Over the course of his career, the Texas-based visual artist Dario Robleto has been exploring how art can transmit a palpable sense of history and emotion. He attends closely to the cultural and material histories of objects (he has worked with everything from vinyl records to buttons to butterfly wings), transforming found materials into intricately crafted, often intimate sculptural objects. The focus of “The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto,” the exhibition on view at Northwestern’s Block Museum, is the last decade of his career. It’s a period in which Robleto’s artistic practice has been concentrated intently on how art can translate the emotional significance of scientific knowledge and technology; how art can allow that knowledge to be felt.
The heartbeat and the “pulse wave,” the scientific form that indexes it, form the emotional core of the Block exhibition. Taking the nineteenth century discovery of the pulse wave and its transcription as his starting point, Robleto has crafted several series of work dedicated to recapturing some of the wonder, mystery and beauty of what has become a ubiquitous aesthetic form.
“The First Time, The Heart (A Portrait of Life 1854-1913)” is made up of fifty photolithographs of pulse waves measured at moments in human life ranging from the mundane to the momentous. For the prints, Robleto hand-soots paper with candle flames, recycling the medium used in the earliest captures of the human pulse. The prints are dark and cloudy, the pulse waves delicately cutting across the stormy prints. The activities the heartbeats accompany, from sleep to fear, are described both within the prints themselves as well as on accompanying wall text. Another set of objects, displayed in nearby glass vitrines feature similar waveform recordings printed in 3D, cast in stainless steel and gold leaf, and set like jewelry against dark maple trays.
Looking provides one form of knowledge, filtered here through culturally resonant materials and media; listening another. The final piece in the first gallery, “The Pulse Armed With a Pen (An unknown history of the Human Heart),” is an archival display and listening station which offers visitors the chance to actually hear some of these heartbeats. The sounds are painstaking recreations of transcribed heartbeats made possible through digital technology. They are deep primordial sounds that refuse the distance of sight and instead invade the listener’s head with the heartbeat of another.
Pulse waves and heartbeats are given yet another life in the exhibition through film. The exhibition features two films, both of which fuse the cinematic language of television programs like “Cosmos” with experimental animation techniques and dense, swooning soundscapes. Here Robleto not only aestheticizes the waveform, he digs deeper into its history, animating it both literally, but also emotionally, through a voiceover filled with wonder and pathos. “The Aorta of an Archivist,” the sound of which overflows its darkened space, soundtracking an encounter with the other objects in the upstairs gallery, features Robleto exploring the “first recording of human song, the first heartbeat captured while listening to music, and the first effort to record the brainwaves of a dreaming subject,” the sounds of which are recreated and audible in the course of the film. In a downstairs gallery, “The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed” uses similar techniques to explore the heartbeat more intently.
Although the show is dominated by Robleto’s exploration of the pulse wave, it also represents some of his other engagements with the relationship between art and science. Sculptural work such as “Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas,” was inspired by Robleto’s time as an artist-in-residence with the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). The work consists of delicate sculptures made from shells and other objects recognizable from the sea and nature, which Robleto has fashioned into new, speculative lifeforms. The work occupies a gallery alongside prints which hint at stars and galaxies, as well as other sculptures which recall the visual aesthetic of former centuries’ “cabinets of curiosity.” Characteristic of Robleto’s practice, “Small Crafts” juxtaposes the recognizability, even banality, of some its materials with their re-contextualization amidst forms that defy facile legibility. The sculptures and prints act as prompts for a more imaginative engagement with memory, and the transmission of affect through their abundant layering of material, texture and text.
As the above suggests, the works on view at the Block are dense. Robleto’s objects and images are thickly layered, both materially and conceptually, and their resonances stretch across media, time and space. Inasmuch as it asks of its listeners and viewers in terms of both attention and intention, it also provides multiple avenues through which to be moved by the lives the show depicts. And it is lives that Robleto asks his audience to contemplate, both those of the real historical figures his pulse waves document, as well as those he and the scientists he invokes can’t yet imagine.
Although as much indebted to conceptual art as any working artist, indicated not least in his poetic attention to his work’s titles and framing, Robleto’s practice sits at what has often been considered an either/or: Should the work of art prompt a sense of resonance between art and the larger world? Or should it stop the viewer in their tracks, lost in a sense of wonder? His boundary-crossing, urgent work powerfully asserts art can still do both.
“The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto” at The Block Museum of Art, Northwestern’s University campus, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston. On view through July 9.