Sarah: Hi Samara, thank you for this. I just got your images from the studio. This is the work you are preparing for an installation at Whitney Biennial . The photos are amazing, I’m starstruck!
Samara: Oh cool. I just took them last night because I realised that I should show you what’s going on.
Sarah: I think it’s interesting for people to hear about what you’re doing right now. Could you start by describing your intention with this project?
Samara: Ok, I’ll try to describe the physical part of it first:
There is going to be a viewing platform that’s about two and a half feet higher than the actual museum floor, so to get to it you’ll go up a wheel chair ramp that snakes around on both sides. From the viewing platform you’ll see into a space that is about thirty-three feet wide by fifteen feet deep, with floor to ceiling windows that look over the Hudson on the far side. On the right and left side of the space are three physical levels: one on floor level, one eight feet up, and another at ceiling level. From the viewing platform you see a twelve by twenty foot mirrored floor and a mirrored ceiling above it. There are also mirrors on both sides. When looking into the reflection below and above you, you’ll see four vignettes on each side of the room (floor level, underside of the eight-foot platform, upper side of the eight-foot platform, ceiling level). So, eight vignettes. I don’t really like the word vignette but I don’t know how else to say it—I guess I’ve been calling them rooms. In addition to the rooms and the viewing platform there are faux walkways in front of the windows, which is because there were air vents that I needed to hide. Part of ‘figuring out the piece’ is having to deal with real space and its needs, while also working out the imagined space of the piece. Then, the way the illusion is supposed to work, you look down into the mirror and it feels as if there’s an endless atrium and those four vignettes on each side are repeating below you and above you. Also, If you look in the mirrors on the side walls, some of the rooms will look like they continue repeating forever, although honestly I’m not sure whether that part will work as intended.
Sarah: Wow. Can you tell me more about these office setups I saw in one of the pictures I saw in one of the pictures? The things look very realistic but that’s not the thing that makes the scene actually feel real. It’s just that there’s a feeling for the place. At first I thought that you must be working in a real office building but then I started to look closely and I could see that it was styrofoam and, if you get up close, it’s obvious that it’s not real. I think you have a knack of breathing the spirit of the places into these scenes, in a way that I find almost hard to believe. Every time I see your work I feel there’s magic at play. What’s the scale of the installation? Is it all half-sized?
Samara: Thanks Sarah, that makes me so happy, I should talk to you more often – because sometimes it’s easy to lose perspective and becomes difficult to keep going but you cheer me up. Yes, it’s all half-sized.
I always know what I’m aiming for in my mind, but I forget that it’s called spirit, you know? I forget the point in trying to deal with all of the logistics of getting it done. Even though I know what I want it to look like and what I want it to feel like, sometimes I don’t have the language for it. So I’m happy that you can see it, even at this stage.
Sarah: Yes, like the little post-it notes in the garbage, empty Chinese food containers and the trash bags. These little bits of humanity that I remember from when you were working on your last piece at CANADA. There was this sense of you being so focused on these little details: the things that wind up being greater than the sum of their parts.
Samara: I agree but it’s strange, because the details are the things that I love but have the least amount of time to do, so it’s interesting as a way of making things. It’s like having a big picture, but all these things need to happen in order to make that imagined place become a real place in the world. In order to get to the level I’m talking about, where you’ve drilled down into the specific details, you have to be really far along in the process. I always want and hope to get there.
I’ve been thinking more and more that the best way to do an amazing installation would be to have years to work on it…to keep on adding to it. But I’m sure that it would shift in feeling so many times that ultimately there wouldn’t be any clear thought left in it. Which could be interesting but maybe wouldn’t work.
Even with the form I am working on now, parallel to the whole Trump situation: it’s gone through fifteen different stages and meant so many different things to me already. Wanting to go all the way, but before I went all the way there, I hear new information and then this gets put in there as well, and sends things in different directions.
For the past few months this white nationalism conversation has been bubbling up—which for me is pure terror—imagining that we might be going back to the skinheads. That it could be ‘okay’, or popular again, for people to be white nationalists in America. In the wake of this, I decided to put swastikas on the vents in the White Room, which is the top room of the installation. That floor is supposed to be a sort of ‘fancy’, aspirational, white-carpeted room penthouse apartment. It’s about our obsession with the idea that money breeds happiness, that money is everything. The swastikas were going to be hidden inside the patterns of the air vents—my point being that things are constantly shifting and changing and the piece is shifting and changing in response. Sometimes this is good but sometimes I feel like a leaf in the wind.
