• Amanda Breitbach

The Business of Asking Questions: Saya Woolfalk’s Bodies of Work

Artist Saya Woolfalk’s works in paint, soft sculpture, installation, and video playfully and powerfully re-imagine the possibilities of being human. Using color, sculptural costumes, performance, and storytelling, the New York artist simultaneously envisions a future utopia and critiques the shortcomings of contemporary society.

Woolfalk will discuss three recent, inter-related bodies of work—No Place, The Empathics, and ChimaTEK—in a Humanities on the Edge lecture at the Sheldon Museum of Art on March 3rd.

Through play, children explore their potential futures, often imagining situations and roles for themselves that are not “possible” according to the rules and logic of the world as it exists. Woolfalk takes this idea as a jumping-off point, using play and imagination to create a better world—to courageously ask, Why not?

No Place, a body of work made between 2005 and 2009, explores the future as a realm of possibility, reconfiguring biology, class, race, sexuality, and the environment in ways that blur boundaries and challenge assumptions. It is a sprawling effort, including paintings, soft fabric sculptures, room-size installations, and a 30-minute film that incorporates all of these media, produced in collaboration with the anthropologist Rachel Lears.

The name No Place comes from the word utopia, invented by Sir Thomas More from the Greek prefix ou, meaning “not,” and topos, “place.” Implicit in More’s use of the word was the idea that the ideal world could not exist—it was not a real place. Woolfalk seems to suggest something slightly different: that the ideal world does not exist yet. In No Place, the artist created a full and complex future world, peopled by creatures who seem to be a hybrid combination of humans and plants and filled with the familiar trappings of fairy tales and folklore, including castles, pyramids, and sailing ships. Pieces in the series consistently combine images that remind the viewer of childhood and play with questions about profound adult problems.

The film, Ethnography of No Place, for example, begins with a still photograph of a brightly colored structure, reminiscent of a child’s playhouse, placed in what appears to be a public park with the Manhattan skyline in the background. The narrator intones, “This portal is a threshold of their world. Let’s take a look at the glyphs. Don’t worry if it’s difficult at first—follow me.” Framing the story as it might be told by an anthropologist, even this first sentence makes important references to transformation, translation, and fear. The viewer is invited to approach the story as a scientist studying another culture, to step through a portal into another world that belongs to “the other,” to examine that culture’s symbols, and is encouraged not to be fearful. This last admonition is significant, indicating that the viewer/scientist is not in a position of omniscience or omnipotence, but rather is approaching an understanding that “might be difficult at first” and which will require that he or she follow someone who has prior experience with it. In other words, the viewer should behave as a student and be prepared to learn.

The action unfolds in chapters with heavy titles like, “Self and Landscape,” “Death and Kin,” and “The Emptiness of Equivalence.” Dancers in costumes that look like flower/animals move slowly as the narrator speaks of pollination/sex, death, love, and gratitude. In the final chapter, “Empathy,” two plant/animal figures face each other, mirroring each other’s slow, circular movements without speaking. Finally, they reach towards each other. When their hands come together, they make the same slow, circular gesture again, but with hands joined. Using the fiction of this beautiful, imaginative future world, Woolfalk seems to offer us tools for understanding other cultures that we coexist with in the present: humility, patience, and empathy.

In the epilogue, the scene returns to the playhouse that opened the film. A colorfully costumed figure appears in the park where the portal first welcomed us to the new world. Slowly pulling a cart filled with pieces of the portal, she seems patient, burdened, maybe sorrowful as the voice of the narrator asks, “If such architecture may be transported from one world to another, how can we apprehend its secrets?” The shot cuts from the figure and her cargo to the city skyline. It is fitting that the film ends with a question rather than a resolution. It is the business of artists like Woolfalk to ask questions, to suggest methods and invite ideas rather than to make pronouncements of fact or simplistic answers.

Moving backward, from the future to the present, Woolfalk next invented The Empathics. Again, the work is about storytelling and myth-making, hybridity, understanding, and transformation. According to the myth, a group of women stumble upon a burial site in upstate New York, discovering bones with an unfamiliar genetic “chimerism,” containing the genetic material of both human and plant organisms. This work is presented on the website of the Institute of Empathy and in museum installations, where the artist pushes the pseudoscience angle to make viewers question how much of the story is real and how much is fantasy. The researchers in her story discover a fungus that helped transform this historical species and then apply that knowledge to deliberately transform themselves, developing multiple brains and using a lucid dreaming technique to reconcile their new culture and being with the old one.

Finally, with ChimaTEK, Woolfalk brings this imaginary world into the commercial sphere. In this chapter of the evolving story, the Empathics form a company to market their research. Woolfalk’s installations and videos offer products that will transform customers, enabling them to transcend ordinary limits, to become hybrid species themselves with an elevated consciousness that bypasses the limits of ethnocentrism, racism, and sexism.

These works reach far beyond the ordinary domain of the fine arts, beyond formal considerations like media, line, and color toward important questions about what it means to be human and how we should coexist with other life on Earth. According to Lowery Stokes Sims, curator at the Museum of Arts and Design, “Woolfalk’s work does not merely engage the rubric of identity . . . it is conviction such as hers that can move cultures and shift the meta-narrative.”

The theme of this year’s Humanties on the Edge lecture series is “Posthuman Futures,” and Woolfalk’s work fits neatly within that subject matter, while also pushing it in an interesting direction. Jonathan Walz, a co-organizer of the series and curator of American art at the Sheldon Museum of Art, said, “Given that HotE’s theme this year dealt with trans-humanism, Saya Woolfalk’s work immediately sprang to mind. Her investigations at the intersections of sex, hybridity, race, and gender are beautiful, important, and timely.” Those who enjoy the work and ideas presented in the lecture may have another opportunity to see it, he added, as the Sheldon is in dialogue with the artist regarding a possible future collaboration.

-Amanda Breitbach is a photographer and an MFA candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Work Cited

Sims, Lowery Stokes. “No Placeans and Empathics." Real Art Ways. Hartford: Real Art Ways, 2011.

Images (in order of apperance):

1. Woolfalk, Saya. "Ethnography of No Place." Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics. 2008. Online video. <http://www.hemisphericinstitute.org/eng/publications/emisferica/5.2/artistpresentation/noplace/gallery.html>.

2. Ibid.

3. Woolfalk, Saya. Chimera. 2013. Digital video and mixed media installation at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. AMMO Magazine. <http://cargocollective.com/ammo/Art-Talk-Saya-Woolfalk>.

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