Woolfalk Weaves Fantasy and Reality in Her Latest Utiopian Work
Issue   |   Wed, 09/20/2017 - 00:21
Amherst College
Woolfalk’s exhibit The Empathetics“ depicts a fictional world where women merge with plants and is on display in the Mead’s Rotherwas Room.

Saya Woolfalk’s project, “The Empathetics,” highlights issues of gender, culture, identity, technological advances and commercialization in an innovative series of works that combine technology with art and storytelling. The exhibit, featured in the Mead Museum, examines the lives of women, called Empathetics, in a fictional world where they can modify their genetics at will and fuse with plants. Focusing on one particular Empathetic, the exhibit joins a greater story which builds off of two of her earlier projects: “No Place” and “ChimaTEK.” Through these projects, Woolfalk examines how technology and corporations change and commodify identities in our relationship with the world.

Saya Woolfalk was born in Gifu City, Japan, in 1979 and has since spent most of her life in New York — first in Scarsdale, then New York City. She received degrees from Brown University and The Art Institute in Chicago. Throughout her career, Woolfalk has both worked at and exhibited in prominent museums around the world.

The story featured in her exhibit in the Mead takes place in a fictional world inhabited by the Empathetics. They are women who have developed the technology to be quite literally empathetic with their surroundings, both being changed by and changing them. Her other major projects, “No Place” and “ChimaTEK,” show a similar combination of science fiction and fantasy as well as a focus on the effects of corporate technology on our daily lives and identities.

In an interview with the International Sculpture Center, Woolfalk said that in “ChimaTEK,” she aimed to explore “how technology can effect changes in consciousness” as well as what happens to utopian dreams over time and how those ideals might be commodified. In her futuristic world, ChimaTEK is a company that enables people to buy and download new identities at their choosing. The company was started by a research institution called the Institute of Empathy, which discovered a method for humans to change their genetic makeup and modify objects around them. These discoveries make it possible for individuals to change aspects of their identity through the company. She uses these ideas to explore what identity means and how culture, experiences and other aspects of our identities can, or could, be commodified. This investigation of technology and ideals, combined with her project “No Place,” led her to start the “The Empathetics.”

The current Mead exhibit studies a senior Empathetic who is a professor at the Institute of Empathy and has worked for ChimaTEK in the past. She develops technologies to access the ChimaCloud, which is a digital world currently beyond our reach. She has created technologies with which an Empathetic can upload the essences of physical objects from a variety of times and locations into the ChimaCloud. The upload is done not simply to study the objects, but to alter and then export them. It allows Empathetics literally to change the essence of substances around them, possibly creating hybrids.

In the exhibit, Woolfalk invites the viewers to participate with ChimaCloud by viewing the works through an app on their smartphone called Refrakt. This is an augmented reality app which, when pointed at a work, allows the viewer to see more dimensions of it. For instance, there is a mannequin in the center of the room wearing a “Cloud Catching Costume.” When viewed through Refrakt, one can see an extra element from the ChimaCloud on the costume.

Woolfalk’s works seem to glow, regardless of whether or not they are on a screen. Her colors, while reminiscent of colors one might see in nature, have an eerie and almost surreal look that mirrors the way objects in this fictional world are altered by the Empathetics. Additionally, her works appear to combine a variety of textures into the finished piece, which add to the themes of hybridization and modification. For instance, in a collection of digital prints on display in the Mead titled “The Four Virtues,” the images seem to have the bodies of Greek statues, while their heads and parts of their attire have a variety of influences, textures and designs. Some of the masks on the Virtues are reminiscent of masks that might be used in some religious traditions.

Through her position as a woman of color in the art world, Woolfalk explores issues of identity and cultural appropriation. In her fictional world, the characters seem to soak up the identities of those around them because of their intense empathy. These women are open to all kinds of influences, digital or physical, and absorb the customs, essence and symbols of those around them. This extends even to the point of changing their genetic makeup to adapt to their surroundings. While empathy is far from an evil characteristic, her work suggests that too much of the wrong kind of empathy devalues the meaning that we find in our different customs. Furthermore, Woolfalk is critical of large corporations and suspicious, at least, of the effects of technology. Her work raises important questions and guides our thinking of identity and technological progress.

“The Empathetics” is a part of the Rotherwas Project, a biannual exhibition series which features current artists in one of the Mead’s most historic rooms. This exhibit will remain on view until Dec. 17.

Woolfalk will speak at Amherst on Friday, Sept. 22 at 4:30 p.m. in the Mead Museum; this event is free and open to the public. Earlier that day, she will also hold an informal Artist Lunch in the Women’s and Gender Center from 12 to 1 p.m.