14 December 2009

Penis Landscape

Penis Landscape is the affectionate name for work 219: Landscape XX, by the Swiss artist H.R. Giger. Created in 1973 from airbrushed acrylic on paper covered wood, the original piece measures 70 x 100 centimetres. To those who have seen Giger's work before, it comes as no surprise that of the two names, Penis Landscape is the more appropriate.

You are familiar with Giger's work, by the way. It's almost impossible not to have heard of Alien, lovingly designed by Giger with an appropriately phallic head. Species, too, provided an opportunity for grotesque sexual imagery, and the idea of loving Giger's work has become something like a mark of the elite. William Gibson mentions Giger's paintings of New York in Idoru, and the underworld of the internet is almost smothered in Giger-esque imagery. Failing that, album covers by Emerson, Lake And Palmer, as well as artwork involving Debbie Harry may well have come to your attention.

Landscape XX, however, remained entirely unremarkable for a decade until the Dead Kennedys chose to feature it on the sleeve of their 1985 album Frankenchrist. At this point, work 219 became of the utmost importance to a San Francisco court. In 1986, the painting, and various newspaper clippings associated with it were scrutinized fiercely. Eventually, the image was declared to be art, and therefore not pornography, after a period in which the album remained unavailable.

The image itself is as visually stunning as all Giger's work. It features six whole penises and three half-penises, their base and scrotum cruelly snipped off by the image's edge. The head of each penis is inserted into a vagina, though at least one appears to be on the verge of slipping out, and only one has been prudent enough to use protection. All but the buttocks and genitalia of each individual are hidden by that peculiar, scummy surface Giger seems to love painting, leaving a repeating pattern of penis, vagina, penis, vagina, which you realise could easily continue on to infinity. The style fits with Giger's obsession at the time, vast repeating landscapes of tiled images, always with a grotesque or shocking theme: the heads of diseased infants wail at us from the image, or a cracked metal skull, held secure with wires, is drilled from above by a sinister and filthy mechanism.

We may be led to ask why. Aside from the standard answer, confirmed by court ruling (It's art!), this painting is merely part of Giger's usual theme-based work. From the earliest moments in his career Giger has focused on specific themes, whether it is the Passagen series - stark images of dimly-lit passageways, many blocked in some way by curious yet simple metal devices - or the Erotomechanics portfolio: images of sex between things which are part metal, part flesh, sometimes part of the landscape, all seen from strange viewpoints - either unbearably close up or so distant that the act itself becomes simply a part of the surroundings. This is what the landscape series achieve: these infinite planes of image simply serve to reduce their contents to near-meaninglessness. Their purpose, save for existing in their own right as 'art', seems merely to entertain or, if we read Giger's accompanying words in his book ARh+, to horrify.

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