Contextual Essay

Saya Woolfalk is an Asian-African performance artist who has no problem being identified as such because they are terms that she uses to understand herself.[1] Her own understanding of herself and of her experiences has influenced her performance project, which she calls No Place. This fantasy world of No Place shows the influence of the varied background of a woman born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an African-American and white father. Within this fantasy world are elements from Woolfalk’s experiences living and visiting Japan and Brazil. No Place has evolved as she has evolved incorporating those real-life worlds she encounters. It is into this brightly colored world of fantasy that Saya Woolfalk invites visitors to experience and engage with visually.

Taking her inspiration from ethnography, feminist, and psychoanalytic theory she uses a variety of media to create the fantasy world of No Place. Created three years ago, it is a world inhabited by Empathics, Pleasure Machines, Cleaners, and other fictional characters.[2] People are part plant and part human and are constantly in flux. They change colors throughout their life cycle, becoming a part of the landscape when they die. Woolfalk envisions No Place as taking place within three temporalities, the present, the future, and the future of the future.[3] She has documented this future world in a documentary style video called Ethnography of No Place, which she worked on with Rachel Lears.[4] Woolfalk has likened the aesthetics of Ethnography to Lygia Clark’s work in art and Augusto Boal’s in theater.[5] It is important to understand that because the world of No Place takes place in the future, except for A Ritual of the Empathics, that means that it has never been performed live, but documented in Ethnography of No Place.[6]

She began using fantasy and toys in her projects as a way to understand herself as black, white, and Japanese. Her introduction to Roland Barthes discussion of toys in Mythologies during a course at Brown University helped shape the way she imagines her own practice.[7] She perceives language to be very important to her work and toys are a part of this language. As she understands it toys have a language that is a part of how you understand the world. Woolfalk has also cited the influence of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, Alice in Wonderland, and video games from her childhood on her work.[8] Yet, it was her experience in Brazil over the course of two years, which enhanced her understanding of No Place as she used Carnival to bring the fantasy of toys into the adult world. All of these influences can be seen in the aesthetic she creates with No Place.

Her time in Brazil from 2004-2006 for Fulbright Fellowship also introduced Woolfalk to the use of narrative as a powerful tool. While researching local performance traditions she was taken with how performance practitioners used a combination of handicraft and storytelling to transform the everyday world. Her understanding of these traditions became integral for No Place and how she could insert the fantastical into the everyday.[9] Religion has also played an important part in Saya Woolfalk’s understanding of No Place as she has drawn upon her recent 2008 trip to Japan where she saw many Shinto and Buddhist temples and where she encountered a variety of rituals during childhood summer trips to Japan.[10]

Woolfalk sees No Place as an ongoing experience and as such it is always evolving. Having completed Ethnography of No Place and A Ritual of the Empathics Woolfalk shows no signs of leaving her utopic fantasy world. For a future project the pleasure machines will appear in video works as religious images of the Empathics. She has developed a series of paintings for this called Epoch of No Place.[11] She hopes to revisit the collaborative nature of A Ritual of the Empathics,[12] a process she relates to the collective and collaborative women’s movement of the 1960s.[13] Woolfalk promises to continuing mapping the terrain of what she calls an ever-changing society.[14]


[1] http://artfulgreendot.com/2009/09/29/discussing-political-art-with-saya-woolfalk/. Audrey Tran, September 29, 2009.

[2] http://blog.art21.org/2009/08/18/the-future-with-saya-woolfalk/. Nicole Caruth, August 18, 2009.

[3] Caruth, 2009.

[4] http://www.wmagazine.com/artdesign/2008/11/saya_woolfalk. Timothy McCahill. November 2008.

[5] Tran, 2009.

[6] Email conversation between Saya Woolfalk, Laura Fravel, and Cheryl Caskey. December 14, 2009.

[7] Caruth, 2009.

[8] Caruth, 2009.

[9] Woolfalk, Fravel, Caskey. 2009.

[10] Woolfalk, Fravel, Caskey. 2009.

[11] Woolfalk, Fravel, Caskey. 2009.

[12] Woolfalk, Fravel, Caskey. 2009.

[13] Tran, 2009.

[14] Tran, 2009.

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