The Polynesian tale of the Rat and the Octopus gets a modern interpretation with AGGROculture Collective at the Schaefer Gallery
The Polynesian myth of The Rat and the Octopus goes a little like this: there’s a rat in trouble on a canoe out in the ocean. He can’t swim very well, so he makes a deal with an octopus: “I will do you a solid if you get me to shore,” the rat says. The octopus falls for it and swims him to shore but then the rat jumps off and gets away before he can fulfill his promises, leaving the octopus fuming.
If you’ve seen the traditional cowry shell hooks used to catch octopus (he’e in Hawaiian or feke in Tongan), it’s said that they represent the rat. The octopus is still pissed at being tricked by the rat, so he quickly lunges at the lure, only to be tricked again by the fisherman. The life lessons from the legend are apropos in contemporary times, and can be seen in the interpretation of the Rat and the Octopus art installation at the Schaefer International Gallery, which is part of the Maui Arts and Cultural Center.
The four artists calling themselves the AGGROculture collective–the founders of the show–are Sally Lundburg, Keith Tallett, Scott Yoell and Margo Ray. They’re two husband and wife teams hailing from Hawaii Island. Their modern explanation of The Rat and The Octopus casts the rat as a businessman and land speculator and the octopus as a construction crew’s union foreman. The two interact in a variety of settings through the Aggroculture collective’s multi-media landscape. The myth comes alive in their statements of corporate colonialism and hand-shake business.
The show was determined back in 2012 through an open community proposal, with a focus on reflecting important ideas and issues of our time. The group itself has a huge dossier in the contemporary art scene with a reputation for progressive projects.
I was drawn in by the art and workmanship. Their rat character has a custom designed green fabric suit, which is displayed on a mannequin. The custom fabric has a dollar bill mandala throughout and a tessellating handshake outline in repeat formation on matte finish chartreuse.
Ink jet printed Habotai silk shines under resin on abstract wood cut-outs created by Lundburg and Tallett. These colorful geometric shapes appear throughout the show in pieces called Tessellation. They’re inspired by octopus ink, atolls, nature and geography. Ray’s collage on mylar shows handshake after handshake dressed with busy global and local headlines in a piece she names “101 Kept Promises and Broken Agreements.” A roomful of feke lures hanging from the ceiling with an inky slideshow projected over them in “I was Lured to My own Demise” seems to take us underwater.
Yoell’s India ink collages are haunting black and white images interrupted by the green print, which represents the rat. Octopus tentacles reaching for hooks and scrolls, dollar bill mandalas cut out and repeated on a poster-size floating Donald Trump head and a bottle floating on the sea were just some of his “stream of consciousness” storyboards. I mused on the hypnotic 30-minute video scape atoll showing the construction worker and businessman in different island shoreline configurations on 12 different screens. Lundburg edited the footage that sets their tale of the octopus and the rat solidly in contemporary times.
At first past, I didn’t get any of it. Sure, I understood the slimy green business man in the chartreuse suit and the construction worker in modern terms, but wasn’t quite grasping the legendary interplay with their characters. My problem was that I kept trying to find the hero in the tale, but there isn’t one.
That’s because the legend is about trickery, broken promises, rage and temptation. The story of The Rat and The Octopus is a sad one, in which nobody wins, both are guilty and yet there’s no justice. The Rat makes deals it never intends to keep. But the octopus is culpable, too, first in being so mercenary and second in dwelling in anger, only to be continually fooled by the feke.
It took the context of Governor David Ige’s recently signing of HB 2501–which once again hands East Maui water rights to Alexander & Baldwin, even though they have decided to shut down sugar operations–for the AGGROculture Collective’s show to really hit home.
Go see the show at Schaefer Gallery through Aug. 4. The gallery is open Tuesday through Sundays, 10am to 5pm.