“Materialist-poet” Dario Robleto creates artworks rooted in topics such as war, popular culture, and science, often with ties to music and language, and always grappling with questions of human existence. In recent work, he poses a deceptively simple inquiry: How are memories recorded? Robleto’s upcoming exhibition at Houston’s Inman Gallery, called “Life, Left To Struggle in The Sun,” focuses particularly on music as an “agitator of life.” He examines how the nature and documentation of live experiences affect our perceptions of death, time, memory, and permanence. For example, until playback was possible, an event lived and died in its creation; now, the act of being able to record and preserve is a way to continue life.
The exhibition includes The Moon Won’t Let You Down (2012), a small wooden box housing Van Dyke prints of amateur astronomers’ “super moon” photographs. The open box sits on a pedestal, with sepia-tone prints set out in stadium seating-like arrangement. The piece addresses early difficulties of recording light, for both artists and scientists, as well as the universal desire to capture spectacular fleeting moments. Robleto continues the thread of ephemera with The Half-Life of Light (2103), a vitrine of vintage embossed Mason jars encapsulating audiotape of the first and last musical recordings by various musicians (Otis Redding, Freddie Mercury, Patsy Cline, to name a few). Here, Robleto has transformed the audiotape into two feathers per jar: one for the first recording and one for the last, earmarking nothing less than a lifetime of music.
The exhibition comes on the coattails of shows at MOCA Cleveland and the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, and as a precursor to “Setlists For a Setting Sun” at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The Inman Gallery show overlaps, in part, with a concurrent installation at the Menil Collection, titled “The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed.” The project was commissioned and developed through a joint research residency with the Menil and the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, following his 2011 Smithsonian fellowship, when Robleto began studying the first artificial heart ever implanted in a human, performed in Houston.
“When I do a project like this, I try to bring things to it that only an artist can. And I always take cliché as a challenge,” says Houston-based Robleto, who was born in San Antonio and received his BFA from the University of Texas at San Antonio. “Certain topics, such as the heart, seem off limits because they are so easily susceptible to clichè. And they are. But that’s exactly when an artist should look again because if you can find some stone never turned over, it has an even stronger element of surprise and revelation.”
Striking at the core of how we experience sound, the artist avidly entertains technology’s recording possibilities, including the first attempt to record the human pulse and heartbeat. He also traces connections to NASA Voyager’s Golden Record, created in anticipation of someone (or something) playing it back. Its creation, he learned, paralleled the development of the artificial heart. “An incredible coincidence of history is that while early acoustic scientists were experimenting with how to capture a visual record of the movement of sound waves, the earliest cardiologists were essentially trying to solve the same problem by trying to visualize the movement of the pulse and heartbeat,” Robleto explains.
During the making of the Golden Record, creators Ann Druyan and Carl Sagan discussed whether or not extraterrestrial beings might be able to interpret human brain waves. They decided to include a track of sound created from Druyan’s brain and heart data, recorded as she pondered life on Earth and falling in love (she later married Sagan). “The story of Ann has been with me since I was a child,” says Robleto, recounting an early memory of listening to the record but only hearing a kind of static. His disappointment stayed with him into adulthood, until he realized what he heard was Druyan’s heartbeat.
The track’s inclusion on Voyager’s Golden Record is, in Robleto’s opinion, “a great art act as much as it was great science.” The poetics of the story are evident in a 30-piece 5-inch vinyl set, central to the Menil exhibition, with elements on view at Inman. In Robleto’s care, seemingly disparate topics share something astounding-our limited understanding and representation of human life. His ability to use the very materials of experience is as poignant as memory itself.
“Dario Robleto: Life, Left to Struggle In The Sun,” will be on view at Inman Gallery in Houston. From Sept 5 – Oct 18, 2014. www.inmangallery.com
“Dario Robleto: The Boundary of Life is Quiety Crossed,” is on display at the Menil Collection, in Houston, from Aug 16, 2014 – Jan 4, 2015. www.menil.org