Sarah: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the work capturing this present moment or present vision, because there is so much memory in your work for me. But it also is creating something that is just right now: very real right now. Is there a vision that you have that’s overarching? I was looking at one of your old titles; “there’s more but it’s invisible” and I felt that all your work could almost fall under this category. It’s capturing something that we can’t see in our everyday reality but that maybe is there. Can you try to give words to what the vision is?
Samara: Well, I have to talk about specific pieces. In the work I did for the CANADA show, Istarted by thinking about the installation as each of the four walls exemplifying a thought of their own. I saw the whole installation as one person’s mind: four walls, four thoughts happening at once. The viewer was suspended in the middle, able to see all four thoughts simultaneously, but not able to choose which one to concentrate on, mimicking the confusion of ‘thinking’ and decision making.
I think of it as a mental space that I am trying to make into a physical space but, in the translation of it, there have to be multiple conflicting conversations and ways of being contained in that one thought or mental place. I think the idea of being overwhelmed is always present in my work. Although I don’t like to call things spiritual, I can’t think of a better word to describe it, almost like being in between dreaming and being awake.
I’ve been having a lot of migraines over the last two days and in my dream the other morning, I was having a migraine in the dream and I couldn’t drive because I couldn’t see. So I started to walk into a forest and saw the classic jaggedly-clear shapes known as migraine aura, in front of me. Then I woke up and, as I looked into the room, I saw the shape, the aura, in the exact same place. For a minute, I was completely in awe because I’ve known this to be true. I’ve gotten migraines in my sleep and known that the aura comes through in the same place when you wake up, but I literally was thinking: does that mean that when you dream, the dream is really projected into your eyelids, and that you are really seeing your dream, and then that’s why the aura is there?
Basically, it’s a tangent of what I’m talking about, but I sort of like the idea of when you’re between being asleep and awake, there are all these places in your mind that are constantly changing and you’re constantly changing. To bring it to an even weirder level, when dreaming: it’s okay if you know that you might be a chair in a dream. You know you are a chair. Then all of the sudden you’re an animal and it’s no big deal and then you’re you, but there’s no real difference in a certain way, other than how people treat you, or how animals treat you, or your relationship to other things.
But, back to a more overarching idea for how I think about work. What I want to achieve, seems impossible on Earth, so I try to make structures that literally can hold some of these complicated thoughts, and put them up against each other in a way that feels like it generates some of that same level of conflict or confusion.
Sarah: That makes a lot of sense. I think the place that you’re trying to get to can be really hard to get to and it’s almost like: that’s the point of art.
Your practice is almost like that of a method actor. You are creating that feeling of overwhelm and you are in the process of making these things, it’s impossible for you not to be overwhelmed yourself. The intensity of the experience you have in making this work is part of how the final piece achieves its intensity. Then this place you’re taking us to, is very specific but once can’t put a finger on it. I love that you are solidifying or turning into a physical reality, this thing that we can never really ever, ever get to. We can never grab onto that feeling between sleep and wake, no matter how hard you try, but somehow you manage to crystalize it.
Samara: All of those things are the goal of the work, ultimately. I spend the majority of every day just trying to figure out what kind of screw would hold that thing upside down. It’s a really weird thing to do as a rushed project because you’re suspended in this logistical, logical earthbound place, whilst also trying to create things that have an otherworldly feeling, so you need to spend a huge amount of time on the technical aspect of it. Eventually, I’ll have to get good at it, in a way that doesn’t destroy me, you know?
That logistical stress is asserted against the enjoyment of making these beautiful, specific things that I really want to make. The process is probably very important to the way the work comes out—it’s really being, when you have a chance to make stuff. And figuring it out through making it is one of the best feelings that there is.
Sarah: In watching you, it feels like you’re taking a huge leap of faith, certainly at the beginning of each project, into the vast unknown. You have a lot of experience and skill in the technicality of what you do but it feels like every time there are so many unknowns, so I love to hear you talking about the joy of that discovery.
Samara: Yes, it’s incredible to get the chance to do these projects. I feel really lucky that I’m able to explore this area where I get to make these structures.
Sarah: I feel that sculpture, when it is physical, just is. And similarly, in making things that are physical—it’s almost like willing them into the world or allowing them in. You don’t even know what it’s going to look like but you know that you want to see it and no one else is going to make it, so it’s up to you to make it.
Tell us more about this work, is it a hospital?
Samara: The current plan is that the whole first floor is what I’ve been calling the Hospital/Industrial/Prison. It was supposed to be in between a hospital, a factory, and a prison.
