An object sparking déjà vu; a controlled environment leaking through its cracks; a scene that feels familiar but has never been seen before. These slippages in our realities are often seen as uncanny or supernatural, restrained by impossibility and the limits of fact or truth. To stay in the realm of “normalcy”, we consider these glitches to be illusions or hallucinations – but are these moments of uncertainty external to the human experience? New York-based artist Saya Woolfalk isn’t sure you should be so sure. “You don’t know what you’re looking at,” the artist reflects, both on life and her own work. “You have no idea what you’re seeing.”
In 2019, one could encounter Woolfalk’s work at a diverse number of venues across the United States – from the Seattle Art Museum, to 21c Hotel Bentonville, to World Trade Center’s Oculus. Woolfalk created an immersive installation at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center: creating a large-scale mural in-situ, outdoors on a building in Cincinnati, and collaborating with the cultural anthropologist Aimee Meredith Cox on dance performances that weaved through the city. The artist was also awarded the “Art in Resonance'' series of commissions for The Peninsula Hotels, beginning with a multimedia installation last fall in Paris, a first for the storied luxury hotel brand. Each opportunity outside the established academic museum community prompts a new way to connect. As Woolfalk states, “I’m more interested in interaction with the viewer and the object, and what that will bring to their experience.”
In a recent Ted Talk public address, Woolfalkhas wagered the question: “What world do you want to live in?” Her answer has taken on elements of sculpture, painting, printmaking, performance and dance; all critiqued, filtered, represented and expressed through “eco-feminism, Afro-Futurism, or the spiritual traditions of Japan”. Woolfalkrattles off this sample list of socio-anthropological considerations that she imbues in her work, but maintains: “I don’t tend to repeat or replicate ideas, my work to date has been super consistent.” This practice of intent leads to work that combines a smooth formula of aesthetics, politics and institutional critique.
Just what do these mysterious, otherworldly, uncharacterizable spaces actually look like? Perhaps the most identifying aspect in Woolfalk’s polychromatic vernacular is her ability to infuse recognizable forms and symbols (flora, fauna, fractals) with bright hues that depict the narratives of human – and humanoid – societies. These are often presented in the familiar formats of museum exposition, i.e. objects on plinths or mannequins in cultural dress. As Woolfalk’s practice has expanded, she’s mastered the immersive installation form—though she is quick to admit that when she began working, around 2001, immersive art “was completely opaque to everyone. There was a lack of comprehension.”
With the advent of pop-up museums, Instagram, and the cultural popularity of work by artists such as James Turrell and Yayoi Kusama, audiences are increasingly fluent in the medium of Woolfalk’s practice. However, she explains her grounding force when producing works: “The reality is that I'm trying to communicate. I’m not someone who thinks: I’m smarter than you.” Aesthetics, process and the discipline of art-making greatly concern her, and Woolfalk elaborates: “My project is more that I want to engage audiences with the content I’m distributing, and how narrative can be distributed about the person whose space they’re in, so they can be empowered and think critically – about the space that person was inhabiting and a space they produced.”
Take, for example, her "ChimaCloud" series, which was exhibited in 2019 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri; previously displayed in New York in 2016 as part of the Times Square public art program, “Midnight Moment,”and at her gallery Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects in 2017. The series has taken form in video, humanoid sculpture, and light projections that can be exhibited both indoors and outdoors. It explores an ever-expanding story about a future world inhabited by a hybrid, plant-human race named the Empathics, and the objects and artefacts that this society creates. When Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects brings Woolfalk’s work to Independent Art Fair this March, the presentation will feature mixed media sculptural works, video animations, drawings and prints from this series. Just as human societies are ever-evolving and ever-accumulating, so are Woolfalk’s worlds.
Woolfalk’s vernacular avoids cynicism, which might be an expected catch-all to explain an artist who creates alternative worlds. Grounded, joyful, jubilant and generous: these are the words that Woolfalk says describe her practice. “I want people to walk into a space and feel it wants to hold them,” she says with a laugh. That warmth, the glow, the possibilities, the hope: with these qualifiers, her worlds – depictions of futuristic societies of integration and hybridity – could be utopias. These alternative realities are a vehicle to explore fraught identities, not just of the self but on a societal level, concerning claims of power and agency. “The foundation of the work comes from identity,” says Woolfalk, whether that means tackling questions of categorization, genre or even personal identity.
Woolfalk herself was born in Japan, to a Japanese mother and an African American and white American father. She describes finding herself surrounded by, “lots of different experiences I was having simultaneously”. When making things with her Japanese grandmother in her house in the mountainous prefecture of Gifu, Japan (where, she says, her identity as an artist first emerged); or when listening to stories about her paternal grandparents’ life in Harlem, Woolfalk’s own world is shaped by her family story. “The work is not about me, it’s intentionally not about me,” she says, although she acknowledges that this doesn’t mean the lessons life has taught “Saya the person” don't also inform “Saya the artist.” These two sides coexist, and pinning Woolfalk down as either woman or artist is challenging: “I’m difficult to do with that, you can't really do that with me,” she says.
One could say that Woolfalk’s work slips through the structures of identity and categorization that society and art history have demanded. Woolfalk rejects binaries and meaning-derived, relational positioning. “You think you're looking at something, but it’s not a thing because it’s just something else - it’s simultaneously all of those things.” That hybridity, the co-existence of fraught or oppositional forces is what makes her worlds utopian. “Even in that space, I think ‘where are the complicities?’, ‘where is this failing?’. Even the system I built; you can poke a hole in it. I’m constantly putting these trigger experiences, of ‘I don't trust this person telling me this story’ or ‘is this something I really want? Does this make any sense?’.” Dig deeper into these works and the imperfections, the damage, the splinters are where the interest lies. It seems impossible to dream of another world, undamaged by the social, political and economic structures left in place by modernism and postmodernism; and by this age of acceleration. That’s where Woolfalk comes in - between the cracks.