by Madi Pfaff
An expanse of mirror reaches 80 feet across the room to amplify a disheveled boardwalk. Ahead, is an enormous stained glass window illuminating endless post-apocalyptic sand dunes strewn with depleted, soiled, and decayed ephemera, including discarded household items, packaging, attic trinkets, a front door, a family-sized couch complete with pillows, and a shrub strewn with twinkling lights. In the background, an eerie soundscape plays, featuring clips from an electric rock set, a descending progression of piano keys in an empty room, and a recording of dissonant desert wind. Torn and twisted lamp posts give off the only other light; they are bent over a boardwalk that they once stood on. To the left, the right, and below are mirrors reflecting the installation from all sides into each other.
Samara Golden’s Upstairs at Steve’s at the Fabric Workshop and Museum is an engrossing, oxymoronic hall of mirrors. Viewers enter facing the exhibit, displayed in a large open room with a wooden ramp at the far end. The mirrors below reflect the installation from above, which is installed on the ceiling, in miniature. The reflection creates an illusion that the display exists many feet underneath it. The illusion is continued when observers, looking on either side, see a half dozen versions of themselves looking back, and another half dozen reflections looking at themselves looking, as the viewer is subsumed into the installation. These figures and the dune scene along with the boardwalk are also iterated about a dozen times on either side. The feeling is that one is existing in a fractal of a larger tessellation.
Exiting the ramp, text on the wall invites visitors to record minute-long audio clips of their immediate surroundings and submit them to the museum to further add to the din of the soundscape. By the back elevator along the wall, there is text by the artist, guiding participants to grapple with their perspective of time and mortality. The last one before exiting the gallery aptly reads,
“A view from inside, of the outside with the outside inside
A view of the outside turned inside out
The view is the puzzle.”
Golden creates visual disruption, disorienting the viewer by casting an image in the third dimension from the ceiling onto the floor, into the second dimension, reminiscent of M.C. Escher’s tessellations and famous lithographs. Golden’s work has an ethereal quality, but there is an underlying urgency to her installation. Bits of fabric and paper hang down from the ceiling, using gravity to appear as though they are standing upright in the mirrored image. Structural parts of the ceiling and fire sprinklers have been painted white, and become part of the topography of the scene, dividing the space up into horizontal sections. Observers are constantly confronted with whether or not to look into the installation to see the surface of the mirrors, or to gaze into the space projected within the mirrors. By directly representing the viewer within the work, just as the mirrors project depth, the audience projects their lived experiences onto the set.
The miniatures Golden has placed on the ceiling are handcrafted, composed of hardware, and set design materials. It is evident that the artist created, or sourced and aged, the materials herself. Despite being reproductions, they are all identifiable as objects the viewer may use and throw away throughout time: a couch, an empty carton of Corona beer, several mattresses. People are constantly consuming various take-out foods, and, with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, ordering clothing and groceries online has become increasingly popular. If Golden’s objects were not reproduced miniatures, but roadside ephemera, they might be filled with maggots and flies. Observers look closer and see an old VHS video camera, a shrub covered in twinkling Christmas lights, and a well-weathered tea kettle. The atmosphere of Golden’s installation is relative to the degree to which miniature sculptures evoke nostalgia. An apropos portion of the artist’s wall text states,
“This place is thinking about all its memories.”
By using objects that evoke childhood memories in parallel with intimately used but disposable commodities, the artist invites the viewer to project themselves into the piece and question their own mortality.
Golden utilizes scale and sound to create a feeling of being suspended in time, like bugs trapped in amber. The installation is shrouded in a spectral sonic environment made up of disembodied guitar riffs and echoing piano scales. With text on the wall, the artist invites viewers to send in one-minute audio clips of “sounds of a place that is meaningful to you,” and submit them to the museum to add to the recording. By inviting her audience to actively participate in the work, Golden points out that they are already passively participating by observing. By using scale to place the spectator directly within her ersatz dollhouse and asking them to engage in the accumulation of sound, she entreats the audience to question their own scale both physically and existentially. While the viewer is but a single prototile in a nexus of prototiles, they are still oversized compared to the miniature items on the ceiling.
Without the audience to gaze over this degraded canyon, there is nothing human about the installation. It is a wasteland of food wrappers and cast-off furniture, a ghost of every holiday, sick day, and workweek past. It is only when we walk up the ramp, grab hold of the balcony, and gaze into the mirrored surface that we see ourselves, in multiple, reflected in the work. Looking out into a sea of objects that we, too, have cast away in abundance throughout our lifetimes. Inspecting the spaces at our left or right and witnessing the wasteland reiterated implies that this is each individual’s legacy: through consumption and waste production each human life drains a portion of our world’s resources. Despite Golden’s capacity to suggest different dimensions of time with mirrors as a surface, her use of dilapidated imagery proposes a world in entropy.
Golden’s work tends towards the psychological, using architecture, light, and immersion to create a politically charged fantasy realm, in which to evaluate class systems, social anxieties, and environmental realities. In 2017, she showed The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes at the Whitney Biennial, using mirrors and tiny sets to compare spaces of public vs. private use. In 2015, Golden exhibited The Flat Side of the Knife at MoMA PS1, again employing mirrors and several sets of spiral staircases to build an endless corridor representing thought and memory throughout time.
Golden’s work is paradoxical, allowing for recognition of infinity’s rhythm. Upstairs at Steve’s presents participants with a symbol of the infinite in the form of a visual puzzle: an ouroboros. Within the vast gallery, the artist has installed wall text from one end to the next. Another section of the wall text reads,
“There are a multitude of possible lives or possible outcomes. It is also possible to put these up against each other in one place, a big unsolvable puzzle.”
Ouroboros originated as an ancient Egyptian symbol, which later became a symbol in Greek alchemy, representing time as a cyclical entity. Certain snakes, such as cobras, eat other snakes and may mistake their own tail for another. Eventually, they get stuck in a loop, ultimately killing themselves. When a snake commits ouroboros its end (tail) merges with its beginning (head), creating a perfect loop. Samara Golden’s world upside down doesn’t signify death, but rather a regeneration. Deeply cerebral, her work presents an optical illusion using light, architecture, surface, and scale in an endeavor to project a continuum of parallel realities. Her use of mute tones, decaying ephemera, and haunting soundscape suggest deterioration. By using mirrors to implement the audience in the performance, Golden achieves a sense of complicity and asks viewers to critically confront, question, and reassess our impact.
Upstairs at Steve’s departs from traditional installation in that it doesn’t simply use space, but creates it. Golden uses mirrors to cast the audience as characters in her installation. She provides no escape from her work. The audience is not only viewing the optical illusion, they are a part of the optical illusion. In times fraught with social anxiety, the artist breaks the mold by inviting observers into a place of reflection, where they may question the systems and structures that be, while urging them to bear witness to their own complex role within those systems.
Upstairs at Steve’s is on display at the Fabric Workshop and Museum through January 31st.
Madi Pfaff is a multidisciplinary artist and alumni of Tyler School of Art. Their most recent exhibit, Peep Show, displayed a range of mediums including an ongoing body of performative work. Find them on Instagram @drawingoutsidelines or at https://madipfaff.myportfolio.com/.