Maximilian Goldfarb, installation view of “Numbers Station,” 2023. Photo: Nando Alvarez-Perez

Maximilian Goldfarb

Buffalo, New York

The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art

Herbert A. Simon, the Nobel prize-winning economist, computer scientist, and pioneer of AI, once defined design as “courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” Standing in a gallery surrounded by evidence supporting this assertion, I was moved (once again) to ask: Preferred by whom?

At first glance, Maximilian Goldfarb’s exhibition “Numbers Station” was a pastiche, a rumpled collection of seemingly unrelated, banal objects bathed in a cold light that did little to charm the viewer. With every single bulb in the gallery turned up to eleven, the clinical presentation begged an analytic eye. Had I not spent enough time deciphering, I would have been irritated by the juvenile tendency to use the chill of irony as a distancing device and left it at that. But an odd detail compelled me to stay: a single roundish rock, roughly the size of an ottoman, seemingly a fugitive natural object in a room full of human-made things.

The most dominant motif in the space was the grid. Long a human-devised mechanism of comprehension, it was present here in multiple iterations, and it provided the underlying structures on which the various components of Goldfarb’s investigations hung: photographs, transparencies, prints, paintings, and oddly out-of-scale sculptures that evoked Robert Therrien in their monumentalization of the mundane. I don’t use the word “investigation” as a blithe artspeak idiom. Each of Goldfarb’s works marked an attempt to depict or reproduce an actual instrument of violence. When I realized that, a shiver crept up my neck—I was looking at an autopsy. Goldfarb had compiled enough forensic evidence to indict all of humanity.

The two largest works were in themselves grids, literal rationalizations of space consisting mostly of thin wooden struts held together by 3D-printed nexuses reaching to the ceiling, punctuated by crudely filled gaps in their Cartesian overlay—a stick, a stump, a broom handle, a guillotine head cradle; anything will do to prop up longitude. In many ways, the entirety of the exhibition boiled down to the metaphor of these two rickety walls—civility is a fragile construct, barely able to support its genteel veneer.

“Numbers Station” was an oblique proposition, deliberately obfuscated, not unlike a koan. The viewer was (not exactly) invited to puzzle out the nefarious dots of a monstrous matrix: Goldfarb’s crude wooden effigies of shivs, knives, and guns were obvious, but the ubiquitous duct tape, makeshift rocket launchers, bags of money, oversize military chest candy, drone controls, prison food trays, weapons shipping crates, inscrutable pressurized tanks, chemical drums, disconnected pumps, even genetically engineered bread, corn, and meat all tickled the emotional uvula when they revealed their complicities, and nearly left the viewer gagging on their insidious significance. The title of the exhibition itself refers to a longstanding clandestine communications practice dating back to World War I, though one could also associate it with the dispassion of accounting endemic to economic enterprise, arguably the single most consistent factor in warfare and conquest.

In the catalogue for “Design and Violence,” a remarkable 2015 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, curator Paola Antonelli wrote: “Violence is a manifestation of the power to alter circumstances, against the will of others and to their detriment.” Pulling back the curtain on a century of ingenuity to reveal its underlying savage currents, these words stand in robust rebuke of Simon’s cool abstraction of human augmentation.

It’s tempting to label Goldfarb as similarly aloof, but the deliberately crude execution of these artifacts conveyed a frantic and childlike ache for rationality in the face of the stochastic, like a toddler shoving things into his mouth in order to grok them while building his mental model of the world. Bounded spatial representation aids in our understanding of the physical universe, but the enormity of our capacity to inflict pain defies comprehension.

The digestion of cruelty through the stomach of art is nothing new. However, the lossy data compression inherent in Goldfarb’s material translation feels distinctly contemporary, like a tactical retreat into naïveté as a coping strategy against the ongoing mutual brutality of competing technologies. Indeed, “Numbers Station” elegantly demonstrated that violence is a stealthy and pervasive ingredient of our culture, much like sugar; and as with sugar, we often find ourselves surrendering to its fleeting satisfactions. Goldfarb’s objects could easily serve as props in a hastily produced, stream-on-demand James Bond rip-off, one of the many vapid confections pumped into our media feeds and gobbled guiltlessly during the “dead week” between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

But Goldfarb knows that violence leached of its romance is as blunt and dull as that little boulder in the center of the gallery that first piqued my curiosity, and that is his very point. When I suddenly realized that the rock, too, was probably not real, just another counterfeit implement of our ferity, I left the gallery shaken, but not stirred.