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.

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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

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