Flash Points

A Look Into the Future with Saya Woolfalk

Saya Woolfalk, A Ritual of the Empathics, 2009. Courtesy of the artist.
Saya Woolfalk, “No Place: A Ritual of the Empathics,” 2009. Courtesy of the artist.

This November, New York City will once again be abuzz with PERFORMA, the sprawling biennial dedicated to performance art. This year’s event boasts participation by more than 90 artists at over 70 different venues. I’m personally excited about a new piece by Saya Woolfalk at the Studio Museum in Harlem, titled A Ritual of the Empathics.

Woolfalk works across media, combining painting, performance, sculpture, and video to “playfully re-imagine the representational systems that hierarchically shape our lives.” Her works are characterized by plush multicolored costumes and toy-like forms, and a coloring book aesthetic marked by fruit punctuated landscapes, sharp-toothed creatures and a palette pink aplenty. But taking her inspiration from ethnographic, feminist, and psychoanalytic theory, Woolfalks’s worlds of whimsy are for your more sophisticated inner child.

Over the last four years, Woolfalk has built up the complex tale of No Place, a fictional land inhabited by Empathics, Pleasure Machines, Cleaners and other characters (comparable to the narratives of Season 2 artist Trenton Doyle Hancock). In the conversation below, Woolfalk explains her project No Place, and how she uses fantasy to depict our present reality and multiple futures.

This interview was conducted by phone.


Nicole J. Caruth: Will you start by explaining the basic storyline underlying your recent work?

Saya Woolfalk: Sure, there’s a lot of information to take in. [On my website], you’re looking at a multi-part project for which there are three temporalities: the present, the future, and the future of the future. The future of the future is the No Place project, which I predominantly worked on [as a resident] at the Studio Museum in Harlem. In the exhibition there, I showed [among other pieces] Ethnography of No Place, a six chapter ethnographic film, which is basically a series of important parts of our present culture (birth, death, etc). I worked with anthropologist Rachel Lears to both imagine and document this place.

Saya Woolfalk, “Ethnography of No Place” (video stills), 2007. TRT 30 min. Rachel Lears (top left) and Saya Woolfalk (top right). Courtesy of the artist.

We made a chapter of No Place specifically for Japan Society‘s Butoh Festival. Butoh is a dance tradition that attempts to kind of make death present. So, we decided to make that chapter about how the people of this magic place die. In No Place people are part plant and part human. They change colors at different points of their life cycle. When they die they become the landscape. They’re always in flux and changing. It’s a macrocosmic project that I think of like a folk story [for which] I can track and pull information inspired by the people, things, places, and narratives around me and incorporate it into the project. Because this was a project about utopia–the projected future–I started thinking about what it would mean for people to try and conjure that future into the present. That’s where the present temporality developed in the narrative, and that’s where the project that I’m doing for PERFORMA in November, A Ritual of the Empathics, comes into play. It’s a modern dance piece and I presented it as a rehearsal at the University of Buffalo earlier this year. The Empathics are a group of women who try to conjure No Place into the present through a series of ritual actions, activities and research that speaks to the specific character of the people of the imagined future.

"No Place" installation, 2008. Courtesy of the University of Buffalo.
“No Place” installation, 2008. Courtesy of the University of Buffalo.

NJC: Will you actually perform in the piece or have you hired dancers?

SW: This piece is made in collaboration with a group of five dancers. The University of Buffalo put me in touch with dancers in their Theatre and Dance Department. Over the course of the semester, we imagined collectively and collaboratively how this ritual would look. I gave them parameters, a syllabus and a series of abstract paintings to work from and to base their choreography on. The collective collaboration–coming up with the actual ritual–was a very important and integral part of this piece even though you don’t see that. It’s kind of like the 60s and 70s women’s movement in the way that women got together to collectively choreograph and/or imagine possibilities. WomanHouse is a perfect example of women getting together in an academic context to create artworks that are indicative of some present which is not yet expressed…The performance is a half hour right now, but we are going to reconstruct it, so the length could potentially change over the next few months. There’s another woman coming in to help us work on the project. Her name is Melanie Aceto and she’s a faculty member at Buffalo and a professional choreographer. She’ll tweak it and turn it into a more finished piece. It could become a different piece altogether.

