Q&A

They're the tiniest crime scenes you've ever seen, and they're in Montreal

Murder most small! Peek inside Abigail Goldman's dieoramas. The artist shares the story behind her strangely gruesome side hustle.

Want to see a (miniature) dead body? Peek inside Abigail Goldman's dieoramas

It's OK. Be a looky-loo. Sweet Dreams, an exhibition of new work by Abigail Goldman, is on at Montreal's Station 16 gallery to Nov. 18. (Courtesy of Station 16)

Montreal's Station 16 Gallery is the site of multiple grisly crime scenes, so for those in the area, be warned: suspects are described as armed, unpredictably violent — and 17.9 mm tall.

Murder most small. That's what you'll find at Sweet Dreams, an exhibition of new work by U.S. artist Abigail Goldman, which appears at Station 16 to November 18. Looky-loos, take note.

Goldman, 36, makes dioramas. Or, as she prefers to call them, dieoramas. They're miniature homicide scenes for the most part, built at a scale of 1:87 with model train parts and other assorted items.

From domestic disputes resulting in dismemberment to a full on killer clown rampage, there's plenty of deeply dark humour at work — sight gags that are as liberally applied to the scenes as blood-red craft paint.

The artist gained near-instant notoriety back in 2012 when a Reddit post about her macabre hobby blew up online. And while she shows her work internationally, the dieoramas remain a side hustle. A former crime reporter, Goldman is based in Bellingham, WA., where she works as an investigator.

She never bases her scenes on real life, though, and what you'll see in any given tableau tends to feel more Addams Family than CSI

Still, her dieoramas should leave you examining an uncomfortable truth, nonetheless. Violence has long held a grip on the public imagination. So if you find yourself peeking inside one of these dollhouses of death, take a moment to consider why.

CBC Arts reached Goldman by email to talk about the origins of the project and why she's so dedicated to making tiny sculptures about major crimes.

Installation view of Sweet Dreams at Station 16 Gallery in Montreal. (Courtesy of Station 16)

First off, I was hoping you could tell me a little about what people can expect from the show at Station 16. Why call it Sweet Dreams?

Sweet Dreams is a double entendre: a charming way to say goodnight, but also a suggestion the scenes depict someone's sweet, dark dreams.

What sets it apart from some of your past shows?

I always try to make new scenes — new ways of jolting people a bit. I'm also playing more with lighting in a few of the dieoramas, whether that's illuminating a secret onlooker in an upstairs window, or casting light on a subterranean chamber where body parts are being boiled.

I think we're in violent, angry times. [...] Little visions of violence are an attempt to bottle that rage and contain it, to make it preposterous.- Abigail Goldman, artist

When did you start making dieoramas? What gave you the idea in the first place?

I started making dieoramas in 2012 or so.

I saw a model train set and was taken with its bucolic charm — safe and stagnant. I had a little itch of an idea that I could use the same materials but change the tone from wistful to dark, playing with the natural tension that comes from turning something on its head. 

What kind of art background did you have before you started making them?

None at all. I've always devoted a good part of my spare time to creative hobbies and crafts, but I've not had any formal training or study.

Why build crime scenes? And what keeps you making miniatures — and miniature scenes of violence, specifically?

Miniatures have a unique ability to draw people in, quite literally, since they're small and require some leaning in. But on a larger scale, miniatures are cute and quaint, so it's disarming when you look closer to see tiny people behaving badly. That discordance makes dieoramas disturbing but often amusing as well — the most common reaction people have is laughter.

I think we're in violent, angry times. There's a high-strung tension vibrating in the background, it seems, and little visions of violence are an attempt to bottle that rage and contain it, to make it preposterous.

Humans are drawn to violence, whether that's fighting in the streets or craning your neck to see a car accident. We have dark impulses and thoughts. Hopefully seeing them wrought in miniature is a kind of catharsis, a laughter to keep from crying.

What can you tell me about your creative process? How do you decide what to make?

It's messy — there's lots of glues and aerosols and fumes. There's loose dirt and gravel and fake grass that all has to stick in place. I'm usually working on about five dieoramas at a time, and I go through a lot of red paint.

Ideas come to me in quick flashes, usually when I'm doing something else — like they've been churning away in the background somewhere.

What are you thinking about when you're putting a scene together? Do you make up characters and backstories? Do the killers have motives?

I'm often thinking about how I can make a scene that's a little mysterious, so the viewer can fill in their own backstory. At shows, people often share their theories, and it's revealing, kind of like a Rorschach test.

From the Station 16 pictures I've seen, domestic suburban scenes seem to make up most of the show. Why are there so many dieoramas in that kind of setting?

Suburbia is fertile ground for playing with the contrast of cute but dark, or safe but sick. There's an American mythos surrounding the suburbs, which are supposed to be wholesome and predicable. The reality, of course, is that plenty of bad deeds happen behind closed suburban doors.

Where the hell in suburbia did those killer clowns find themselves a tank?

Oh, you know clowns — they're resourceful.

"I'm hoping to stop people and make them lean in for a closer look." -Abigail Goldman, artist

I've read that you don't base your crime scenes off of real life events. Is that right? Why?

There's no mystery in real life events — just tragedy. And most real crimes of violence are almost banal in their sad predictability: domestic violence, hate, substance abuse — all just senseless dead ends that reveal the worst in us on an endless loop.

Even if you don't base the scenes off of real life, your career has brought you close to real-life crime scenes, yes? Your work — what part does it play in the making of these dieoramas?

Yes, I was a reporter at the Las Vegas Sun and an investigator at the Federal Public Defender of Nevada. I currently work as an investigator at the Public Defender in Bellingham. I've long since been interested in crime, so I made it my career and now, my art. As a rule, I never make scenes from cases I've worked on, but I'm sure the residue from my work informs my art.

When people see your dieoramas, what kind of reaction are you hoping to get out of them?

I'm hoping to stop people and make them lean in for a closer look. There's often a little shuffle that happens — a person stops, leans in close, then reels back. If they laugh, maybe they'll examine why they found violence funny. Or maybe they won't, and that's great too.

People either like my work or hate it; I find any strong emotional reaction is rewarding.

Check out some of the dieoramas on display at Station 16.

Abigail Goldman. Upstairs Window. (Courtesy of Station 16)
Abigail Goldman. Quick Stop. (Courtesy of Station 16)
Abigail Goldman. Snip! Snip! (Courtesy of Station 16)
Abigail Goldman. Nice and Clean. (Courtesy of Station 16)
Abigail Goldman. Funderground. (Courtesy of Station 16)
Abigail Goldman. Backyard BBQ. (Courtesy of Station 16)

Abigail Goldman. Sweet Dreams. To Nov. 18 at Station 16 Gallery, Montreal. www.station16gallery.com

About the Author

Leah Collins

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.