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A Lesson from the Cuttlefish: Art Disguised as Science

Is what Ryuta Nakajima doing art disguised as science? Or, maybe the other way ’round? Cuttlefish and other cephalopods (squids, octopus, and nautiloids) are among the most cognitively complex animals in the mollusk family––other members being shellfish and snails. They’re also one of nature’s most gifted visual mimics:  They have the remarkable ability to change the […]


Ryuta Nakajima, Amburghese di cuore (no. 4) – photograph of cuttlefish atop Haida Sitting Eagle Crest Design by Freda Diesing, 1977

Is what Ryuta Nakajima doing art disguised as science? Or, maybe the other way ’round?

Cuttlefish and other cephalopods (squids, octopus, and nautiloids) are among the most cognitively complex animals in the mollusk family––other members being shellfish and snails. They’re also one of nature’s most gifted visual mimics:  They have the remarkable ability to change the chromatic characteristics of their skin to perfectly match a wide array of environments. But increasingly, science tells us that processes by which cephalopods change their skin coloring is an intentional, cognitive response, as related to the animal’s “thoughts” and “feelings” as its physical surroundings. Multimedia artist Ryuta Nakajima has incorporated the scientific study of cephalopods into his work for many years, and recently spoke with me about his experiences.

Maggie Ryan Sandford

You’ve been working almost exclusively with cuttlefish for some time now. How long do you think this will last?

Ryuta Nakajima

Yeah… I think it’s gonna be a lifelong quest. Just because the behavior and biology of cephalopods is not yet known, really. Out of the 450 species of squid, we can probably observe on a regular basis… what — four or five? The aquaculture of squid is so costly, and most of them (in the wild) aren’t around [us] — they’re so deep underwater you can’t get to them without a submersible or an remotely operated vehicle (ROV). That giant squid that was filmed last year: they ended up with 24 minutes of footage, and that’s all we have on it. So, there’s so much work to be done, just trying to figure out what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.


How did you get started in this area of study?


I always liked meeting researchers, so I would always read up. I would read the marine biology [texts] as art books. And a few years ago, my daughter really got into the PBS documentary about cuttlefish, “Kings of Camouflage.” We would sometimes watch that, you know, two-to-three times a day. I realized, “Hey, this is kind of what I’m doing as an artist.” You know: Identifying environmental information and putting it out there as an artificial object. That was a weird, humbling experience for me — like, “Huh, this is kind of a crazy little parallel happening here.”

So, I did a little research, and I found out more about cephalopods actual neurological systems, and the physical system of how their “pixels,” chromatophores, actually get lined up in layers. I was a layer painter, so I thought, “Wow, how I’m organizing my images is very similar to that biological system. Sooo, then I went and asked my wife, like, “Hey, is it okay if I have a squid in the house?” And she said, “Go ahead. Why are you even asking me? You’re gonna do it anyway.”

I started with what I thought would be easy. I thought, “I’ll get a tank, I’ll put it in the tank.” But then I realized it’s almost impossible to get these guys [squid]. I mean, right now, in the United States, only a few labs have successfully raised cephalopods in significant numbers. In the world, maybe, like… ten. I landed onto the National Resource Center for Cephalopods (NRCC) in Dallas, Texas, who had been supplying all these animals for all the labs in the United States. And the director of that program said, “It’s not possible for you to have squid at your house in Minnesota.” [Laughs] But he said, “I like your proposal, I like what you’re doing. Why don’t you come to my institution and work on your project here as a visiting scholar?” And I said, “Well, that sounds fantastic!” So, I went down and brought all my lab equipment down there and started working with their lab animals.

And that was the first time got to actually work with scientists on a project. At the beginning, I was only thinking about it as this cool, funky project, using this weird animal. I figured I’d do some photo or video piece about it, and move on to different things. But since then, I’ve become so involved… and I wanted to do more research on the science.”


And it just spiraled outward from there.


[Laughs]. Yeah. Well, unfortunately, that lab closed, so I had to find a different lab. In Okinawa, Japan.


Which is a longer trek.




Tell me more about the layer painting technique you mentioned.