"In the Biodome: Social Life and the Four Energies", 2008. Gouache on paper, 30" x 40". Courtesy of the artist.
“In the Biodome: Social Life and the Four Energies”, 2008. Gouache on paper, 30″ x 40″. Courtesy of the artist.

NJC: What’s taking place in the three paintings that are currently hanging at the Bronx Museum?

SW: It’s actually a single work on paper in three panels, so it’s a triptych. You see the Pleasure Machines represented in the interior of a biodome where their elaborate future world is being produced. A piece that I’m working on for a group show at Deitch Projects in September is a continuation of this narrative, which is the future. I’ve already described the future of the future, which is No Place; and the present, which is the temporality of the Empathic. The future is the land of the Pleasure Machines in between this present that’s striving for a utopian future, which is a kind of disturbia.

NJC: Let’s back up and talk about fantasy as a visual language in your work. This is something you were using before your recent projects. How did this begin?

SW: The reason I started using this playful, childhood aesthetic goes back to when I was in college at Brown University. I was in a visual art department that was very heavy in semiotics. I was introduced to a text by Roland Barthes about toys from his book Mythologies. It was very foundational in shaping the way I would imagine my own practice. Basically, he describes the signifiers, or objects that children are given in childhood as microcosmic representations of signs and symbols and options they’ll negotiate in adulthood. Toys are a practice round for kids, they introduce them to the language of being an adult. At the time, I was thinking a lot about how to integrate alternative narratives into mainstream discourses.

One of the things I think about a lot is that I’m black, white, Japanese and it’s a condition that’s often complex and conflicting. You have more representations of this subject position, such as Barack Obama, in popular culture these days, but at the time it was a position that wasn’t represented very much. I started to attempt to represent it through the language of toys, because they’re a part of learning to understand the world and having a language to understand the world. So, that’s how fantasy started to come into my work. But then I lived in Brazil a number of years later for about two years, and while I was there I started thinking about Carnival tradition and the way that people use fantasy and masquerade to enact alternatives and narratives, or playfully imagine things in the context of a larger culture. So, Barthes was a foundation for toys and play, and fantasy, but Carnival became this way of expanding it into the adult universe.

"Seven Wonders: The Lighthouse," 2007. Gouache on paper,  14" x 17" Courtesy of Zg Gallery.
“Seven Wonders: The Lighthouse,” 2007. Gouache on paper, 14″ x 17″ Courtesy of Zg Gallery.

NJC: I look at your work and I see toys and coloring books, but also specific references, like Candyland and Alice in Wonderland. Are these things you actually refer to on a day-to-day?

SW: At one point I did. Alice in Wonderland, the Disney version, was formative in my thinking about aesthetics. I really love that film and the book was something that I had throughout my childhood and continue to have on my shelf—a beautiful addition that has wonderful drawings and illustrations. I like how Alice is constantly transforming. She becomes small and then she becomes big. She enters into a myriad of different situations and in each she deals with a different set of conditions. I always loved that there’s this human interacting with a bizarre fantasy world; you never quite know if it’s of her own imagining or if it’s real. Candyland is kind of always in my mind, but it’s not something I [necessarily] look to. But Alice in Wonderland is something that I go back to on a regular basis. I grew up in the generation of Super Mario Brothers and I think that influences my aesthetic too. I don’t play video games these days, but moving from one level to another, or thinking about multiple spaces happening simultaneously like in [The Legend of] Zelda, all of those things really shape the way that I conceptualize my project. I also spent all of my childhood summers in Japan and [animator Hayao] Miyazaki has always been an influence of mine.

NJC: Do you see the narratives of your current work continuing to unfold over time?

SW: Yes, I think that I will continue to expand on them. What I like about the multiple temporality structure is that it allows you to capture a lot of information. [In the book On Exactitude in Science], Borges talks about maps that cover the entire world, and then becomes a 1:1 representation. That’s kind of how I think of this project as an ongoing project that is very expansive.


Woolfalk’s work will be on view in the group exhibition Open at Dietch Projects, Long Island City in September. Her performance Ritual of the Empathic will take place at the Studio Museum in Harlem on November 14, 2009. Look out for the November issues of NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art, which will feature an essay about Woolfalk’s work, written by Naomi Beckwith, Curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem.