Saya Woolfalk
In the Institute of Empathy

The mission of Saya Woolfalk’s “Empathics” is to foster compassion. Her science fiction creatures made up in blue and white can currently be seen at Deutsche Bank’s 60 Wall Gallery in New York and at the Chrysler Museum of Art. Achim Drucks immersed himself in the fantastical universe of the New York-based artist.
Globalization and the Internet have brought people around the world closer together than ever before. Yet our hopes that these close ties might result in a stronger sense of community have been disappointed. In fact, the opposite has come about—each new day brings news of the violence and conflict that arise when people are judged by their religion, skin color, or ethnic heritage alone—and deemed friend or enemy, threat or asset. Saya Woolfalk’s aim is to break apart these types of categorizations. In order to explore alternative possibilities of communal living, she created a refuge called No Place that is situated in the distant future and fictional species called Empathics.

Anna and Jessica, two of Woolfalk’s Empathics, can currently be seen at the 60 Wall Gallery of Deutsche Bank New York. In their blue and white face paint and elaborate headgear, they resemble high priestesses of a bizarre cult. The two photographic works, both from 2011, are part of the exhibition Herland, in which eight women artists from the Deutsche Bank Collection each present a woman artist that they hold in particularly high esteem. Woolfalk was invited to take part by Wangechi Mutu. “Walking into Saya Woolfalk's installations is like walking into a mysterious museum from some kind of parallel universe,” the 2010 “Artist of the Year,” who shares Woolfalk's obsession with hybrid beings, explains. “Saya is from this very family of brilliant world makers.”

In Woolfalk’s world, everything is in a constant state of change; the boundaries between sexes, races, and even human, animal, and plant have dissolved. “The people of No Place are part plant and part human; they live in an empathetic relationship with their environment,” explains the artist, who was born in 1979 in Japan and is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. “They eat, sleep, live in complex family structures, die, and transform gender and color at particular moments in their life cycle.”

No Place is a psychedelic gesamtkunstwerk. At first it feels as though one had been transported to a kind of strange Teletubby land. Woolfalk’s films and performances are populated by faceless beings in whole-body suits adorned with textile objects resembling leaves and blossoms. They move through candy-colored backdrops and enact inscrutable rituals. The fascinating thing about Woolfalk’s utopian world is the combination of complex themes with an almost naïve aesthetic. In her videos and installations, she does without ambitious digital technology and expensive set design, opting for stop motion, painstaking craftsmanship and a playful do-it-yourself look. The fantastical costumes are inspired by Brazilian folk festivals such as the Bumba Meu Boi—a spectacle that merges European, African, and indigenous traditions. During a two-year Fulbright grant in Brazil, Woolfalk, who is married to an anthropologist, studied local folklore traditions intensively.

In Brazil, as the anthropologist Roberto DaMatta phrases it, one finds a “society in which cultures and ethnicities mix, instead of, as in other countries, coexisting in distinct separation from one another. They live together, have relationships, and give birth to people that cannot be described using the classical racial terminology.” The idea for No Place arose out of the artist’s involvement with this hybrid society, and it’s a project that reflects Woolfalk’s own background: “I’m black, white, Japanese, and it’s a condition that’s often complex and conflicting.” She was also influenced by Afrofuturism—authors such as Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, whose science fiction novels delve into themes like identity, race, and gender roles and describe alternatives to prevailing circumstances.

In the meantime, Woolfalk’s creatures have established contact with the present: “In an attempt to connect this fantastical future No Place with our real world, I began to develop The Empathics. With this project, I was particularly interested in how members of different cultures could come together to direct a culture’s shape. The word ‘empathy’ implies the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

Woolfalk’s video The Institute of Empathy (2013) portrays the beginnings of the Empathics. In the woods of upstate New York, a group of women discovers a brightly colored skeleton. Attached to the bones is genetic material that turns out to be both plant and human. Sporelike, it penetrates the women’s bodies and a process of transformation begins. But meanwhile these emissaries of a future harmony have mutated into business women: “The Empathics chimerism allows them to cross species, blend racial and ethnic identities, and move effortlessly between human cultures. With ChimaTEK, I wanted to explore what would happen when you simplify a long-term process of genetic and cultural transformation into a series of purchasable lifestyle products. I currently have a show at the Chrysler Museum of Art called ChimaTEK: Life Products, which introduces ChimaTEK’s suite of products.  These technologies, when used together, allow a consumer to remix and manipulate their identity.”

Along with an advertising video for the products of the Empathics, a “Hybridization Machine” can also be seen here, which is designed to help consumers carry out their own personal identity remix in the comfort of their own home. Among the prerequisites for this transformation process, however, are rare minerals that are mined in costly processes that harm the environment. Thus, even the innovative technologies of the Empathics are based on the exploitation of nature.

“By using a corporate model for ChimaTEK, I hoped to create this sense of ambiguity around the experience of the Empathics. I wanted my audience to begin to question the utopia I have projected, and begin to think about the pros and cons of this mutable state of being.” Saya Woolfalk’s Empathics have brilliantly succeeded in adapting themselves to their earthy biotope—but not much has remained of their utopia. In a consumerist society, their promise of a harmonious hybrid wonderland—like so many spiritual and esoteric movements— ends up being just another vile lifestyle product.  

through 3/17/2015
60 Wall Gallery
Deutsche Bank, 60 Wall Street, New York

Saya Woolfalk: ChimaTEK Life Products
through 5/31/2015
Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia