The Strange And Troubling Art Of Rick Gibson

“There is no law against cannibalism—provided you don’t injure anyone—yet we have this big social taboo about it. I was able to find a way to legally get a hold of human material and do an act of cannibalism, becoming Vancouver’s first cannibal to go public.” —Rick Gibson

In A Nutshell

When most people think of performance artists, they usually imagine strange people who enjoy grossing out their audience. That would seem to describe Rick Gibson perfectly. Throughout his career, Gibson thrived on breaking taboos and quite often found himself on the wrong side of the law . . . and the occasional angry mob.

The Whole Bushel

With his suit and tie, Rick Gibson looks like a conservative businessman. He’s not. While this Canadian artist has created fascinating outdoor sculptures and lenticular prints, he’s best known for his crazy stuff. Gibson first stirred up controversy in 1982 when he displayed “Dead Animals,” freeze-dried sculptures that included a cat having an abortion and a painted uterus. Other early stunts included wearing a see-through vest filled with locusts, offering passersby a chance to kill an assortment of insects, and a coin-operated machine which jolted users with an electric shock.

Gibson got really edgy in 1987 when he displayed “Fetus Ear-rings” in London, and unfortunately, it was just what it sounds like. Thanks to an anatomy professor, Gibson got his hands on two preserved pre-borns, both 12–16 weeks old, and turned them into human earrings, both of which dangled from the ears of a female mannequin. The piece actually stirred up so much outrage that Scotland Yard seized the “jewelry” before a single day passed. But Gibson wasn’t done grossing out the public. In 1988, he performed “A Cannibal of England” where he ate hors d’oeuvres made out of human tonsils. Of course, that pales in comparison to “Carnivore” where Gibson munched on a testicle.

However, Gibson had one last truly wild performance, the one that would earn him international infamy. In 1989, he declared he was going to squish a rat. He bought the rodent from a pet store, named it “Sniffy,” and said he’d kill it outside the Vancouver Public Library using a contraption that would drop a 25-kilogram (55 lb) block of cement on the rat’s head. Needless to say, people weren’t happy. In fact, his device was stolen, and Gibson was chased down the street by an angry mob of animal lovers.

At this point, you’re probably wondering, “What’s this guy’s deal?” According to Gibson himself, he’s “interested in the discrepancy between popular morality and the law.” For example, “Sniffy the Rat” was supposed to draw attention to the contradiction between treating animals humanely while killing them on a regular basis. Gibson’s art is meant to stir up debate and get people talking about tricky issues. He certainly managed that.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image compiled from
Performance Art: Rick Gibson
The Snuffing of Sniffy: An interview with Rick Gibson

  • Hillyard

    This is not art, it’s stupidity.This ranks up there with displaying an unmade bed – and the Piss Christ among others as to why the definitions of the words art and artist need to be tightened up.

    • Nathaniel A.

      What would you define art as, if not publicly displaying interesting or thought-provoking things?

      • Hillyard

        What is interesting about eating tonsils or testicles in public. Is cannibalism something that is an issue in modern Canada? The thought that is provoked by those two and the fetus earrings is ‘How did this nut get access to medical waste like that?’ Claiming that he was going to kill that rat did not draw attention to the inhumane conditions that some lab animals or food animals endure. It drew attention to Rick Gibson.
        Art should be interesting and thought provoking. It should be beautiful, enduring and make me want to smile. It should also be annoying and make me think about things I’d rather not think about.

        • Nathaniel A.

          “Is cannibalism something that is an issue in modern Canada?”

          No, but neither is the intensity of your brushstrokes when painting shadows. What his art did a good job of highlighting is, as stated in the article, the curious distinction between socially acceptable and legal, or rather the large gaping chasm in between.

          Just because you don’t appreciate it or understand it as well as the Mona Lisa, does not mean it isn’t art. He is an artist because his displays are thought-provoking if you can manage to get past “Ew, that’s so gross”. A state of mind whose shortcomings his displays are showing, by the way.

          • Hillyard

            I’ll concede your points. But that doesn’t change my mind. He could make his points in another way that would actually get through to more people with out doing things that push away the very people he should be trying to get through to.

          • Nathaniel A.

            And I’ll concede to that.

    • lonelydisco

      The Young British Artists. Whatever they are, they’re dumb.

  • Sssas

    Rick Gibson isn’t an artist, he’s yet to produce anything that resembles art. Doing controversial things – that seem to simply suggest that he has a mental illness – isn’t artistic, it’s stupidity and someone could easily look at celebrities who equally do dumb controversial things for examples of how their behaviours aren’t art. The difference is that these celebrities often do stupid things without thinking, Rick on the other-hand deliberately plans and orchestrates his stupid behaviour. What an embarrassment.

    When you look at his actual visual art (graphical 3D images) you see that they are amateurish, he would never have made a name for himself if not for doing these stunts in public and has zero talent as an artist. No wonder he’s faded into obscurity. I’ve no doubt he’ll cook something new up in the next few years to propel himself back into the limelight one final time before being carted off to an asylum, he’ll probably be trying to stick a rat up his ass this time! Here’s hoping it rips his balls off! XD

  • Katelyn Quesnel

    This guy isn’t an artist he is a psychopath. Hurting an animal and eating parts of a human being is what the Vampire of Sacramento did. Was he an “artist” too? Sorry you can say whatever the heck you want about morality and the law but this was just a crazy dude being an asshole.