The Schinkel Pavilion in Berlin’s Mitte district looks a little like a spaceship with its octagonal shape and dated Eastern Bloc interior. In the narrow, dimly lit underground passages beneath the pavilion, one can easily imagine a monstrous figure lurking just around the next corner, or an unhatched alien egg suddenly quivering. It is a near-perfect location for a horror movie – or, as in this case, a duo exhibition featuring H.R. Giger’s biomechanical sci-fi universe and Mire Lee’s slimy robots.
Swiss artist H.R. Giger (1940–2014) won worldwide fame as the perverted brain behind the aliens in Ridley Scott’s horror classic Alien, which hit cinemas in 1979. In Alien, we follow the crew of a commercial towing vehicle, the Nostromo, a rusty scrap heap of a vessel, which during its journey back to Earth receives a distress signal that turns out to originate from an alien spaceship. Inside that ship, a mysterious egg hatches and the creature inside latches itself onto officer Kane’s face. In this way, the alien comes aboard the Nostromo, where, having punched its way out through Kane’s chest, it proceeds to kill the crew one by one.
Downstairs in the pavilion, we meet a 1990 sculptural version of Giger’s alien, a sphinx-like hybrid between a robot and a giant insect with its exoskeleton on view. Next to the Alien sculpture is Korean artist Mire Lee’s animated sculpture Endless House (2021), a biomorphic structure with large holes opening on a slimy interior. Inside, a loose bundle of hoses and pipes rotates slowly around its own axis. Drops of liquid silicone run down the sculpture, evoking exposed entrails – as if the sculpture were trapped in an endless circle of violations in which an alien repeatedly erupts through its chest.
Giger is very obviously the focal point of this exhibition, while the young Korean artist’s works are consistently staged as victims of the perverted legend’s monstrous works. That this is a deliberate choice on the part of curator Agnes Gryczkowska becomes quite clear with the placement of Lee’s video Faces (2016), which comprises short clips showing the faces of young Asian women. The clips come from a rather racist rape-porn subgenre known as “groping,” which shows staged assaults and gropings of young women on public transport. Here, they are presented alongside Giger’s explicitly pornographic drawings of biomechanical creatures penetrating a suspended torso, or gang-raping a female figure in a frenzy of sadistic violence.
Moving through the basement feels entirely like stepping into the kind of horror movie where we constantly sense the looming, insidious presence of something demonic. I glide into a narrow room where another of Lee’s slimy creatures writhes helplessly on the floor next to a drain, poised somewhere between the last convulsions of a pile of severed limbs and an orgasmic climax. A sudden sense of uncertainty arises: are Mire Lee’s works entirely innocent victims of Giger’s perversities, or are we in fact looking at a kind of mutual fetishism?
It strikes me how little it takes for us to read something as both alive and disgusting: a little movement and some abject slime pointing to a transgression of the usual demarcations of the body, a turning inside-out. It works because one of the premises of the horror genre is precisely that the dead might be alive and the living might be dead. I back slowly out of the room.
Much of the exhibition consists of Giger’s airbrush paintings of alien-like figures, the exposed muscles and the architecture of the bones pointing to a rather interesting Surrealist sensibility. These are anatomical textures where body parts grow beyond the body’s own boundaries to occupy the surfaces of the surrounding landscape, just as the alien in the film transforms the spaceship’s structure into organic caves where body and surroundings merge. A parasitic – or epidemiological, if you will – mode of reproduction where the truly frightening thing is not a demonic being, but an uncaring, mechanical, and determined violence that has only blind evolution as its goal.
Perhaps Giger’s extremely transgressive universe seems so relevant right now because the alien’s existence is so blatantly parasitic. Just as a virus cannot reproduce itself, but must take over and use other cells, the monster depends on penetrating and parasitising a foreign body in order to come into the world at all – and, like a virus, the alien can thus be understood in evolutionary terms as a self-reproducing potential embedded in the body, threatening to kill itself. As I leave the Schinkel Pavilion, I keep my face mask on.