Gruyères is a medieval town with a present population of roughly 2,000 and an annual visitor count of over a million. It sits atop a small, freestanding mountain in the valley of the Sarine River, north of the Alps, in the canton of Fribourg. From the generous parking lot, steep steps lead to cobbled roads and stout stone buildings set against white peaks and green valleys, prototypical and bright even when curtained by rain.
All of Switzerland offers a variation on picturesque, so tourist towns need a ‘sell’, and Gruyères has two: an eponymous cheese and the HR Giger Museum and Bar. You’ve seen Alien, right? Ridley Scott commissioned Giger, a painter, sculptor, and designer, to make the creature after seeing Giger’s paintings (Necronom IV and Necronom V) in his first book, Necronomicon. Like all of Giger’s creations, that mighty vertebrate, with its tapered ellipsoidal head and cetacean-like skin, seems sent from some teeming transhumanist world, at once imminent and primordial, erotic and grotesque.
It was raining when I arrived in Gruyères two summers ago. My friend and I had been driving all morning, looking for a mountain of smoky quartz we’d heard about in Lausanne, but the mountain was nowhere and the road was becoming precarious. Gruyères’ parking lot appeared like a clearing. We lunched quickly; then we walked.
Gruyères spans less than 30km2 and seems on an incline in all directions. It’s benignly scenic, a strange place to encounter any Giger, let alone a lot. But Giger’s previous standalone venues—a bar in his hometown, Chur, across the röstigraben, and another bar in Tokyo built, according to Giger, ‘against [his] will’—hadn’t worked out. Tokyo closed in the late ‘90s after allegedly being taken over by yakuza; Chur still stands but has never gained much traction as a tourist destination. When Giger visited Gruyères in 1990 during an exhibition of his work at the Château de Gruyères, he was thrilled by its popularity and subsequently arranged to purchase the adjacent Château St Germain.
Compared to its turreted, barbicaned neighbour, Château St Germain looks less like a 13th-century castle than an 18th-century house, with shuttered windows and a modestly pitched roof. Nearing the top of a concrete walkway, I saw a small sign above the parabolic archway that divides the château’s two wings, bearing white embossed text in a nondescript font: MUSEUM HR GIGER. The museum, which opened in the north wing in 1998, contains the largest permanent collection of Giger’s work in the world. Although the sign doesn’t mention it, the south wing holds the HR Giger Bar.
The bar’s interior renovations took Giger four years, from 1999 to 2003. The result is a cavernous corrugation of slate-coloured ribs connected vertically by spines, the synthetic vertebrae fixed like concave ammunition belts, with outsized lancet-arched windows still only half the height of the room. Where the Tokyo bar was more pre-Matrix industrial kitsch and the Chur spot more BDSM spaceship, the Giger bar in Gruyères is full-scale alien whale carcass: unnervingly anatomical, a flight of heavy, meticulous fantasy.
We joined the queue for the bar. There was no maître d’ in sight, but we waited dutifully, wordlessly, because although the room was barely populated, it was by no means empty. All around, ridge-backed, pelvis-crowned forms made of polished bone-coloured fibreglass stood hulking and mean, a whole species bred from a single mould. Their distinctiveness made their replication uncanny—simulacrums with no apparent original.
Perhaps you’ve seen Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Chauvet-Pontd’Arc Cave; paradigmatically empty, around two million years old and likely unentered for tens of thousands of years. To finish his documentary, Herzog must have felt it his job to resolve this emptiness, so in the last 15 minutes of the film he introduces bodies: the cave’s current occupants (the world’s oldest figurative drawings; forms, if two-dimensional, of animals and people) and those he speculates are incoming (a species of mutant albino crocodile from a nuclear-powered greenhouse nearby).
But a room wants for a different kind of occupancy. Bodies alone are not sufficient. Take the Latin derivation of ‘interstice’: inter, meaning ‘between’, and sistere, meaning ‘to stand’. This suggests that a space may contain many standing bodies but is technically interstitial unless these bodies have somewhere to sit. To be not-empty, a room requires furniture. Specifically, a room requires chairs.
Why chairs? Or rather, why not tables?
In Between the Furniture and the Building (Between a Rock and a Hard Place), the artist Jimmie Durham recalls Sharon Stone’s infamous Basic Instinct scene, in which she is seated on a leather office chair at the centre of a police interrogation room. Her position tells us that she is somehow subject to. (A similar arrangement takes place in Reservoir Dogs, when Michael Madsen dances around a bound, seated Kirk Baltz, before slicing off Baltz’s ear. The dance is the ultimate taunt, showing Madsen’s encompassing menace and Baltz’s spatial vulnerability, but it’s the chair that makes it possible. On the radio, Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ plays: Well I don’t know why I came here tonight / I got the feeling that something ain’t right / I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair.)
If a table were positioned in front of Stone, Durham argues, this would immediately place her in the ‘power position’. ‘If I want my papers stamped’, he writes, ‘I must be completely subservient to her’. A table can modify a chair. But if Stone’s chair were to be removed, if she were found standing behind the table, the whole scene becomes nonsensical. The table is contingent; a chair can still stand, for lack of a better word, alone.
The Harkonnen chair was supposed to be just one element of Giger’s set for the film adaptation of Dune. But when David Lynch took over from Alejandro Jodorowsky as the film’s director, he scrapped Giger’s designs, claiming their aesthetic was overexposed following the success of Alien. But the Harkonnen was already alive.
In his notes for the production design of Harkonnen Castle, home to Dune’s ruling dynasty, Giger describes a kingdom of sentient objects with malicious, desirous psychologies: the castle swivels on a circular track and ‘hides its evil deep inside’, spewing up excrement at will; the spears guarding its entrance ‘have an independent existence and often impale the citizens just for fun’. And it’s conceivable that, five or so years after his excision from Dune, Giger started building bars because the Harkonnen chair wanted to be sat on.
Actually, we never made it inside. We had to keep driving before it got too dark, and accommodation is expensive in the little town. And I’m not sure that leaving was such a bad thing. As Durham writes, ‘Chairs centre us to suit themselves’. They are ‘not on the side of our liberation’. But a Harkonnen chair does not so much centre as partially swallow the sitter. The chair is the source—the seat, if you will—of power, a power that overwhelms. Without it, we are civilians with cameras and windbreakers. Within it, we are the cautious custodians of a loosely domesticated beast.
I encountered the Harkonnen again last summer in New York, at the opening of an exhibition at the Swiss Institute titled ‘Fin de Siècle’, which everyone was calling ‘the chair show’. It featured famous chairs by Robert Venturi, Alessandro Mendini, Marcel Breuer, and around 30 other 20th-century designers. The large exhibition space was divided into various ‘sets’, each with its own mise en scène; some appeared to be climbing out of, or withdrawing into, packing crates, others vogued under washes of tinted light or faced off against each other.
At the front of the show, a single Harkonnen sat atop an enormous plinth, looming above a semicircle of mostly wood, mostly modern models beneath. It looked ferocious and just a little bit camp, as Giger would have had it. A friend later pointed out that Giger had died in May, only months before the show opened, and the Harkonnen’s dominion over its decidedly more earthly counterparts was perhaps a gesture of tribute. For a while I watched the Harkonnen watching the visitors, guarding the gateway, silently granting entrance and exit to each who passed. It was empty, but the room was full.