My dad used to work at a water plant when I was a kid and I was always really fascinated by the break room there and everything about this industrial, concrete life. This floor is meant to be about that and also, psychologically for me, all of the scary and horrible things intertwined.
Then the ceiling level has white carpet on every platform. I think of it as representing aspirational wealth in America and the idea that if you’re rich, you’ll be happy. The idea of being rich as being clean, but also being like Trump. I can’t separate it from my ideas of Trump at the moment. I am trying to create this look that’s elitist in its physicality.
I’ve used some of these looks before, to create an angelic feel. I hate using that word, but I mean a ‘clean’, beautiful idea of the white light and all that. Here in this context, I want it to be both: the terrible thing and the beautiful place all at once. I want every floor to contain those two realities.
Then there are two middle floors: one on the bottom of the platform and one on the top of the platform. One of them is an Office, which we talked about earlier. That one is based on the offices that my sister used to work in, which were all in Midtown. They were in that old office style, where everything is the same so everyone messes up their desk as much as they want. Just overwhelming amounts of papers, and people living this depressing life devoted to production. To me, this was a really dark thing that I was trying to recreate. I started with that idea and then explored different areas of it.
Then, above that platform is this Exercise Room. It’s supposed to be a sort of gym although I haven’t gotten very far on it yet because I keep wanting to change it. It’s sort of been the last idea to come around.
Then on the other side of the room, on the underside of the platform, there’s a room I’m calling the Beechwood House. It’s sort of based on this house I lived in when I was growing up. It was the most amazing house, kind of a fake Frank Lloyd Wright house in Michigan. I wanted to recreate the mobiles I made as a child, and remake a specific table and Steelcase chairs, which I feel are specific to Michigan. Hopefully the mobiles will be spinning, so they’ll look like they’re just hovering over the table.
Then the floor above that floor is loosely based on our apartment here, this tiny apartment that I share with John. This peaceful place that I don’t know quite how to talk about.
All the layers go together; all the conflicts and rooms piling up on top of one other, the spaces in between and their crisscross of conversations and stuff. Although no one will be able to actually get onto the platforms, it’s the idea of looking from one into another.
For me, it’s opening a can of worms; of conflicts. I wanted to present them all together.
Sarah: Yes, great. I see there’s also a bar…
Samara: The bar is part of the White Room at the top and relates to the idea of people that have a jacuzzi and a mini bar and a beautiful view. The way the reflections work, outside the window of the white room is all sky. There’s no land because you’re literally seeing the sky upside down. It’s an unearthly point of view.
From the other rooms—the Hospital, Office etcetera—the reflections work so that the outside window shows the ground below the Whitney. Literally, the West Side Highway, with trucks passing by.
Sarah: It seems there’s a lot to figure out. And to figure out when you get there, because the actual structure—the floors—have to be built into the space on-site.
There’s a few things that I think might help people understand better—well it helped me when I heard them. I think it was at the talk you gave at MOCA in Los Angeles. I was reminded of it when you were talking about your house with your dad. Can you talk a little bit about your TV rule growing up?
Samara: Oh yeah, true. I don’t know how it started but we weren’t really allowed to watch TV unless we were working on a project. I spent a lot of time as a kid sitting in front of the TV with my sister, working on projects or doing errands with my dad. As he was working on various different entrepreneurial businesses, a lot of that involved going to the hardware store or the photo place or wherever, trying to figure out problems.
Sarah: What were some of his different entrepreneurial ventures?
Samara: At one point, he invented these connectors for connecting foam material, in order to make geodesic domes really fast. We had geodesic domes—triacontahedrons—in our backyard from when I was probably seven to ten years old. He was trying to market them as emergency sculptures, or rather emergency structures, for disasters.
So that was one of the things. Another was being an architectural photographer. That was when I was older, but I still went on shoots with him and helped him move all the stuff around for the shots, deciding how the objects in the picture would look best. I ended up learning so much about sculpture-making and photography from that process. It was also just loads of driving around. Once we went to West Virginia and did all these nursing homes.
Sarah: And you probably hadn’t been in a nursing home before that?
Samara: I had been, briefly, to visit relatives, but these ones were strange because the nursing homes tried to clear the people out. We couldn’t have people in the pictures we took, for the most part, so they were all gathered into another room, although you could still hear them. Then I’d go around and collect all the flowers from the whole building and put them into one room and then repeat it with the next room, so it looked like every room was really nice.
