Apply gum at your own risk.
I pull my stick of chewed-up Stride Double Mint gum out of my mouth, and slowly, steadily press it into Douglas Coupland’s cerebellum.
We suggest you wash your hands immediately after touching this sculpture.
I dutifully heed the advice of the Vancouver Art Gallery and apply hand sanitizer. Who knew the seven-foot tall steel, foam, and resin copy of Coupland’s head would be potentially dangerous?
“Gumhead,” an accompaniment to Coupland’s new exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery, is and isn’t what it sounds like. It’s a giant outdoor self-portrait of the artist made out of the above-mentioned materials. It’s currently about 30 per cent covered in wads of gum chewed by Vancouverites and tourists. Coupland, celebrated as both a writer and visual artist, describes it as a “gum-based, crowdsourced, publicly interactive social sculpture.” The intention is for the artist’s face to become “transformed” — that is, completely obscured in gooey, colourful splotches carrying the saliva of hundreds of people by the time it will be removed three months from now from its resting place outside the gallery.
In a blog post about the installation, Coupland explains its roots lie in both his annoyance and fascination with the defacement of public art. “Gumhead,” he says, “connects the dots that span a decade and a half of making and exhibiting large-scale representations of the human head and body.” Those representations include a 2006 North Vancouver installation which collected 20,000 pieces of chewed up gum. Coupland says he hopes “Gumhead” will enable for a “more accessible participation in the creation of public art.”
Based on the amount of gum covering the statue in just three days, Coupland appears to have been successful. And for the five minutes I spent with “Gumhead” the public reaction seemed to be positive in other ways as well. A woman took pictures with her two kids, motioning them to point to which pieces of gum were theirs. A young woman explained to her friend why she put her gum on Coupland’s ear: “I wanted to pick out a spot that was really noticeable.” Some people got creative with their gum-sticking, molding them into hearts or flowers, making earrings and nose boogers, or writing messages. Someone even attached a Hubba Bubba bubble tape container to the statue. Other people treated the task unceremoniously: One man whipped the gum out his mouth, slapped it on the statue and was on his way.
After affixing my gum to Coupland’s head, I paused for a moment. How did I feel? Had I made an impression? In truth, my immediate thought was, “Gumhead” is pretty gross. But as I let that thought digest, I noted, people are gross, too. So perhaps “Gumhead” is simply an honest representation of humanity – how we tend to muck things up, and leave remnants of ourselves in even the seemingly most insignificant manners – as with a wad of gum under a table or on a piece of art. Each piece of gum is like a fingerprint, and hey, people’s DNA is infused in all those colourful polymer-softener amalgams. So gross, yes, but from this social experiment, as Coupland describes it, we can probably safely conclude that people want to leave their mark and interact with one another.
At least it smells like bubblegum.