In an online event hosted by the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) on Feb. 11, artist Saya Woolfalk guided attendees through the history of her work and the importance of being empathic. The conversation, titled “Lessons from the Institute of Empathy,” led by Pam McClusky, curator of African and Oceanic art at the SAM, allowed the contemporary artist to to explore her career and permanent installation at the museum, “ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space.”
Woolfalk and McClusky began the conversation with a brief introduction to Woolfalk’s career and how she came to work with the SAM.
McClusky first came across Woolfak's work in 2008 when she visited the artist’s studio in New York and crossed pathways with the “Empathics,” defined by the artist as "a fictional race of women who can alter their genetic make-up and fuse with plants.” The science-fiction narrative of the empathic world involves sculptures, videos, and performance art.
McClusky said she was intrigued by the beauty and significance of the “Empathics” and invited Woolfalk to spend time at the SAM. After working together for some time, McClusky and Woolfalk decided to create a new immersive space that would serve as a window into the world of the the “Empathics,” which became the “ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space.”
The artwork — part of the exhibition “Lessons from the Institute of Empathy” — is an installation that allows viewers to interact with the “Empathics” by walking into their world, meditating with them, or just observing. In the installation space, rhythmic music plays and a video with leaves that form multi-colored patterns is projected on both the wall and the floor. The colors are mostly blues, greens, and purples.
Woolfalk said the work is infused with a blend of primarily African cultures, with symbols, ideas, experiences, and life forms that aim to portray a better future for all living creatures.
She said the installation explores the otherworldly society of "Empathics" and "Chimabots" in a utopian reality. Through a collection of digital media, videos, textiles, sculptures, and paintings, Woolfalk constructs a realistic society filled with qualities that humanity lacks. The artist highlights the importance of having physical objects in her installations, saying she feels the need to have tactile materials rather than just digital content.
"I want the objects to exist in real life, not just in the digital,” Woolfalk said. "I am a person who wears the same clothes and uses the same objects for a long time. I have a deep respect for how much it takes for an object for coming to being, and I can see this as empathy. I think one can empathize with our environment and the fate of our future if we don't stop consuming so much."
During the conversation, Woolfalk also explored the political meanings and ambiguity of this new species she has created.
"I think a lot of these come from my desire to create ambitious experiences,” Woolfalk said. “I think ambiguous experiences and being with ambiguity is very politica.”
Reflecting on both the past year and the ethos of her future works, Woolfalk said she is looking forward to developing more in the world of “Empathics.” She referenced her most recent work, “Landscape of Anticipation,” a 300 foot wall projecting a compilation of videos from “the Empathic world,” located in the World Trade Center in New York City.
“I even doubt it is kind of a happenstance, the fact that it is in [the World Trade Center] and that people are experiencing it,” Woolfalk said. “I really do hope that even for a moment it is transformational.”
Reach contributing writer Victor Simoes at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ViC_t_O_r05
Like what you’re reading? Support high-quality student journalism by donating here.