The Giant Sea Squid - Design Bureau

The Giant Sea Squid

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

If it seems inevitable that we humans will one day wipe ourselves out—or render things such a mess that we’ll be forced to jump into our space machines and abscond to who knows what part of the solar system—then what will take over planet Earth in our absence? Could it be the megasquid, an eight-ton, land-roaming, air-breathing version of the squid dreamed up by the Discovery Channel’s 2003 series The Future Is Wild, which speculated that such a creature could dominate in 200 million years, once all mammals are extinct?

No one can say if such an animal will ever really evolve, but in the meantime, there’s plenty of intrigue to be found in the real-life, present-day version of the squid and its cephalopod cousin, the octopus. “They’re amazingly clever creatures,” says Chicago artist Atom Basham, whose drawings and paintings of “monsters” often incorporate the squid’s swirling arms and tentacles. His characters, as he calls them, are “mostly based on a post-apocalyptic wasteland sort of environment,” and his signature work is The Squid Girls, a drawing of two identical twins standing face-to-face with their squid-arm hair intertwined. “Not enough people realize how intelligent squids really are,” Basham continues, and it’s true: the animals are known to hunt cooperatively and communicate using color changes and flashes during courtship. And according to that be-all, end-all fount of Internet knowledge, Wikipedia, octopuses are known to climb aboard fishing boats and hide in containers that hold dead or dying crabs.

Its physiology is so striking—the brilliant red brick color, giant unblinking eyes and snaking arms—yet so little is known about it.

Particularly in the case of the giant squid, it’s always news when one washes up on a coast NoMI restaurant at Chicago’s Park Hyatt hotel, for instance, resulted in Lumière d’Ambre, a series of light fixtures suspended in front of the restaurant’s overhang bank of floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s not difficult to imagine these otherworldly forms as golden, gleaming squids floating serenely in the safety of a huge aquarium also inhabited by humans. Last fall, Michigan-based printmakers Todd Freeman and Meg Perec created Sixty-Foot Ghost, a site-specific installation for ArtPrize 2009, an art competition in Grand Rapids. The two worked on their life-size drawing of a giant squid in 20-foot sections, never seeing the final result until the day it was installed (the work also included a desk displayed directly below the squid and strewn with nautical- and nature-themed items).

Both artists call themselves nature buffs; Freeman says they’re always “trading links about some newly discovered pocket of biodiversity,” and Perec has begun work on a second bachelor’s degree in biomedical science. With Sixty-Foot Ghost, they hoped to create something that would give viewers the same sense of awe Freeman felt at age seven, when he saw a replica of a giant squid hanging in the Shedd Aquarium. “I was absolutely horrified by it, and unlike any number of other giant animals, this one was not extinct,” he says. “Its physiology is so striking—the brilliant red brick color, giant unblinking eyes and snaking arms—yet so little is known about it. A sixty-foot animal that supposedly lives in all the major oceans, but virtually no photos or footage exist of live specimens and they’ve almost never been seen in their natural habitat?”

It’s the squid’s element of the unknown, in the end, that seems to most fascinate artists, designers, children, scientists, documentary-makers, and followers of squid folklore and fact. But of all the mediums, which one unites people with squids in their most intimate, up-close format? Food, of course. From octopuses that look as if they could swim off the plate to exotic entrees splashed with dark pools of squid ink, cephalopods have long been a staple of the high-drama menu. “Octopuses have been around for who knows how long,” says Todd Stein, executive chef at Cibo Matto restaurant in Chicago’s Loop theater district. “They swim in very deep water, and they don’t like to be bothered. They really are the mystery of the deep,” he says, noting that squid ink is used more for color than flavor. “Squid is mild and sweet, with a slightly oceanic flavor—certainly nothing like chicken,” Stein is careful to emphasize. At that, we can only wonder at the diner who would compare the mystery of the deep to the common chicken. Because does anything about a squid scream barnyard?

By Amalie Drury
Photos by Brian Merwin
Paintings by Atom Basham

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