Part one of a two-part series of interviews on the exploration of violence through art. For part two with Cleon Peterson, click here.
From elementary school projects to niche hobbies and urban development models, dioramas serve as three-dimensional microcosms that pique our curiosities; scaled-down representations of the world that allow the viewer to admire times, places and people in isolation. While some depict military conquests and others achievements in vehicular engineering, these miniature model case studies rarely flesh out our own dark appetites. However, Abigail Goldman, a former news reporter and investigator for the Las Vegas Federal Public Defender’s office, seems to have tapped into them.
Constructing scenes – or “dieoramas”, as she’s coined them – that detail extreme violence and moral destitution in post-war settings that resemble a revitalised American dream, Goldman’s depictions of humanity’s capacity for cruelty are shocking, yet flesh out our own fascination and growing consumption of violence with the rising popularity and permeation of her works. Presented by Hong Kong-based gallery Over The Influence as part of Art Stage Singapore 2017, we speak with Goldman about turning the seemingly innocent art of dioramas on its head, while turning the mirror to viewers to reveal their own affinity for the macabre.
We’ve read that you found a passion for creating dioramas by first stumbling upon a model train website. What were you looking for when you came across that website, and what were you feeling when inspiration struck?
I'm not quite sure how I stumbled upon the images of model railroad sets, but I knew the second I saw the images that it was something I was interested in – the tiny figures, the miniature homes. I realized I could try to construct my own worlds, and control what happens within. A tempting notion when the world often feels so out of control.
How did you go about honing your skills in creating dieoramas?
Honing skills was just a matter of practice, practice, practice (and many failures, which are always instructive). I began making dieoramas for myself and for friends – I never had any sense that anybody else would like them or want them. I never thought about putting them out into the world until my husband put a few photos of them online, and I was bombarded by thousands of requests. It was truly a surprise.
Did your dieoramas always depict violent scenes? Or did they start out a little more innocent?
Dieoramas have always been violent. The first one I made featured a man sitting on a park bench next to his own severed head. I left this first dieorama at a friend's house while I was taking care of her cat as she was on vacation – she came home to find it there without explanation. We're still friends today.
"By turning these seemingly charming, quaint scenes on their heads with gore and violence, there's a chance to play with the dynamic of good and bad, right and wrong, funny and tragic."
Your works have a charming Americana quality to them, from the vehicles and buildings to the attire worn by the miniature figures. Is there a reason you hark back to these times?
I think there's an inherent "goodness" imbued in American nostalgia, a sense that the past was somehow more wholesome. By turning these seemingly charming, quaint scenes on their heads with gore and violence, there's a chance to play with the dynamic of good and bad, right and wrong, funny and tragic.
Did your role as a news reporter and investigator for the Public Defender’s office influence your works?
My work as a reporter and investigator certainly put me in touch with a seedier side of life, and made me comfortable dealing with death, rage and violence. That said, I am very cautious to avoid doing any work based on cases I may have investigated or written about.
Have you ever been personally shocked by any of the scenarios you’ve dreamt up for a diorama, and did this provide any catharsis on your own perspective of the world?
I've never shocked myself – not sure if that's a bad thing or a good thing. My work is all about catharsis, however – for the viewer who finds themselves amused by a seemingly horrific scene, or for the person who sees something of themselves reflected in my work. I suspect we've all found ourselves enraged and angry, sometimes over almost nothing at all. My hope is that dieoramas can capture that kind of anger and present it back as something preposterous rather than powerful; a way of subverting some of our baser instincts.
Was it at all worrying when one of your first dieoramas of a robbery scene only sold after you added a dead body to it?
It wasn't worrying, but it was an interesting reminder: Just when you think you know how dark the world is, it gets darker still.
Is there a rewarding quality to seeing viewers recoil at the violence in your works?
It is rewarding to see people recoil. Bad or good, a powerful reaction is a good reaction – it means I've jarred something in a person, and made them feel. That's always my goal at the end of the day – to surprise with my work, to make someone lean in and then reel back with shock or delight, or some complicated mixture of the two.
The sorts of scenes you create would make most turn away in horror if they they were real – but when presented in your dieoramas, they take on a very different quality, and welcome praise. What are your thoughts on fictitious representations of violence and the public’s seemingly growing appetite for destruction?
I think humans have always been incredibly violent; we've always yearned to see our own mortality reflected back on us. Whether or not current culture is somehow more violent than history has shown humans to be is an interesting question. Perhaps what's changed is just the moral understanding that violence is bad – and violence is bad. But using depictions of violence as a means to explore our motivations, our identities and our culture is just a way we've found to navigate our own psyches. We confront ourselves with frightening images or ideas to jolt that feeling of mortality and humanity, and to confront our core beliefs and ideas. I think the shock of a dieorama is what delights people most. Not everything is as it seems at first glance, and behind every cute, quaint suburban home, lie some dark secrets.
Abigail Goldman’s works are presented by Over The Influence at Art Stage Singapore, Booth D3 at Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre from January 12 to 15. For ticketing and more information, visit artstage.com/singapore.
Text Trent Davis
Images Abigail Goldman (artworks) & NPR (profile image)