In the Studio with Saya Woolfalk’s Empathics

Saya Woolfalk sculpture

Saya Woolfalk. Virtual Chimeric Space, 2015 (Installation View). Mixed media with HD Digital Video Projections 42 x 12 x 12 feet. Commissioned by the Seattle Art Museum

Saya Woolfalk’s invented universe at Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects through May 6 is immediately accessible yet infinitely complicated. Her Chima TEK Empathics live in a future world that reframes core questions facing us today: identity, cultural transference, cloning, and virtual reality vs. real life.

Her Empathics are females with extra arms, spines, heads, or other body parts. Their skins are covered with flowers, lace, pearls, butterflies, and a range of nature & animal symbols. Viewers can, in theory, enter a chamber where they can trade in their own persona for a new persona. Even though we, as humans, embody change as we age and as we grow mentally and psychologically, there is a huge difference between growing into one’s true self and nipping and tucking one’s mind and body beyond recognition. Woolfalk’s message is somewhere inside the colorized world that her hybrid creatures inhabit. In addition, Death is ever-present — seen as skulls and exposed ribs on top of some “beautiful” heads and bodies.

Saya Woolfalk sculpture

Saya Woolfalk. ChimaTEK: Combustion Chamber, 2014-17. Hand-blown glass with mixed media and vinyl decal 49 x 54-1/4 inches overall

When I visited Woolfalk’s studio in late December, 2016, the area was super-organized with some three-dimensional works for her February 16 – May 6 exhibition at Leslie Tonkonow in progress or finished at the entrance, videos she was still completing in the middle of the studio, the artist’s sewing machine and supplies in a back area, and some supplies to give to her Parsons students in boxes near the door.Her Elizabeth Foundation studio is relatively small – less than ¼ the size of her commission for the Seattle Art Museum exhibition Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, which traveled to three other museums, including the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The studio includes evidence of handmade fabric costume parts, but I do not see the skulls or grasp how it will all come together until I see the work installed in mid-February. At the studio, Woolfalk discussed her anthropological approach to her art:

Jan Castro: How did you get the idea for creating the  Empathics?

Saya Woolfalk: I began thinking about hybridization in my project No Place, 2006.  In 2009, I began working on a related narrative called the Institute of Empathy, a research center established for understanding the changing morphology and social dynamics of a group of women called The Empathics.

Saya Woolfalk sculpture

Saya Woolfalk, ChimaCloud: Gate, 2017. Single channel HD Video projection (continuous loop); acrylic gouache on wood
95-1/2 x 171 inches

Castro: What issues are you addressing?

Woolfalk:  Sometimes corporate technology speeds up and/or undermines utopian ideas. With the project ChimaTEK I became interested in how technology can effect changes in consciousness.  One idea I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about is what happens when utopian dreams get commoditized.

Saya Woolfalk sculpture

Saya Woolfalk. White Shed (Gazelle), 2016. Mixed Media. 18 x 13 x 6 inches

Castro: How did you combine virtual reality and theater/dance in the River to River project?

Woolfalk: This project was a continuation of ChimaTEK and the dancers moved in the space in response to virtual objects.  Their garments triggered virtual objects to appear that could be seen by using the Refrakt Augmented reality app on your smartphone.

At the gallery’s entrance to ChimaCloud and the Pose System, a series of colorful handblown glass bell or bowl shapes of different sizes hover over a colorful skull on its own platform in front of a vinyl decal of five test tube-like spheres with upside-down lotuses inside. Nearby, a Virtual Reality Outpost and a figure in a ChimaCloud Augmented Reality Garment of digitally-printed fabrics set the scene for the figures and swirling images in the main gallery.  Viewers can see that the figure’s head is covered. She may be preparing to trade in her identity for another’s – or may have already done so.

Saya Woolfalk Sculpture

Saya Woolfalk, ChimaTEK: Avatar Download Station 2, 2015. Mixed media with video
41-3/4 x 39 x 3 inches

In the rectangular gallery space, videos project over some sculpted pieces on one long gallery wall. They turn the wall into a field of vision; one image has controlling fingers and a futurist sound track, one has changing trees, and one has lotus images in test tubes. These projections create colorful, constantly morphing backgrounds for ChimaCloud Crystal Body A and B, 2017, two upside-down female figures with extra body parts.  The concept of keeping your head on the ground and your feet in the air is curious and perhaps metaphorical. How often do we look closely at what’s at our feet? How often do we do inversions to oxygenate our brains? How often do we ask our bodies to see as well as feel air, space, and time?

On the opposite wall, a row of heads and busts has things on top — skulls and animals – a ram, gazelle, chameleon, and antelope. These forms cast unexpected shadows; the faces are mostly hidden by veils of beads. This exhibition advances the Chima TEK conundrums: will enhanced beauty make us more beautiful? Are the projected green plants, flowers, and sunshine real or illusory? What are the costs of engineering people, nature, and animals?

Saya Woolfalk sculpture

Saya Woolfalk, Still Image from ChimaTEK: Hybridization Machine, 2013. Single-channel color video with sound by DJ Spooky
3:41 minutes loop

Saya Woolfalk’s website  shows some images of her large projects, including her Times Square projections and Brooklyn Museum shows in 2016 as well as her honors and awards. The artist has several forthcoming projects in 2017, including two train stations for the MTA which is one artwork in four parts/locations; a project in Queens is a digitally printed ceramic tile wall with hand-built mosaic for the Department of Cultural Affairs/School Construction Authority; some works on paper for the Weatherspoon Museum; and a solo show at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College.

Woolfalk was born in Gifu City, Japan in 1979; she earned a B.A. in visual art and economics at Brown University and an M.F.A. in sculpture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The artist has a mixed cultural heritage and her work often explores changing social dynamics and ethnographic/anthropological possibilities in an increasingly technological world.

By Jan Garden Castro

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