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SAM Book Club: Empathy Lives On in Parable of the Sower

We’ve finished reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler for SAM Book Club and our final reflection takes us inside an immersive installation by Saya Woolfalk at SAM to consider how change and empathy are intertwined. Our colleagues at the Northwest African American Museum are also reading Parable of the Sower for their June Book Club and and we will be joining NAAM’s live discussion on June 26. Join us by registering here! Please read along and share your thoughts with us while you stay home with SAM!

Empathy is a word that can buzz through the air, or be embedded in one’s mind and body. Octavia Butler and Saya Woolfalk make this word come alive in characters who try to keep humanity on track. 

Right now, 2020 is bringing dystopia right to our doorstep every day. If you pick up Parable of the Sower, a 15-year-old girl who has a condition of hyper empathy becomes your guide. Lauren Olamina’s vision of 2024 is not far away, and you join people running from an apocalypse. They follow Olamina, who calls her empathic abilities a disorder. By the end, you realize it is her super power, as she formulates an entirely new vision that ultimately offers hope to all around her. If you haven’t read it, now’s the best time ever. It’s an omen of the future we’ve got to figure out together. 

Unfortunately, Octavia Butler died in Seattle on February 24, 2006.  Four months later, on June 22, a young senator gave a commencement speech at Northwestern University, and said, “I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit. . . . it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential”. Barack Obama’s references to empathy kept coming while he was President. So did discoveries in neuroscience, which identified circuits in our brains that are wired to give us an ability to understand what other people are feeling. However, at the same time, the empathic deficit disorder continued to be seen in a rise of Hyper Individualism based on self-absorption, chronic loneliness, and a lack of curiosity about strangers or others. 

Artist Saya Woolfalk steps into this era and establishes an Institute of Empathy.  She cites Octavia Butler’s writings as a source of constant inspiration, helping her take leaps of imagination. In 2010–11, Woolfalk reaches out to biologists and theorists to consider the possibilities of interspecies hybridization as a factor for human improvement. One scholar, Ed Cohen offered a prophetic observation, “Unbeknownst to us, our futures may depend on the ways we learn to live with the viruses that take place within and among us—though the referent of this “us” would then be up for grabs. Yet this coincidence . . . troubles us both physiologically and conceptually.”[1]

Unafraid of complexity and troubling concepts, Woolfalk creates a species of Empathics that are conceived to assist our evolution. By 2012, they are entering museums and offering evidence and research about how human beings can find ways to increase their empathic abilities. This Institute has presented solutions through guided dreams, role playing in cyber space, hybrid cosmologies in planetariums, performances and projections that have gained attention across the planet. 

Only the Seattle Art Museum has offered The Institute of Empathy a permanent home. Three Empathics reside on the fourth floor and offer their suggestions for enhancing self-transformation. Theirs is not an immediate quick fix installation, as becoming empathic is not a sudden pit stop. It takes time to figure out what these alternative beings are about. They invite you to see their virtual chimeric space where healing gases are being downloaded, and you are welcome to walk into their mosaic shower which sends a flow of imagery down into a sacred pond full of insight. The Empathics also selected art from other cultures in the museum’s collection that can help enhance your ethical disposition and state of mind. Just as Octavia Butler’s novel ends with a glimmer of hope for a new philosophy called Earthseed, so these empathics reinforce a conviction that we can create the change we need. 

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Photo: Chelsea Werner-Jatzke. Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, © Seattle Art Museum, photo: Nathaniel Willson.
[1] “The Paradoxical Politics of Viral Containment; or, How Scale Undoes Us One and All”, by Ed Cohen, Professor at Rutgers University, published in Social Text 106, Spring 2011, p.27.

Object of the Week: ChimaTEK Virtual Chimeric Space

Want is the desire to possess or do, or the feeling of lack or being short of something desirable. As long as you’re wanting, you’re usually in a space of trying to gain something for yourself and yourself only. This is a result of individualized thinking, which is one of the pillars of the Western-American ideology. So what does freedom from want look and feel like? And what does it require of us to consider living free from want?

This possibility is explored by Saya Woolfalk, a New York-based artist who uses science fiction and fantasy to reimagine the world in multiple dimensions. With her multi-year projects No Place: A Ritual of the Empathics and ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space—the latter of which is on view in Lessons from the Institute of EmpathyWoolfalk creates a world of Empathics, a fictional race of women who are able to alter their genetic make-up and fuse with plants. With each body of work Woolfalk says, “I want a person to experience something that simultaneously makes them slightly uncomfortable about the potential of the world that I have created, but also gives them an excitement about a harmonious, multi-cultural society.”

While seemingly very different from human beings, the Empathics actually reflect our multicultural society in myriad ways. Through these beings, who have developed the ability to think collectively, we learn just how powerful the effects of empathy are when honed and used to empower a society in the direction of cultural evolution.

Freedom from want has the potential to take us to a place where this kind of evolution can be realized. In this free state, we are enabled to shift our focus from individual want to helping others gain what they require in order to experience the satisfaction of their needs. With the pressures of scarcity and fear eliminated, a new form of thinking emerges from a place of equity and equality.

Moving closer to freedom from want as a reality—as opposed to an out-of-reach ideal—challenges us to consider others instead of only the self. It challenges us to remove the ego—to listen and understand. It challenges what we consider necessary in order to live happy and successful lives. It challenges us to move beyond individualized, self-centered thinking and towards an elevated level of collective thinking, which is necessary for harmonious living and ultimately stimulates our capacity for acceptance, benefiting every global citizen.

– Adera Gandy, Visitor Services Officer

Image: Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, © Seattle Art Museum, photo: Nathaniel Willson

Object of the Week: Soundsuit

In this special edition of Object of the Week, the three Empathics who have taken up residence at SAM in the installation Lessons from the Institute of Empathy share their thoughts on Nick Cave’s Soundsuit. The Empathics are part of ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space by contemporary artist Saya Woolfalk. They have surrounded themselves with works from our African art collection and are asking questions and sharing information about the art as a way to help visitors awaken their own empathy.

EMPATHIC LESSON: CONSIDER THE CHIMERIC

Nick Cave’s suits mix anatomical features in a perplexing way. Are they human or not? This question is being asked in science as human and nonhuman species can be merged to create new forms of life, known as chimeras. Does this combination show disrespect for human dignity or is it a step toward progress? The Empathics wonder what the potential of crossing species might be.

Using hair collected from barber shops in Chicago is a strategic move that Nick Cave explains: “The hair creates an animal sensibility. You know it’s hair, but you don’t know where it comes from. It’s seductive, but also a bit scary. Animals have so much to teach us. I hope that by merging animal parts with human parts in these Soundsuits, I force people to pay attention to what they are doing to our earth and the animals living here with us. I’m having fun and using whimsical circus imagery to ask people to consider the underlying tragedy we are perpetrating. We have to find ways to live with each other, extend our compassion to other communities and take care of our natural resources.”

Nick Cave goes on to share the history of his Soundsuits, two of which are on view. “My first Soundsuit was made out of twigs. The initial concept came from the Rodney King incident and the Los Angeles riots in 1992; as I was reading about the riots, I was thinking about the feeling that I was dealing with as a black male, feeling smaller, devalued, invalid . . . the incident was larger than life: six policemen bringing Mr. King down. . . . I was in the park one day, sitting, thinking about everything around the riot, and then I looked on the ground and found a twig. I created a sculpture from twigs. . . . When I put it on and started to move in it, I realized that it made a sound and I began to think a lot about protest, that in order to protest you have to be heard, and in order to be heard you have to be aggressive.”

– The Empathics, The Institute of Empathy

Images: Soundsuit, 2006, Nick Cave, fabricated fencing mask, human hair, sweaters, beads, and metal wire, approx. 6 feet tall, on mannequin, Gift of the Vascovitz Family in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.70 © Nick Cave. Installation view of Lessons from the Institute of Empathy at Seattle Art Museum, 2018, photos: Natali Wiseman.

 

Greetings from the Institute of Empathy

The Institute is glad to announce that their installation of lessons is on view at Seattle Art Museum. Three Empathics now oversee the production of  transformative vapors and invite you to sit with them in Lessons from the Institute of Empathy in the Seattle Art Museum’s African Art galleries, to invigorate your mental clarity.

Better yet, you are also invited to step into their restorative pool and partake of a mosaic shower from above. A 10 minute power point given by a representative from the Institute, Aurelia Wallace, is also available to explain the lessons on view.

The Institute wants to thank everyone who sticks their necks out to facilitate their work, and suggested a poem full of empathy to honor their efforts.

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Installation view Lessons from the Institute of Empathy, 2018, Seattle Art Museum, photos: Natali Wiseman

Object of the Week: Audience of a Prince

“I think of Chinoise as very much a part of the conversation of the global diaspora and the spreading of cultures from one place to another.” – Saya Woolfalk

Hear from mixed media installation artist Saya Woolfalk on her favorite things in SAM’s collection and gain a new perspective on the Chinoise Tapestries, one that layers the histories evident in the intricate embroidery of these objects. The Audience of a Prince tapestry is part of a suite of four European chinoiserie tapestries from the workshop of Judocus de Vos that depict imaginary interpretations of life in Asia. In the early eighteenth century (circa 1703-07), Judocus de Vos owned the largest workshop in Brussels, with twelve looms. The tapestries feature magical scenes of exotic figures clothed in flowing robes and elaborate headdresses, fantastic animals, botanical studies, and purely imaginative flights of fancy. This suite of Flemish tapestries was commissioned for the Duke Leopold-Philippe d’Arenberg’s residence in Brussels in 1717, when it was fashionable for wealthy Europeans to create rooms evoking an exotic, foreign atmosphere.The d’Arenberg family of Edingen (Enghien, Belgium) had a long history of collecting tapestries. Recent research in the d’Arenberg archives by Koenraad Brosens, University of Leuven, has uncovered three documents that record these tapestries. The earliest document records the original commission of 1717. The four tapestries in SAM’s collection are the only tapestries from this suite known to exist today.

Artwork: “Audience of a Prince”, Judocus de Vos, commissioned in 1717, Wool, silk, metallic threads, 146 7/16 x 58 1/4 in. (370.8 x 148 cm), Gift of Guendolen Carkeek Plestcheeff Endowment for the Decorative Arts, Anonymous, General Acquisition Fund, Mildred King Dunn, Richard and Betty Hedreen, Decorative Arts Acquisition Fund, Margaret Perthou-Taylor, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, Ann Bergman and Michael Rorick, Mr. and Mrs. David E. Maryatt, 2002.38.4.

Muse/News: Arts news from SAM, Seattle, and beyond

Let’s get to it! Here’s Rachel Eggers, SAM’s PR Manager with your weekly round up of the art news you need to read.

SAM News

#InfiniteKusama, indeed: The New York Times reports that Yayoi Kusama will open her own museum in the Shinjuku neighborhood of Tokyo; SAM’s exhibition is mentioned.

“Winter is always,” says Forbes, as they reference Game of Thrones and feature a gallery of chilly images from SAM’s upcoming Andrew Wyeth: In Retrospect.

“Surprises abound. Historically, Wyeth’s style was called mechanical and unremarkable, but this does not seem so of the diaphanous curtains in the windows of his houses, or the feathers he captures floating in the air on a stormy day.”

Here’s Artsy on the resurgence of shamanic practices in contemporary art; Saya Woolfalk, whose ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space from SAM’s Disguise exhibition was recently acquired for the SAM collection, is included.

Local News

“…a joyful and awkward water ballet titled ‘Ankle Deep’ in the kiddie wading pool at Volunteer Park.” How local artist Briar Bates wanted her death commemorated.

In the Seattle Weekly, comic artist Tatiana Gill illustrates the life of Seattle civil rights legend Reverend Dr. Samuel B. McKinney (now 90 years old!).

The Seattle Times reviews exhibitions in Tacoma and Auburn featuring work by Northwest Coast indigenous artists.

Inter/National News

All 16 of the artists, authors, performers, and architects on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities resigned last Friday in protest of Trump.

Canadian Art profiled Claudia Rankine and a recent lecture she gave in Banff on white supremacy in art and how institutions can respond to it.

Now on view at the Princeton University Art Museum: paintings by Howard Russell Butler (1856-1934) depicting solar eclipses before photography could capture them in detail.

“While a Navy officer stood by with a stopwatch, Butler worked in 10- or 20-second blocks as he drew the outline of the corona, assessed the colors of the sky and moon, and sketched the contours of the gaseous prominences that bloomed from the eclipse’s edge. Only then did he begin to paint.”

“I don’t know that a person enjoys ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ so much as submits to it.” Celebrate today’s celestial event here.

– Rachel Eggers, Manager of Public Relations

Image: Laara Garcia performs in Saya Woolfalk’s installation ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space during SAM’s 2015 exhibition, Disguise: Masks and Global African Art.