“Pulchritude” is an unusual word: it’s an ugly-sounding word that actually means “beauty.” Which makes it the ideal word for Amy Globus’ “Electric Sheep,” a video installation that might best be described as an underwater octopus ballet. Most people don’t think of octopi as particularly beautiful, but Globus’ unusual piece finds a haunting, alien loveliness where it’s least expected.
“Electric Sheep” was originally part of Future Noir, a group exhibit held in New York in 2004 and inspired by set designs from the movies Blade Runner and Tron. Globus’ work takes its title from the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. The book imagines a future where man-made androids illegally pose as true humans, presenting the question of what unique qualities make us human. “Electric Sheep,” by contrast, directs our gaze to the undeniably inhuman, challenging the viewer to find common ground.
The film depicts a pair of square tanks, connected by a narrow tube, against a black background. Inside the tanks swims a lone octopus—drifting slowly across the bottom, propelling itself forcefully through the tube, and languidly unfurling its tentacles into dark, empty water. Sound like a boring nature documentary? It’s much more than that.
In the background, “Wrecking Ball” by Emmylou Harris plays softly. “I’ll wear something pretty,” the singer promises—a comment on our very human preoccupation with beauty. The music is fuzzy and distorted, as though heard from under water, and the wistful and melancholy tune is drowned out from time to time by the squeaks and thuds of the octopus’ flesh hitting the glass. The constant hum of static in the background, and the random clicks and chirps, create a feeling of distance and isolation, like a transmission from outer space. The plain black background enhances the eerie mood, playing on the octopus’ grotesque and alien appearance; you almost expect to see a tiny spaceship drift into the frame, helpless prey for the lurking, tentacled monster.
Is the octopus ugly? Well, yes. Close-ups of its golden-white body and hundreds of suckers inching along the glass are disturbing and visually intriguing. The glass tubes function like a corset, forcing the octopus’ flesh into an unnatural, geometric form; there’s a visceral sensation of relief when the creature’s body explodes from the constricting tube, its long limbs curling out like party streamers. And there are some funny moments, as when the octopus plops heavily into the water, displacing a miniature tidal wave into the adjoining tank.
But there’s an unexpected beauty in the octopus’ graceful movements, too. Whether it’s coyly curling a single tentacle in a come-hither gesture, or thrashing its limbs inside a curving, corkscrewed tube, its strength and power are apparent. It’s easy to make a face and dismiss the octopus as monstrous and repulsive, but to do so is to miss an opportunity to experience true pulchritude.