On ViewAlyssa Davis Gallery
October 3 – November 21, 2020
The Reading Girl (2020) is a small tabletop sculpture in Genevieve Goffman’s solo show Here Forever. 3D-printed in pink plastic, it depicts a young femme absorbed in a heavy book. She is alone in her room except for a couple of mythic creatures perched above her. The scene speaks to a cultural understanding of fantasy as a form of escapism and imaginative play. Fantasy is indulged in youth, but later expected to be abandoned for more “serious” engagements. Adults with persistent enthusiasm for RPGs, LARPing, anime, and fantasy novels are often thought to be stuck in a juvenile state of being.
Goffman’s show provokes an interrogation of fantasy. Each of the works are saturated with references to the genre. 3D-printed sculptures depict castles, ruins, and magical figures, the largest of which is Little Gorgon (2020), a black dragon with butterfly wings. Dragons may be the highest embodiments of “fantasy”—that is, of magic, beauty, and superhuman power—but here, reduced to the size of a small dog, the creature feels both precious and manufactured. All the 3D-printed sculptures have a toy-like quality, and some are mounted on chess boards, evoking tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer. Vinyl prints decorate the walls with fantasy scenes collaged in a Romantic visual language of misty mountains, classical architecture, and mythical bodies.
In one of these tableaus, The Station Manager is a Chimera (2020), two people speak to one another in a surreal train station. Neither are quite human—drawn in an anime style, one has ears of a fox and a serpent’s tail, while the other has a ram’s features. “Do you have your ticket, Anon?” the horned character asks, her own tail coiling around a speech bubble, “Hurry, you can’t miss your train!” It appears that an adventure is about to begin. Superimposed above, a well-known Karl Marx quote clashes with the fanciful scene: The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.
While the scene conveys a desire for escapism, the words from Marx also point to history, a concept that shifts how we might perceive Goffman’s body of work as a whole. There are, in fact, two historically charged symbols in the exhibition: the train and the atomic bomb. The Station After (Pearl) (2020) is a 3D-printed model depicting a whimsical train station. It floats like a chandelier in the middle of the gallery—a tiny castle in the air. Across the gallery, a toy locomotive revolves around a spinning carousel display. As a work of sculpture it is nearly pure kitsch, but as a historical symbol it awakens a rich narrative.
Many historians have written about the immense material, societal, and psychological impact of the invention of the railroad in the 1830s. Railroad travel greatly precipitated industrialization, urbanization, and westward expansion in the United States, and the locomotive itself—the so-called “screaming machine in the garden”—quickly became a vivid, popular symbol of modernity, which was itself a collective fantasy of Western progress. As historians Leo Marx and Wolfgang Schivelbusch have noted, 19th century writers frequently wrote that the speed of train travel had virtually “annihilated space and time.”1 100 years later, however, the atom bomb superseded the railroad in that sublime power. The annihilation wrought by the bomb suggested that all technology beforehand had been steadily sharpening human desire to the point that it could tear the fabric of reality.
Goffman’s The Mining Incident (2020) is the last work encountered in the show, fittingly installed at the pointed apex of the wedge-shaped gallery. A 3D-printed mushroom cloud stands on a uranium glass plate, both illuminated by a blacklight. Dragons and other monsters roil in the fluorescence of the miniature inferno. If a dragon is the highest emblem of fantasy, then the atomic bomb is the highest manifestation of mankind’s fantasy of power.
That atomic dream still looms over the Internet age. On our decadent descent from this apex of history, in the aftermath of the annihilation of time and space, we occupy strange bubbles of wish-fulfilment. Any fantasy can be satisfied with images delivered over high-speed connections, or with cheaply manufactured goods conveyed by the globalized network of industrial capitalism. But there is no end to desire. This zeitgeist is mirrored by Goffman’s canny use of the 3D printer, which translates virtual forms into material ones, even if they always emerge flimsier than they appeared on the screen.
With all its little parts, the symbolic intricacy of Goffman’s solo show is difficult to deconstruct, but rich with insight. While the artist fetishizes the aesthetics of the fantasy genre, her greater project is to illuminate a complex relationship between fantasy, history, and technology. The effect recalls another conceptual puzzle, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project (1982). In this manuscript, left unfinished when the author died in 1940, Benjamin also sought to assemble a constellation of technology, collective dreams, and the passage of time: “Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow but, in dreaming, precipitates its awakening.”
What future epoch do our own dreams precipitate? Goffman points to the importance of our collective fantasies, which are not only escapist pastimes, but dreams that race ahead of us, bearing on reality’s course.
Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964); Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railroad Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (2014)