Ambiguity, Myth, and Saya Woolfalk’s “No Place”

by Lee Ann Norman

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago kicked off the 2010 Visiting Artist Program on February 2, 2010 with one of its distinguished alumna.  Saya Woolfalk (MFA 2004) is a petite woman of mixed heritage (her mother is Japanese and her father is African American and white), quick witted, curious, and extremely imaginative.  She voraciously reads and studies a range of subjects including biology, metaphysics, psychoanalysis, anthropology, psychology, literary theory, semiotics, and art among others.  She works across mediums combining painting and drawing with fiber arts, elaborate costumes, performance, video, and digital manipulation.  She also has a penchant for weaving complex and compelling narratives through her visual representations.  Her elaborate tales and their physical manifestations always unfold with the aim of trying to conjure an alternative world.  Though naturally curious, knowledgeable, and an astute observer of the human condition, Woolfalk’s ideas don’t exist in isolation from the rest of the world.  The ideas for much of her works, most notably her ongoing multimedia and performance piece No Place, have evolved collaboratively through time with friends, old and new, as well as those who have interacted with this fictionalized version of a future of the future.  Though collaboratively based, the ideas for No Place in its manifestation through 2006-08 (and its subsequent return as Empathic Imaginaries and an upcoming project based on her characters known as the Pleasure Machines) are based firmly in her personal beliefs about spirituality, metaphysics, and what it means to be human.

Woolfalk creates images that recall fond memories of childhood play, innocence, and simplicity, but don’t be fooled by her cotton candy colored landscapes.  Heady surrealist references, nods to postmodern, next wave feminist thought, and signifiers of race, gender, and sexuality are prominent throughout her imagined futuristic candy land worlds.  For the last 4 years, Woolfalk has immersed herself in the world of No Place, which refers to the literal Greek translation of the English word utopia: “no” (ou) “place” (topos).  No Place is an interdisciplinary work that creates a fictionalized future for the purposes of investigating human possibilities within impossibilities.  This elaborate, mythological world is comprised of half human, half plant beings that live complex lives with elaborate social and empathetic relationships.  They participate in the life cycle; participate in rites of passage and other rituals that allow them to transform their gender or color at crucial moments in life.

For Woolfalk, No Place has been useful in helping her solidify concepts that seek to challenge accepted ideas around representational systems in race, gender, sexuality, social interaction, and the environment that define how we exist on and with the earth.  Phallic symbols, breasts, labia, and figures with hyper-racialized characteristics are important throughout No Place.  From travels in Brazil after attending the School of the Art Institute, she began to focus more on reusing materials and finding ways to reduce the amount of waste generated from the massive amounts of materials she uses in artistic production.  As a result, many of the characters from those earlier works have found themselves reborn and refashioned in No Place.

From 2006 to 2008, Woolfalk collaborated with anthropologist Rachel Lears to create a pseudo-ethnography called Ethnography of No Place, a 30-minute documentary style video that would explain her fictionalized world.  Conceived while in residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, this work allowed Woolfalk to approach her world from the perspective of artist/researcher rather than artist/object maker.  Her current exhibition, The Institute for the Analysis of Empathy, at Tufts University Art Gallery through April 4, 2010, takes this concept further.  Woolfalk performs the role of ethnographer and anthropologist who has discovered the remains of this extinct species, the Empathics.  The Institute, temporarily housed at Tufts, serves the purpose of providing research support for those who want to learn more about the Empathic way of life in hopes of emulating it in the present.  Through explorations of how we can become more empathetic to others, Institute researchers hope to help mankind to overcome the things we perceive as divisions and barriers to unity and harmony.

Perhaps it is fitting that Woolfalk is a fan of ambiguity since her works explore abstract concepts and ideas.  Her goal as an artist seems to center on working to isolate abstractions and examine them, only to pick them apart.  She seems keenly aware that memory is a construction, prone to shape shifts and distortions depending on our mood, our environment, and with whom we share those memories.  Perhaps that is why she is drawn to stories, myths, and legends too.  They allow us to make real that which we can only imagine.  Human beings constantly create stories to explain the seemingly unexplainable, from creation myths to explanations for the rising and setting of the sun and moon.  Woolfalk embraces the idea that reality is relative, and her work challenges us to question our perception of what is possible, what could be, and what is.