Wolfie E. Rawk is a multi-disciplinary artist who works in sculpture, video, and experiential installation. My first experience with Wolfie’s work was seeing their installation in the Sullivan Galleries for their Masters of Fine Arts exhibition at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013. The space was carefully arranged with constructed materials of all sorts including stacks of library books, a video on a monitor in an artist-constructed frame, hand-manipulated soft sculpture, and quilted cushions. Wolfie first visited ACRE as a resident in 2013 and returned again this past summer. In 2013, when Jason and I visited ACRE during our first year as Curatorial Fellows, we met with Wolfie and they showed us footage of a horror movie they had started working on while there.
For their upcoming ACRE exhibition, Wolfie is creating a new video documenting the behavior of animals at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Since this past summer, they have been making trips to the zoo to watch the animals and have been researching the history of zoos and zoo animals and studying their mannerisms. Instead of a traditional visit to Wolfie’s studio prior to the ACRE show, we met up at the zoo on a cool early November afternoon to walk around, visit the animals, and talk about the research and connections surrounding this work.
I met up with Wolfie in the ape house where they were observing and documenting a gorilla repeatedly throw up in its mouth and then re-ingest the vomit. They explained that this is an example of a “stereotypy”, an anxiety-induced, repetitive behavior in animals, particularly those in captivity or confinement with little mental stimulation or in environments that don’t fulfill the animal’s behavioral needs. Wolfie has been researching these types of behaviors in zoo animals and documenting them in their new video work.
From the ape house, Wolfie led us to the “Regenstein African Journey” exhibit where there was a hippo they wanted to check on. Today, the hippo was sitting still in the middle of its enclosure, but Wolfie told me that in the past they had seen the hippo repeatedly swimming into the glass wall for hours as people take pictures next to it. They listed off other examples of stereotypes they have observed at the zoo: the giraffe trying to sprint through its pen, a jaguar who urinates in the same spot over and over again so much so that it has discolored the artificial rock and African wild dogs who run in figure eights in their exhibits.
Wolfie finds an intense personal connection with these animals. Not just as an “animal lover”—though Wolfie has always been interested in the conditions of animals and has not eaten meat for many years – but with a feeling of empathy as someone whose subjectivity is also often objectified and othered within systems of identity. At the root of Wolfie’s work is an exploration of different experiences of privilege, the constant objectification of human and non-human animals, and how people implicate each other within systems of oppression.
Wolfie explained that a lot of their work with the zoo animals started with a personal experience of being insultingly objectified by one of their own students. They recounted, “I’ve actually had a cis [cisgender: a person whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth] person say to me, when they realized I was trans [transgender: a person whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth], ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a real-life one of you all before, will you stand up and turn around for me?'” In this moment, Wolfie’s student felt so entitled to Wolfie’s body as something new and curious to them that they turned Wolfie into something to observe, like an animal in a zoo exhibit, ignoring their subjectivity as a person.
Who gets the right to observe another? When does this system of observation set up or come out of a hierarchy that objectifies a minority? These have been difficult and unresolved questions throughout history.
Wolfie and I made our way to the bird house and ended up standing in front of the wetland birds exhibit. As we stood there, watching two pompadoured ducks chase each other around a shallow stone pond, being observed by a stoic snowy egret, I was thinking about my own experiences of privilege, oppression, and the varied and complex forms these things take throughout our world.
Zoos were created to give audiences access to animals that most would never have access to otherwise. The majority of the population will never be able to travel to Africa to see a lion in person. So, the zoo brings the lions to the people – making them accessible to a global public. In this way, zoos are sites of learning, accessibility, and wonder – a place where human and non-human animals can come together in the same space. I do believe that there is value in learning through experience and observation, but when it comes to what this actually looks like, many issues of oppression arise when considering who is observing who, in what contexts, and the level of autonomy that the observed other has.
These thoughts on privilege and accessibility raise questions about the power structures that we have set up in the world. Many humans seem to move through life as if the features of the world (non-human animals, the landscape, natural resources, even other people) were created for their use, entertainment, and enjoyment. The lions are there for humans to see. If the humans can’t make it to the lions, the lions are brought to the humans, with little regard for the lions’ preference of where they are living or their own living conditions. There is a systematic hierarchy here in which the human is privileged above the lion because the lion is an “animal” with less subjectivity. In our daily world order, we are not only used to this hierarchy, but we also take it for granted. It’s not so black-and-white as that, though. The questions raised in Wolfie’s work can lead us to consider where oppression and objectification occurs amongst humans as well.
Wolfie began our conversation by talking about Ota Benga, a Congolese man who was exhibited in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo in 1906. In this case, and in many other circumstances throughout history, one person’s subjectivity was taken away from him and he was put on display for the enjoyment and observation of others in a more privileged position in the exact same way that animals are exhibited at the zoo. While this story seems like an appalling example of the narrow-mindedness of the past, there are plenty of situations in which this form of privileged objectification happens in modern life. Wolfie’s story of their experience with their student is one example. Wolfie also draws a connection between the entitled objectification they see in the treatment of zoo animals and a misogynist perspective that sees female bodied people as existing for the use and enjoyment of men. In these cases, one person in a place of privilege strips away the subjectivity of another who, within our existing social structure, is seen as lesser and lacking in their own autonomy.
The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. – Alice Walker
The experience of visiting the zoo has an interesting parallel with the experience of viewing Wolfie’s work. When thinking of the zoo, one thinks of the excitement of hanging out with animals we don’t typically get to interact with. Visitors to the zoo get to see beautiful, cute, and terrifying animals up close, observe their behavior, and feel like they’re interacting with them while remaining at a safe distance. However, when we pause for a moment and look a little closer, the signs of captivity and depression in the animals and the institution as a whole are not hard to find.
Similarly, Wolfie’s work is often soft, bright, colorful, and covered in googley eyes. It’s cute and fun and attractive and easily draws a viewer in. Upon closer inspection, though, the work blatantly references identity politics and Wolfie’s experience as a trans person, implicating us within these politics and forcing us to question social systems and hierarchies. It is often confusing – raising questions about not only the artist’s identity but about one’s own identity and how we all move through the world – and sometimes depressing as it points out the oppression and inequalities that many people experience on a daily basis. Through the use of found and constructed objects and humor, Wolfie balances the politics in the work with formal aesthetic appeal and light-heartedness.
Recently, Wolfie’s work has been moving away from solely object-based installations and towards experimentation with creating sensorial environments. In the upcoming ACRE show, they are creating a blood smell that will permeate throughout the space and put together a soundtrack that viewers can listen to while viewing the work in the exhibition. By affecting our basic animal senses, Wolfie hopes to physically, rather than just emotionally or mentally, implicate viewers within the work.
“I really believe that art should do something in the world,” Wolfie explained and in many ways, the work is quite educational. In their inquiry-based attempt to break through various boundaries, Wolfie raises a lot of important questions but doesn’t give us any clear answers or solutions – in fact, Wolfie is honest about not having one clear solution or knowing everything. Their stance in the work is clear but not necessarily didactic. It’s more about communicating what they’ve learned or experienced and setting it up through research and material for the viewer to understand from a new perspective. It’s left up to us to form our own answers.
Check out the playlist that Wolfie has put together for the exhibition here! In conjunction with Futile Divide, Wolfie will also be hosting a reading group on November 23rd to discuss excerpts from their research. Readings and more information coming soon.