where I called out to Carmen that it was time for me to leave.
My final farewell seemed the most difficult to give, but it was indeed my time to go.

It was only some hours later that my thoughts and emotions began to settle.
My train journey from Zurich to Basel was taken up with time dedicated to my own scribbling within a note book which I carried with me, for just that purpose of noting down thoughts and memories, hopefully to never be forgotten.

It is actually from some of the pages of that note book that I have been able to write out this chapter, of which you have just reached the end.

I feel now that I have experienced so much, in what was such a short space of time.
To have travelled so far and to have expanded so much, from a solo trip to the HR Giger Museum in Gruyeres to becoming a published photographer of Exhibitions of Artworks by HR Giger and to have written my tales that I give to you here.

For all of which, I am continually grateful.

These have been my Expeditions and Exhibitions ~ an Englishman’s tale of adventure and discovery, Giger Art and friendship ~ indeed.