Future archive of a possible body: H.R. Giger and Mire Lee at the Schinkel Pavillon

The definition is not simple. The title is not clear, the space – the Schinkel Pavillon, a palace that was never a house but is presented here as such – is seductive but cold, and the guests come from different worlds. The exhibition that brings together H.R. Giger, a Swiss artist associated with surrealism, and Mire Lee, a contemporary South Korean artist, is an enigma above all. And that is where it finds its meaning.

The prominence of sculptor and painter H.R. Giger is mainly vindicated by the late 1970s, when he conceived several sets and figures for Alien, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi film, which won an Oscar for best visual effects. In Alien, a colossal spaceship somewhere lost in space is invaded by an alien being. The constantly mutating creature attacks each crew member individually, surviving only one.

The remains of the giant ships and the alien beings made it possible to create Giger’s sketches and sculptures, which are now in Schinkel’s rooms, immobilised and exhibited alongside those of Lee. Unlike at the time of the premiere, where Giger’s figures take advantage of the public’s fearful curiosity to pose a threat, the discomfort caused by the alien sculptures and drawings is justified by the time that has passed since then.

Lee’s work, on the other hand, seems to lack any narrative. A collection of organisms with no seeming function, which are sometimes motionless sculptures, and sometimes continuously moving installations, always indefinable, the first impression is that their role in Schinkel is to frame the ageing futurist fetishism associated with Giger, giving it a stage on which it can be refreshed. But that idea is shattered as the pavilion unfolds into windowless rooms, corridors and unlit staircases.

Wherever Giger’s drawings seem to define the object the exhibition wishes to present as an archive of a specific but dated imaginary, Lee’s sculptures sluggishly shatter the boundary. Untitled, Lee’s sculpture, is perhaps the best example: at the end of a dark corridor, a corner room is occupied by the writhing sculpture, announced by the sound of tensioned oily cables and by the friction in an irregular, slow, abrupt movement.

Carriers-offsprings, Lee’s installation, also features a group of tubes suspended around one of several octagonal rooms, continuously and irregularly spurting at the ends a pink and viscous liquid for two tanks, which gradually builds up. The spurting sound fills the entire room. As in Untitled, it is unclear whether the convulsions are pleasurable or suffocating. It is in this hybrid that the hybrid figure also lies. In the centre, on the Harkonnen table, designed by Giger for Jodorowsky’s Dune, is a huge egg, already cracked and empty.

By allowing the space to deal with the first impact, Giger and Lee’s works seem to inhabit the vagueness of the bodies of their work. In both cases, the pieces or bodies display a hybrid between familiarity and viscera, a mix of fetus-like organisms and technological artifice.

In Giger’s case, the fluidity of forms stems mainly from the fact that cinema has allowed him to leave them in an elusive state, explained now through sketches and diaries. In Alien, the menace’s body always appears in a different form. It is unclear whether the figures are octopods, reptiles or arachnids. Two captions of the Diaries & Sketches, on show, allow us to understand it: “the brain fingers are covered with a translucent shell”/ “the brain works as the wind is blowing, over the grain”. Nothing particularly different from how Lee’s bodies of silicone, steel, latex, metal or concrete appear liquid, fluid, bordering on amorphous beings, without any specific form.

As we progress through Schinkel, the environment, initially intimidating, becomes eerily familiar. Through the detours, the announcements, the fencing and the never-defined aggression, the space that Giger and Lee create together springs from an intersection, where the difference between violence and seduction – between threat, repulsion and curiosity – is almost impossible to identify. And we realise that the dialogue at stake is on the border between fear and desire. In both cases, the tension is fuelled by indeterminacy. Thus one speaks of eroticism.

This is also the moment when it is important to re-examine the first impression. On the one hand, this dialogue allows us to reach the physical tension that the space fails to create; on the other, it is the idea of an outdated futurism in perspective that gives it relevance. Otherwise, Giger’s choice is just a coincidence. Moreover, there are several points in his work that, because of the time distance, the dialogue forces us to revisit. Is Lee’s proximity the consequence of contrast or familiarity? In today’s time is there what in Giger’s time allowed him to create the space he created, his fears and anxieties?

Whatever the case, the yardstick that distinguishes curiosity from threat, an unresolvable contention, seems not to have lost its blurriness. Constantly revisited – in some periods more than others – this frontier has always been delineated above all by the imagination, with freedom to sketch a map of figures, fears and approaches from desire. One’s imagination depends a great deal on what its time allows and what it restricts.

Therein lies the interest in not losing the sensation of being in the presence of a past time, of an archive of the future that Giger allows us to explore. This enables us to visit it with the oddity of a tourist, scrutinising its limits. An archive, in particular an archive of desire, has the singularity of allowing access to fear and delight. In Giger’s case – and even if this does not explain it -, this archival tourism is accessible: the nuclear threat, the space race, the different sexual liberation movements. More than that, because this idea makes it possible to realise that the question is reversed in the end. The future of the past is a question about today. And what does Lee have to say about that? To put it another way: and what is the past of our future?

The exhibition is curated by Agnes Gryczkowska and Henrike Nagel, closing on 2 January 2022.

Guilherme Vilhena Martins (born in 1996, Lisbon; lives in Berlin) holds a degree in Philosophy from Universidade Nova de Lisboa and works as a writer, translator and curator. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Philosophy, with a focus on Aesthetics, at Freie Universität Berlin. He is co-founder of the EGEU Cultural Association, where he is a programmer and curator. His literary work encompasses chronicles, poems and short essays published in independent projects in Portugal and also a book of poetry, entitled Háptica, published in 2020 by Douda Correria. The common thread in his work - creative, curatorial or philosophical - is the tension between desire and fiction, as well as its role in the construction of narrative structures.

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