WATER > SFMOMA Project Space: The Brains in Her Arms

Releasing the Inner Kraken

by Eric K. Arnold

Performance artist Jessica Tully has a thing for water. And a fascination with creatures of the deep. To her, the octopus represents a divine sense of interconnection, of a singular consciousness manifested eightfold, as well as fluidity of motion and an advanced—and possibly alien—intelligence whose true mysteries have yet to be fully revealed.

Perhaps no other ocean denizen—not even the whale or shark—has been mythologized as much as the cephalopod. The octopus, for example, is ubiquitous to the folkloric culture of coastal and island peoples: it figures prominently in ancient Minoan, Greek, Tunisian, and Peruvian civilizations, and the Hawaiian creation myth holds that octopi are extraterrestrial beings, the last survivors of an advanced race from a primordial universe. The German word for octopus, “krake,” has become immortalized as the monstrous Kraken—celebrated in poem by Tennyson and referenced in literary works by Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, and H.P. Lovecraft. Examples of cephalopodic influence on cinema include French silent film auteur Jean Peleve, as well as the Hollywood sci-fi and fantasy epics “Clash of the Titans,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “The Abyss,” and “Pirates of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”

That’s just the tip of the tentacle. Like Lovecraft’s dead god Chulthu, the octopus has long resided in our subconscious. For the Japanese at least, it’s always had sexual connotations. An octopus is the object of erotic desire in the 19th-century woodcut “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife,” while probing, phallic tentacles are the means by which innocent schoolgirls are brought to multi-orgasmic climax in hentai, or anime porn.

Moreover, the octopus has regularly surfaced in contemporary pop music, from the trippy ‘60s psychedelia of the Beatles’ “Octopus’ Garden” to the moody, swirling ‘70s rock of Jefferson Starship’s chart-topping album Red Octopus, to the eight-handed percussive orchestrations of the Invisibl Skratch Picklz’ ‘90s turntablist opus “Invasion of the Octopus People.” As uttered in the two “Clash of the Titans” films (made three decades apart), the line “release the Kraken” has become a pop culture catchphrase, spawning numerous YouTube videos—both reverential and parodic.

At September 28’s “Octopus in Space,” an SFMOMA Open Space event spotlighting the octopus in all its eight-limbed glory, Tully and her invited guests, environmentalist Adam Werbach and marine biologist Richard Ross, brought an adventurous group of museum-goers closer to releasing their inner Kraken.

“We’re going to spend some time unpacking ideas about this otherworldly animal,” Tully explained. To assist with the thought process of discussing cephalopod–related concepts, red circular shapes, representing the grippy, suction cup-like pads on an octopus’ tentacles, traced a path between the speakers and the audience. Meanwhile, videos projected on wall-mounted TV screens showed octopi in various stages of perambulation—including walking upright across the ocean floor, using two tentacles as “legs,” while the other six limbs moved independently, like the arms of Hindu deities.

The discussion which followed pretty much confirmed that the mollusk family member, of which there are over 300 different species, is the coolest creature ever.

An octopus has three hearts and can sense colors that they can’t see with their eyes. It can shape-shift; communicate through strobing, colorful patterns of light; use what Ross termed “a hydro-mechanically-adaptive form of jet propulsion”; live in all types of marine environments; and defend itself against predators with its inky discharge. However, “they can’t sink ships,” Ross said, debunking a long-standing seafarers’ fable.

In a metaphysical sense, the octopus can be seen as a metaphor for the evolution of consciousness, a completely adaptive lifeform able to transform its physical dimensions as needed. Tully says the octopus also symbolizes concepts like collective activity, oneness, and flexibility, as well as heightened sensuality and tactile awareness.

Octopi have interesting sex lives—they’ve been known to copulate for as long as 44 hours consecutively—and the polyamorous, libidinous female plays an active role in such couplings, sometimes killing her mate if the event is unsatisfactory or of insufficient duration. Such tendencies, Tully theorizes, reinforce feminist notions of liberation, sex-positivity, and empowerment. Which lines right up with the infamous final fight sequence in the James Bond film “Octopussy,” in which a bevy of belly dancers seductively subdue a squad of armed male guards through guile, cunning, and distraction.

Once the floor was opened up, the Open Space attendees appeared eager to speculate on what it might mean to have a cephalopod cerebellum—or eight.

“How would we be different if we had brains in our arms?,” Werbach queried. An audience member replied: “if we were able to shift what our bodies are like, the way we view ourselves and the way we view our bodies would be very fluid.” In other words, no more body-image or diversity issues; if we were octopi, maybe we’d accept ourselves (and others) for who we (and they) are. Or, as the Beatles imagined in “Octopus’ Garden,” oh we could be so happy, you and me, no one to tell us what to do.