Published June 26, 2017
By Valerie Monson Special to the Star-Advertiser
A humanized version of a Polynesian myth informs “The Rat &the Octopus,” a playful and sly multimedia exhibition now at the Schaefer International Gallery at the Maui Arts &Cultural Center.
According to the legend, a rat was marooned at sea but managed to make a deal with an octopus to get him safely to shore. Once the rat is on dry land, however, he poops on his rescuer’s head and flees, leaving the octopus humiliated and angry. The tale has held such resonance over the years that, even today, lures to trap octopuses are often made in the shape of a rat.
A contemporary telling of the story as a wide-ranging exhibit of broken promises and failed agreements comes from four artists who make up the AGGROculture Collective on the Hamakua Coast of Hawaii island: Sally Lundburg, Margo Ray, Keith Tallett and Scott Yoell. Lundburg and Tallett are married, as are Ray and Yoell.
Life-size mannequins of a rat-as-a-man in a green business suit and an octopus in a bright-orange worker’s jumpsuit greet visitors at the entrance to the gallery.
In photos and videos throughout the exhibit, the rat-man, portrayed by Yoell in sunglasses and a suit stamped with miniature $100 bills, appears as an unscrupulous businessman or land speculator, while the octopus, played by Tallett in the jumpsuit with safety cones at his feet, represents the working class or protectors of the community such as construction workers or hazmat technicians.
But what could have simply been a heavy agenda of greedy corporations preying upon the innocent public takes on a different slant that’s both global and local while encouraging viewers to look at their own good and bad traits.
“We all have a bit of the rat and octopus inside of us,” said Yoell during an artists’ walk-through.
The exhibit includes collaborative video installations along with solo works that underline the theme of breached trust but also play upon the undeniable power of lures.
One of those videos, “I Was Lured to My Own Demise,” features a dreamy black-and-white sequence of octopus ink undulating in the water. A collection of octopus lures, dangling from the ceiling, creates silhouettes on the screen, pulling everyone in.
“Digital technology is luring us into our own demise,” explained Ray. “We’re always attracted by new, shiny things.”
Tallett and Lundburg created more shiny lures with six large-scale resin-coated geometric tessellations that command the gallery walls. Their colors range from deep black to coral pink, some so glossy you can see your own reflection. That was no accident.
“It seems like we all want to look at ourselves these days,” said Tallett with a grin, referring to society’s love of selfies — another lure.
When Tallett and Lundburg learned about the myth of the rat and the octopus, they began talking to Ray and Yoell about a collaboration on a modernized version of the tale. In 2011 they introduced their human rat and octopus in photographs for an “Alterna APEC” exhibit on Oahu that coincided with — and took aim at — the international APEC convention.
Excited by the reaction they received, the artists pitched an expanded version of the project to Schaefer International Gallery Director Neida Bangerter, who liked the concept but felt it needed fleshing out even more.
“Neida pushed us to push ourselves,” said Lundburg.
Which is how the four prefer it.
“We like exploring more critical work,” said Ray. “We like challenging and questioning things, rather than just making decorative art.”
The four were influenced by concerns at home — the Thirty Meter Telescope controversy, the explosion of mansions on the coastline and overworked workers — as well as worldwide events such as rising seas and ocean trash.
Ray’s “101 Kept Promises and Broken Agreements” features a collage of good-guy octopuses and bad-guy rats, their bodies covered with virtues or sins that focus on such topics as water rights, animal rights and human relationships.
Yoell contributes mixed media of drawings and collages in black, white and money green.
Even Donald Trump makes an appearance. In a portrait by Yoell, Trump’s open mouth is stuffed with money while a Mike Tyson-like tattoo zigzags down his face. Fistfuls of $100 bills surround the presidential candidate. Sitting on a pedestal near the drawing is the resin-cast head of a rat, glowing in white.
No artist’s explanation is needed for that one.
>> What: “The Rat &the Octopus”
>> Where: Schaefer International Gallery, Maui Arts &Cultural Center, 1 Cameron Way, Kahului
>> When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday through Aug. 4
>> Admission: Free
>> Info: Mauiarts.org, 242-7469