Self-Improvement with Saya: A Cabinet of Anticipation at the Contemporary Arts Center

August 24th, 2019  |  Published in Summer 2019

The idea that we can transform into our best self is a compelling one. According to, the “self-improvement” industry is booming to the tune of nearly $10 billion per year. Gurus from Tony Robbins and Deepak Chopra to Marie Condo provide keys to clearing mind, soul and space to achieve personal, financial or spiritual goals, while personal life coaching, holistic retreats, and intensive workshops immerse us in environments and practices that can nurture and sculpt us into better versions of ourselves, participating in better versions of our world.

Now you can add Saya Woolfalk into the mix. Her new exhibit “A Cabinet of Anticipation” at the Contemporary Arts Center presents revolutionary possibilities for physical and cultural transformation that integrate mystical, digital, biological, and corporate realms.

This collection of installations and objects unfolds a detailed narrative that comprises Woolfalk’s ongoing work of speculative fiction concerning the evolution of beings called Empathics, a hybrid race that combines human and plant consciousness. Influenced by science fiction writers such as Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin, Woolfalk has built a complex mythology for her chimeric beings that is revealed as visitors move through the exhibition. One learns that Empathics evolve in three stages, a process Woolfalk refers to as “blossoming”: developing a second head so that the beings can attain the consciousness of both human and plant species; a prolonged process of Utopia Conjuring Therapy (UTC) which involves lucid dreaming ; and finally the synthesis of heterogenous experiences into a unified state, causing some to develop petal-covered “wing” extensions.

An Empathic Preparing to Paint Images from the Book Empathic Plant Alchemy (Jillian), 2011
Photograph courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artwork + Projects, New York

While Woolfalk’s race of beings has developed abilities and practices beyond human capacity, in other ways their society mimics our contemporary society and its norms. An Institute of Empathy supports the Empathics’ interests, while its corporate arm, ChimaTEK, researches and engages in commerce related to the process of transformation to this advanced state of being. Woolfalk has created reference books, such as “Empathic Plant Alchemy: Social and Physical Effects of Botanical Thinking” and “The Encyclopedia of Cloud Divination”; choreographed rituals, such as “Star Compulsion Formation”; and invented technologies such as “The ChimaCloud”,  “Hybridization Machine”, and “Avatar Download Station” to support her cosmology.

In an unironic tone of gentle corporate speak, the artist explains the workings of the Empathics, their institute and corporation via a series of wall labels. She has even made an informational video explaining the origins of ChimaTEK’s technology that shows how ordinary humans can participate in virtual transformation through exposure to fluorescing minerals, meditation and avatars.

Life Products by ChimaTEK, 2014
Photograph by Tony Walsh

Entry into his new world begins with the spiritual. Visitors to the exhibition first encounter a large, dark space with video installations that use mandala imagery and airy trance music to create three temple-like ritual spaces. Videos are projected on black walls adorned with sculptural figures. In the projections, Woolfalk’s Empathic beings reside in the center spaces of each temple and appear as deities, dressed in white or vibrant costumes covered with leaves or feathers, floating in space, and surrounded by other figures making slow, ritualized movements. The effect of this is dazzling and hypnotic, especially as one tries to comprehend the densely layered symbols and figures portrayed. Some symbols appear to be invented from human gestures, while others are derived from Hindu goddesses, such as the multiple-armed Durga.

Hybridity Visualization Mandala, 2014
Photograph by Tony Walsh

Moving beyond that space, visitors find several installations that illustrate aspects of the world of Empathics, sometimes also referred to as ChimaBots in this section of the exhibit. The “Star Compulsion Formation” shows a group of Empathics as they complete their third stage of evolution. In the wall label for “Pool”, Woolfalk explains that the floor projection is a reflecting pool for the ChimaCloud, an idea central to her hybrid culture. “The ChimaCloud “, it reads, ”is a self-replicating digital universe populated by fragments, ideas, and forms uploaded by people like you, from around the globe.”. Information sourced from the ChimaCloud is woven together in all the patterns that adorn objects in the exhibit. In Woolfalk’s world, what once may have been a “melting pot” of our collective community becomes kaleidoscopic shards to continually flow, emerging and receding in a collective consciousness.