Sarah: I think how you grew up and what you did to pass the time was probably different from a lot of people and seems very relevant to what you do now. I’m wondering if you would talk about what your teenage years and young adult life were like?
Samara: I don’t know. It’s always weird, just trying to understand who you are as a person. I’ve heard from other people that they have a really clear sense of who they were before and who they are now. I had to go through a bunch of things in order to figure out who I was.
Just on the most basic level, I get to this place where I don’t understand why we have to work. Why we have to make money, buy a shelter, a place to live and have food. I just don’t completely understand why we decided on this system. I sometimes have this weird, really outside perspective on what we take for granted in life.
I went to art school and tried, but didn’t like it. I felt there was a pervasive negativity towards art that had anything to do with just feeling, except for a few people, so I was always trying to quit and leave.
I wanted to be around energy and in Minnesota the energy was with the punk rock crews, who were definitely not associated with schools or education. I felt really drawn into that ‘anarchist’ scene and it was a big part of my life. There was a place called Profane Existence that was kind of an international punk collective. I’m sure at points I looked like a crusty punk or something, but train hopping and having the feeling of being fully out in the world, with no safety, was really important. The viewpoint I got of the world during that time never left me. I see that pain everywhere, on every corner. And that alternative way of living your life—outside of the system—a more collective lifestyle.
Sarah: Right, and even getting back to what you were saying about questioning, you were questioning why we have to work to make money to pay for shelter. At that time, you were actually avoiding that paradigm in some way.
Samara: I was really interested in seeing if it was possible. Similar to how the hippies supposedly wanted to go back to the land but when you get educated about these things there’s a huge problem with that idea. It’s not like everyone could just go back to the land because there wouldn’t be enough land for them to go back to. These things are often on my mind; the layers of questions, the paradoxes.
And just to further answer your question about my relationships with childhood and adolescence and all of that: I think it’s incredibly important that people hold onto that time period in their life where they just ask why? and they don’t understand the answer they’re given because it doesn’t make sense.
Sarah: It is like being in a state where you’re not willing to accept reality without questioning it. I was thinking of this corny slogan: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Samara: Yeah. It’s like this constant balance of exposing yourself enough to what is really happening and dealing with it but then also finding a place in your heart to be kind and gentle to yourself and to other people. And having a small enough life, too, so that you can have that in it. They’re almost in opposition to one another, those two ways of thinking about things. I guess you just need balance.
When you’re making artwork it all starts to feel so interconnected and you wonder how you are going to find a way to make what you’re doing really meaningful, without losing perspective. On one level, it really is just a project. On another level, it’s really, intensely important to do it well.
Sarah: I experience you as somebody—more than anybody I’ve ever met—who is capable of taking on these larger projects that demand so much oversight and production. I think it has to do with the fact that you do seem able to hold room for all the flaws and all the beauty. You are capable of being incredibly critical of yourself and the process, but at the same point, there must be something in you that’s holding room for your own humanity, or you wouldn’t be able to survive. You can feel it in the work.
Samara: I think that struggle actually adds to the work. The idea that I’m not able to snap my fingers and have things done for me and that I can just control it all. To be in a state of constant negotiation with everyone, even myself. I always want there to be this intense passion, like an overarching
Samara: I think that struggle actually adds to the work. The idea that I’m not able to snap my fingers and have things done for me and that I can just control it all. To be in a state of constant negotiation with everyone, even myself. I always want there to be this intense passion, like an overarching final movement. Even if it’s a confusing passion—I guess it comes from my relationship to music. I’m trying to think of another comparison…when you really feel it completely.
I wish there was a way to make the pieces contain that other thing that ties together all the conflict. I’ve been trying to do it with a soundtrack, but I probably need to spend a couple of years trying first before that will really work. You can’t just make amazing music.
Sarah: I’m amazed at how the work does get to that place. I can certainly feel it. I am amazed at how much intensity comes through in your work and I’m inspired by your commitment to what you’re doing. The level of complexity that you allow for and make room for, and the intensity that you’re able to sustain in creating it. It seems like you are able to hold a steady focus on this moving target of your vision. You have remarkable endurance.
Samara: I have to say, that is the best possible thing in the world to hear because I think for all of us, we are all struggling to be seen. Whatever you’re doing, you struggle to have someone else understand it. I feel incredibly lucky that you feel that way. I don’t have that conversation often, where people are like, ‘I see it. I see you.’
Samara Golden is represented by CANADA gallery and will be participating in the 2017 WHITNEY Biennial.