It used to be called “transparent painting,” and later it was called “layer painting” — a style done by this German painted named Sigmar Polke. Basically, you use different layers of images, superimposed on top of each other, to get to the final outcome of a painting. It was a very popular way of organizing pictorial space in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and later it became the basis for Photoshop and Illustrator, and ultimately, maybe even music and video editing software. That’s the kind of painting I was doing.

And in cephalopod skin, chromatophores work similarly. The animal has different layers of these different colored “pixels.” Once they connect to stimuli, by pulling on these muscle fibers, something like ink sacs [called chromatophores] expand. That’s how they make the body change color. And these chromatophores are sort of layered on top of each other; they’re not in the same strata, they’re in different zones. Certain chromatophores, expanding next to each other, will make the whole body change color, for instance, make the cuttlefish look more orangeish, say. It is very similar to computer graphics — very similar to the kind of layering techniques we use in many different creative activities, actually.


Funny, how humans think we invented that.


I think it’s part of evolution, you know? Humans are not bystanders to this whole system on Earth. We’re really well connected in there.


Ryuta Nakajima, Amburghese di cuore (no. 6) – photograph of cuttlefish atop textile fragment from 18th-century China


I’m especially interested in hearing about your process for the pieces where you placed the cuttlefish onto reproductions of classic works of art.


In those, I focused on the aspect of the geometry that’s going on in those classical works. There’s a symmetry within the design. People think of camouflaging as randomness. But actually, camouflaging is symmetrical. That’s what I was going for in those photographs, artistically. Scientifically, it’s completely different. Scientifically, I’m fascinated by the fact that certain patterns the cuttlefish “have” can actually mimic those relatively complex patterns. That’s kind of weird because they’re, first of all, colorblind. And secondly:  It turns out these very highly achieved artworks are not… so highly achieved. [Laughs] It turns out that natural elements can actually mimic them, and can do a pretty good job at it, too. I mean, whatever we think we’ve constructed — after however many hundreds or thousands of years of human history — turns out to be just a permutation of something found in nature. And it’s the recognition of those permutations that we’re calling an artwork. I think that’s why we find things beautiful.

And then, I’m starting to realize that the cuttlefish are using value patterns that are much more complex than anything [that would qualify as] simply camouflage. Certain patterns are used for communication, maybe even communication with other species. There’s all kinds of information  flying out of their bodies. We keep finding new chromatic components: I’ve found about 50 components within cuttlefish myself [see below]. If we do just simple math to calculate — what are the maximum of pattern combinations to be made? — it turns out to be millions of possible combinations. But within that, they’re only using about 17 or 18 patterns for camouflage. So, all these other components: What are they used for? That’s what I’m working on right now, trying to identify where and how and when those other possibilities are coming from. There are some pattern combinations so rare, I’ve only seen them twice in five, six years. Those are tricky ones, because we can’t really assess or isolate what the trigger was. Is its appearance an accident, or what?

"fear response"

Cuttlefish exhibiting a rare “fear response” coloring, possibly a reaction to the Piet Mondrian print seen in the background. Photo courtesy R. Nakajima.


That’s exciting.


Yeah. We’ve seen all kinds of crazy things, like we just found that cuttlefish pass this three-red-dot pattern from one arm to the next, going over to the other guys’ [arm].




It’s true. It seems to be happening between two juvenile males. When one shows that pattern, it then makes the other guy so crazy. [Laughs]

The model that’s in the exhibition [larger reproductions below], that’s from a time when, originally, I tried to get quantifiable data for the pattern responses we were seeing. So, I would take one component and paint it on the model, and show that model to the actual cuttlefish and see how the animal responded to that pattern. I have a series of, I don’t know, ten different patterns painted on the same model. And I’d show each one to different cuttlefish and see if they had a body pattern response from that, or a motor response, or a postural response from what they were seeing.

Installation detail of Ryuta Nakajima’s "UMWELT" - Ako Roshi 39+8 (Forty-seven aspects of cuttlefish body patterns), 2013 Epoxy resin, Swarovski crystals, metal studs, lacquer, acrylic, enamel print

Installation detail of Ryuta Nakajima’s Umwelt exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Ako Roshi 39+8 (Forty-seven aspects of cuttlefish body patterns), 2013. Epoxy resin, Swarovski crystals, metal studs, lacquer, acrylic, enamel print. Courtesy of the artist and the MIA.


