The Artistry of “No Place”

September 25, 2008 § 2 Comments

Still photos from "Ethnography of No Place" video by Saya Woolfalk and Rachel Lears

Still photos from "Ethnography of No Place" video.

One look at contemporary artist Saya Woolfalk’s work, now showing at The Studio Museum of Harlem’s “New Intuitions” exhibit, and you’ll find yourself enchanted by beauty that at first glance seems lively, as her imagery is full of color with an almost child-like allure.

But this isn’t child’s play in the slightest. A closer look at Woolfalk’s art and you’ll discover that she has constructed an otherwordly universe paired with an imagined culture of her own in an arbitrary attempt to challenge the foundation of what we consider to be reality.

She calls her world, “No Place” and asks us to rethink our assumptions on race, sexuality, nationality, identity, and cultural specifity. How is this knowledge formed? How do our perceptions influence the way we understand ourselves and different cultures? How do our cultural norms subject a sense of “Otherness” to members of a society who aren’t us? How does one break free from the “culture industry,” as Woolfalk puts it?

Create your own world, your own culture.

The aesthetic of “No Place” lies in its ability to appear surreal and yet real at the same time. Faceless, mysterious figures traverse a multicolored verdant wonderland that stretches beyond our imagination through an array of portals, such as paintings, sculptures, installations and a video.

The brightly colored landscape that these figures inhabit is much like our world. There are flowers, rivers, trees, buildings, as well as natural fixtures that have yet to be discovered. Each figure is an individual at best. No two figures are alike in outward appearance although all are sculpted from the same recycled plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, and newspapers–materials the artist borrows from our world. Each character has something that distinguishes their personage.

Painting entitled, "Cartography of No Place."

Painting entitled,"Cartography of No Place."

Woolfalk’s lifeforms and the world she’s created for them convey more meaning in her video, “Ethnography of No Place,” which is shown on a loop at the exhibit among her myriad of paintings, installations, and sculptures that tell the same story. The video, which she created with cultural anthropologist Rachel Lears is the most interesting part of her whole exhibit because it is within this video representation of “No Place,” that we can see her subjects come to life as they are documented in daily routines. The feature is split into six segments: Diary of a Phantom Ride, Self and Landscape, Death and Kin, The Emptiness of Equivalence, Meeting, and Empathy.

The video plays like a documentary at some points as the female narrator’s voice is monotone. At other times it seems like a read along storybook offering little substance. The presentation is whimsically weird. But as you watch the participants outfitted in faceless bodysuits adorned with colorful foliage (identical to the figures in the paintings and sculptors at the exhibit) interact with each other, realism prevails as they dance, mate, engage in rituals, nurse their young, and lay the deceased to rest. The manner in which some of these acts are performed in the video are inspired by cultural forms from places as close as New York and as far away as Brazil, Japan, and Africa.

One of the main themes parlayed throughout the video is sexuality, which is another culturally constructed concept that Woolfalk attempts to expose. The figures in the video reproduce using sex organs that are implanted in their heads. In one scene, a female figure kneels on the ground with her legs partially open as she slowly removes a sex organ from inside her head and inserts it between her legs, simulating sex.

Painting entitled, "No Placean Anatomy"

Painting entitled,"No Placean Anatomy."

Woolfalk’s exhibit at best is an experiment that exposes how the ways in which we comprehend cultures that aren’t our own can lose their authenticity as a result of the assumptions of the outsider’s perspective. By creating a fantasy-like world she is able to use her creativity to promote awareness of this dialogue and, of course craft unique and visually stunning imagery in several formats.

Woolfalk’s work is just one of three other installations from “The New Intuitions” exhibit at The Studio Museum of Harlem now through October 26th.


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