Three interrelated works tell the story of the ChimaCloud: Gate, 2017; Programmer, 2016; and Venus, 2017
Photograph by Tony Walsh


Star Compulsion Formation, 2012
Photograph by Tony Walsh

Toward the rear of the exhibit space visitors enter a brighter, more clinical room with “technological” aids and other artifacts of the transformation process. It is in this space where you, too, can become an improved being “wiped clean with colors and shapes” as the video says, by adopting a new avatar with the help of the ChimaTEK Life Products System. The “Avatar Download Station”, resembling a vanity mirror with pattern-covered skeletal arms for a frame, expedites this process, while the “ChimaTEK: Virtual Reality Station”, a digital meditation platform, is available for home use. This room also contains the “Cabinet of Anticipation”, the most recent work and exhibit’s namesake. Recalling the sixteenth century European Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammer that held collections of historical, religious, aesthetic, and archeological relics and the like, Woolfalk’s objects, including a rhinestone covered butterfly, a figure in a yoga headstand, and embellished human skulls and bones, pays homage to the Empathics’ multiple heads in anticipation of the wondrous future that is to come.

Avatar Download Station #2, 2015
Photograph by Susan Byrnes
Photograph courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artwork + Projects, New York


A Cabinet of Anticipation, 2019 (and detail)
Photograph by Susan Byrnes

In her statement, Woolfalk said, “I gravitate toward the utopian potentials of digital space (post-race, post-gender, post-human, etc.).” Her version of utopia, both physical and digital, begins with the idea of the chimera, the creature that is a combination of creatures. In science, it is defined as a single organism composed of cells from different fertilized eggs, resulting in variations in form and potentially containing both male and female organs. In mythology, the Chimera is a fire-breathing female creature first referenced in the Iliad as a hybrid of a lion, snake, and goat. Transgenic artists in the biodesign movement like Eduardo Kac, who created petunias laced with his own DNA, seek physical, scientific means to create biological hybrids. Woolfalk’s approach to hybridity, while conceptually transgenic, is rooted in the sociological and stems from her Japanese, European, and African American heritage. She draws freely from the iconography and practices of these and other ethnic and cultural traditions to inform her ChimaCloud and shape her world.

Encyclopedia of Cloud Divination, Data Cluster #3
Photograph courtesy of the artist and Leslie Tonkonow Artwork + Projects, New York

For all Woolfalk’s rigorous intellectual complexity with regard to her futuristic narrative, the works in her exhibition immerse the viewer in a visual and tactile world of folk-art simplicity. The artist has chosen to render her high tech ideas in low tech terms, complementing the cool, hard, glossy feel of digital screens and projections with surfaces of felt, fabric, papier-mache, and face paint. In doing so, she communicates that dreaming a different world is accessible to anyone with vision and can be constructed with ordinary materials. Each of her pieces is a hand-hewn prototype, a theatre set, a homemade costume meticulously stitched and appliqued. Her sculptural aesthetic references the transcendental work of visionary or outsider artists and the folk-art crafting tradition, with glued-on fabrics and rhinestone decorations, a dizzying array of patchwork patterns, and a bold rainbow color palette.

Chimabot, 2015 (Detail)
Photograph by Susan Byrnes

Woolfalk’s optimistic, practical vision is a dream is of transformation, a whimsical delivery from the confines of human limitations of consciousness shepherded by felt-winged human/plants, decoupaged skulls and bedazzled butterflies. Her fantastical utopia of colors, sounds, videos, and devices makes a seductive invitation to trying on a new, post-human you.

–Susan Byrnes

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