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Cuttlefish and Camouflage

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Nakajima's photographs explore the camouflaging behavior of cuttlefish.

Ryuta Nakajima and Cephalopod Art

Nakajima exposes cuttlefish to artificial visual stimuli such as images of major 20th century paintings, photographs, and video documentations and then collects data from his experiments to create paintings, photographs and video.


Ryuta Nakajima

88 - university of minnesota duluth

Photographs from the SELF WORLD - cuttlefish project - exhibition at the Okinawa Prefectural Art Museum, Okinawa, Japan.


Ryuta Nakajima at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. (Photo by UMKC)
Ryuta Nakajima, UMD associate professor of painting and drawing, blends his interests in art and science. His work is seeking to answer the questions: "Why do we make images, where do they come from, and what is their primary function?" In an attempt to answer these questions, he is examining the origin of visual communication.

To Nakajima, part of the discovery lies in the 19th century art movement called Pointillism. When viewed from a distance, small dots of color on a surface mix together and humans perceive them as an image. Using dots to make images has been around for thousands of years. "Look at the ancient dot paintings of Australian aborigines and the pointillism work of Georges Seurat," said Nakajima. "We learn art history as a linear progression, but actually it is more circular, it occurs over and over again in various different forms."

He sees the connection between this century-spanning art form to his study of the camouflaging behavior of cephalopods, especially the cuttlefish. Cephalopods have the ability to blend in perfectly with any background, as if they were invisible. They use camouflage to adapt to different environments. Muscles, nerves, and reflecting cells, like the dots in a pointillistic painting, work together to adapt to a color and pattern.

Nakajima stirs up art and science. He exposes cuttlefish to artificial visual stimuli such as images of major 20th century paintings, photographs, and even video documentations and then collects data from his experiments to create paintings, photographs and video. The data collection involves elaborate scientific laboratories. For three years, beginning in 2008, he was able to work at the National Resource Center of Cephalopods in Galveston, Texas. He has collaborated with scientist all over the world, including a significant study in Japan.

One of Nakajima's most unusual, thought-provoking, and interactive art installations, Ceph Lab, was on display at the Okinawa Zoo and Museum in Japan in August 2012. It involved a cycle of cuttlefish perceiving and responding. Two cuttlefish were placed in a tank inside the museum. A monitor placed under the tank broadcast a streaming video from a high definition camera installed outside. Visitors watched as the patterns of the cuttlefish adapted to light and environment the visitors were experiencing.

Which brings us back to Nakajima's existential questions about uncovering the origin of creative practice and human image production. Nakajima reminds us that the objectives for creating color and patterns are very different for cuttlefish than they are for artists. Cuttlefish need to survive and reproduce. Artists create for aesthetics and for expression. Yet there is a similarity. "There is a fundamental three-step structure," said Nakajima. "First comes exterior information (the environment or an individual interpretation), then the act of camouflage or painting, and finally the visual output (new shapes and color)."

Nakajima received his Master of Fine Art from the University of California, San Diego. He has lived in the Far East, Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. His paintings and drawings have been exhibited nationally and internationally. His decision to stay in Duluth came by surprise. After studying art all around the world and being exposed to many different cultures, Nakajima landed a position teaching art at UMD and liked it. “I lived all over, but it took a lot of effort to reestablish myself in a new community every single time, so I decided to stay,” Nakajima is also a master of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism. 

What's next? Nakajima will study cuttlefish in a laboratory again this summer but his experiments will change. “Cuttlefish use 50 different body patterns and eight or nine of those components are used for camouflage," he said. "I want to know how they use the components to communicate."

More about Ryuta Nakajima | photographs

Story by Cheryl Reitan with Kelsey Cashmore, June 2013

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UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,

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