So, are you publishing? I mean, this sounds… like actual science.


I mean. I think… it is. [Laughs]


“I think I’m doing science”?


Yeah, definitely. I’ve cowritten a paper “Observations of schooling behavior in oval squid Sepioteuthis lessoniana in coastal waters of Okinawa Island,” and I’m working on another, hopefully coming out next year. I really didn’t want to be one of those artists that latches onto images that scientists create — would be basically using cool equipment, ripping it off and decontextualizing it, and then showing it to art audiences under the pretense that the images are mine. I really didn’t want to do that. There’s no value in that kind of gesture, I don’t think.


You mean that art-world thing of talking about something, when you could just look at it and learn about it and decide what it means from the facts.


Exactly. I mean, some of those images are incredible because of the technology behind them, that’s essential to those images. There’s a value to that, and I think that value belongs in science. Recontextualizing the image doesn’t really contribute anything new. I wanted to be able to stand on the same platform as these scientists who had been working on these projects, and really have a meaningful dialogue with them––coming from a different field and sort of balancing them, both science and art, together. I want to be able to do art work that is also scientifically valuable.

I actually went to one of the biggest international scientific conferences on cephalopods, the Cephalopod International Advisory Council (CIAC) in Brazil, and presented my work. And that was really fun. I think I was the first artist ever to present at the conference. [Laughs]


What has it been like working with scientists? Has it taught you anything about their world, and about the art world?


Both artistic and scientific activities are so tied up in finances. Those guys, a lot of the really amazing guys spend most of their lives writing grants. So much, that they don’t get to do their real work. And in order to get a grant, they can’t be too experimental, or too crazy; they have to walk on a very safe, paved road. And then their activity’s being judged off of how many articles and papers get published, and the impact factors, and so on and so on. Again, that makes them very conservative. For artists, its a different kind of scale, but it’s a very similar situation where a lot of creative activities get shackled by this idea of finance and [the need to] support themselves. From the artist’s perspective, we’ve always been poor, so… [laughs]. But scientists have post-docs and whatever [other education and research] they have to pay for — and you need an entire team to do that. So, for me, the collaboration has also been an interesting discovery as to how their system works, the peer review system — all of that.

And I think –– especially for the graduate and undergraduate students at the lab — I can hop through a problem a lot faster than they can. Meaning:  They’ll think about the project and set up experiments and conduct the experiments and get the data of their results, and the whole process will take about a year. But, for me, if I’m only thinking about the artistic process, I go: “Okay I’ll set up this variable and that variable, and if it doesn’t work in the way that I was imagining, I can just ditch it and move on to the next thing.” Which they just can’t. So, I can try a lot things faster, which shows me earlier what has the most potential ––”I’ll get into this thing a little bit deeper.” That’s how I work — it’s a little more schizophrenic. There’s a level of responsibility in the history that scientists live in that makes it impossible to hop like that. Their attitude is just: I’ll put one page on top of this whole pillar of work.

But it’s been a blast. I’ve been having so much fun with these scientists –– I feel so glad that they’re okay with me being in their field. [Laughs] It’s been really great because of the level of concreteness, tangible results involved:  Here’s the work, here’s what we’re gonna do, and here’s what the results will be.

Another difference, I’d say, is maybe accountability. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. A lot of artists can talk about things as if they’ve invented them, as if they’ve invented some thought without any regard for the history of that idea, who might have thought it before them. But in a scientific paper, every word has to be accountable to who first coined it. I think that the level of responsibility going along with the subject matter one is passionate about is just good practice. Rather than everything being so intuitive, this pretense that what we do as artists is something that comes from within, just ours, and that we’re justified to lay sole claim to it. I don’t think that’s the case. Working with scientists, that is something that has become clear to me. It’s a different approach to thinking about knowledge, where it comes from, I guess.

Other than that, I think the work of art and science is very similar: it’s persistence and passion about a project, staying with it, and getting your results done.

Related exhibition information:

Ryuta Nakajima‘s exhibition, Umwelt, is on view in the MAEP galleries of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through September 29. For more information, visit

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