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This new Philly art exhibit is a grand illusion, showing a world turned upside down.

Using mirrors, artist Samara Golden has transformed an area that’s about the size of a studio apartment into an impossibly large and lofty landscape, littered with fragments of a life.

Detail from Samara Golden's installation "Upstairs at Steve's (2020),"  in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum.
Detail from Samara Golden's installation "Upstairs at Steve's (2020)," in collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum.Read moreCarlos Avendano

Samara Golden’s installation, Upstairs at Steve’s, on view at Fabric Workshop and Museum through Jan. 31, is a reflection of a world turned upside down.

I mean that literally. The Los Angeles-based artist has taken a wedge of FWM’s eighth floor gallery and installed, upside down, on the ceiling, a tableau of devastation and destruction.

Using mirrors on the floors and walls, she has transformed an area that’s about the size of a studio apartment into an impossibly large and lofty landscape, seemingly devastated by a hurricane and littered with debris, including a sofa and a bush with Christmas lights.

This outdoor vista is dominated by a monumental building that is, in fact, simply the multiple reflection of half of one of the gallery’s existing windows. Ramps appear to radiate from this apparent building, which Golden calls a lighthouse, though it doesn’t really resemble one. They lead through a series of sand dunes, upon which are scattered the remains of shattered domesticity.

Viewers stand on a platform and survey this vast virtual space that stretches down and up and all around. If you look to your right or left, you seem to be part of a large audience, a ring perhaps of an opera house. Look closer and you will see that the spectators are mostly reflections of yourself.

It is a truly grand illusion, really something to see.

It has much in common with the infinity rooms by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama that have drawn enormous crowds to museums throughout the world. But while Kusama’s works are phantasmagorias of polka dots and fireflies, Golden deploys her optical tricks to accommodate dark emotions. She explodes the world in order to look within her own feelings.

Golden began working with the staff artists and administrators at FWM more than two years ago, as part of a residency. Thus it was conceived before the pandemic, before the economic collapse, before the wild fires, before George Floyd’s killing. But if viewers want to use this room to reflect on the shocks of 2020, they have the artist’s blessing.

The one thing she does not want visitors to do, she has said, is to look up at the ceiling and see the chairs and baskets, grasses and garbage, and ersatz upside-down sand dunes she affixed to it. She prefers they look straight ahead and all around, losing themselves in the illusion.

I can understand her desire, but I cannot obey. Perhaps it is because I have spent so much time writing about architecture, I need to figure out the shape of the room, see where the seams are in the mirrors, suss out the mechanics of wonder.

Though this is meant as a meditative work, most of its power an appeal comes from its spectacular aspects.

It’s fun to notice, for example, that the sofa that is one of the most visible elements of the installation, is actually only half a sofa. It becomes whole only when it is mirrored. What’s even more interesting is that this is not actually a full-sized sofa but only half-sized.

Indeed, everything we see is half of life size. The effect is to make the space feel more vast and more littered.

This shrinkage also made the work far harder to execute. Rather than scavenge broken chairs, crushed boxes, pillows, artificial Christmas trees, and the many other bits of debris that fill the space, Golden and her collaborators had to create them by hand at half size. Indeed, several FWM staff members spent the initial portion of the coronavirus shutdown crafting miniature wreckage and refuse.

There’s something both marvelous and appalling about all this effort. I keep coming back to the art historian Kenneth Clark’s description of the “willful superfluity” of renaissance art. Like Michelangelo’s frescoes at the Sistine Chapel, Upstairs at Steve’s, is an obsessive and extravagant effort, and it’s mounted on the ceiling besides.

But Michelangelo had a great subject — the creation. Golden’s subject is more personal and elusive. A text panel explains that Steve was Golden’s brother in law, who suffered from ALS, a disease that shuts down the body while leaving the mind, what’s upstairs, functioning.

In a statement on the wall near the exhibition, Golden writes, “This place has all the grief we have felt over a lost friend, all the ways we can hurt the earth, even when we don’t want to … all the contradictions … the way we find beauty even if there is no way to get there.”

In another statement she writes, “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.”

These, and a few more similar statements, are all the visitor is told about the artist’s intentions. It is about Steve and climate change. And like a church, perhaps, it is meant as place to stop, gather your thoughts and feel your emotions. “This place is thinking about all its memories,” the artist writes.

Golden invites us to use the place to recognize and soothe the hurts and shocks of life, both those we experience as individuals and those we experience as a society. After the experience of the last six months, I went there ready to be moved.

Yet, though I was dazzled by its ingenuity, it falls, for me, well short of being a spiritual space. Its vision is so personal, I don’t quite know how to share it. Its attempt to create an outdoor landscape indoors is meant to be paradoxical, but it feels to me incoherent. The bedraggled remnants of domestic life, however meticulously crafted, do not bear the weight of my grief.

Upstairs at Steve’s is like the shrine of a religion that exists only in Golden’s mind. She clearly wants to create a shared experience, but her imagery is scattered, intellectually as well as physically. Perhaps the radically individualist mindset that permeates contemporary art, and most of the rest of the society, makes it impossible to create something transcendent.

As an optical and perceptual feat, Upstairs at Steve’s is wondrous. But in the end, I found less here than meets the eye.

Upstairs at Steve’s

Through Jan. 31 at Fabric Workshop and Museum.

Hours: noon-6 p.m. Tues.-Fri. (members only on Fridays), noon-5 p.m. Sat. and Sun.

Admission: free, with a $5 suggested donation. Timed tickets only, at Masks required, social distancing enforced, access to the exhibition is by elevator.