Exhibition searches for meaning at the limits of science and perception

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Exhibition searches for meaning at the limits of science and perception
Dario Robleto, "The Computer of Jupiter," 2019. Various cut and polished seashells, urchin spines, cut and quilled paper, squilla claws, colored powder pigments, colored plastic beads, acrylic domes, brass rod, colored and mirrored Plexiglas, glue, acrylic on wood. 48" x 19" x 19" overall with base and vitrine. Image courtesy of the artist.



EVANSTON, ILL.- American artist Dario Robleto (b. 1972) believes artists and scientists share a common aspiration: to increase the sensitivity of their observations.

From understanding the human body’s pulses and brainwaves to viewing the faintest glimmers of light from the edge of the observable universe, groundbreaking science pushes the limits of perception. Similarly, the perceptive work of artists can extend the boundaries of empathy and understanding.

Since 2018, Robleto served as an artist-at-large at the McCormick School of Engineering. This unique program partnership between The Block Museum and McCormick gave the artist an open “hall pass” to learn from, collaborate with and question scientists, engineers and experts from across the University.

Robleto's five-year residency concludes with the exhibition “The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto.” Co-presented by The Block Museum and McCormick, the exhibition is on view from Jan. 27 to July 9 at The Block Museum, 40 Arts Circle Drive on Northwestern’s Evanston campus.

A free opening conversation with the artist will take place at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 4, in Norris University Center’s McCormick Auditorium, 1999 Campus Drive in Evanston.

The Heart’s Knowledge

Throughout the history of scientific invention, instruments like the cardiograph and the telescope have extended the reach of perception from the tiniest stirrings of the human body to the farthest reaches of space.

Robleto’s prints, sculptures and video and sound installations contemplate the emotional significance of these technologies, bringing viewers closer to the latent traces of life buried in the scientific record.

“The Heart’s Knowledge” represents a decade of Robleto’s creative practice, from 2012 to 2022, a period marked by a deepening engagement with science, including astronomy, synthetic biology and exobiology, and a widening embrace of new materials and creative forms, from 3D-printed objects to film.

Robleto dedicates the exhibition to Ann Druyan, the creative director of NASA’s Golden Record for the Voyager 1 and 2 projects. The record includes Druyan’s brainwaves and heartbeats, recorded as she reflected on her secret love for famed astronomer and future husband Carl Sagan. The act of sneaking “love on board the Voyager” inspired Robleto to compose a love letter to the only human whose “heart has left the solar system.”




Robleto sees Druyan’s act to include her emotions on the record as the central inspiration of his work. “I consider it the greatest work of subversive, avant-garde art not yet given its due,” Robleto said. “The Golden Record and Ann’s radical act brought us all together to think about what it means to be human — to one another and to unknown beings on other worlds.”

The exhibition organizes the artist’s conceptually ambitious, elegantly wrought artworks as a series of multisensory encounters between art and science. Each asks viewers to seek out the material traces of life in scales ranging from the intimate to the universal, and to question: Does empathy extend beyond the boundaries of time and space?

“Whether he’s addressing the most minute phenomena of the body or the horizons of the known universe, Robleto binds the rigor of scientific inquiry with artistic expression,” said exhibition curator Michael Metzger, The Block’s Pick-Laudati Curator of Media Arts.

“Straining at the bounds of observation, Robleto discovers unity at the limits; the common endeavor of art and science to achieve a form of knowledge that language alone cannot speak,” Metzger said.

The exhibition includes three sections:

“Heartbeats”

Rooted in the artist’s longstanding fascination with the clinical and cultural history of the human heart, “Heartbeats” draws inspiration from 19th-century pioneers of cardiography, whose instruments graphically measured heart activity for the first time, leaving behind poignant records of human subjectivity. In “The First Time, the Heart (A Portrait of Life 1854-1913)” (2017), Robleto transforms early measurements of heartbeats into photolithographs executed on paper hand-sooted with candle flames. For the installation “The Pulse Armed with a Pen (An Unknown History of the Human Heartbeat)” (2014), Robleto collaborated with sound historian Patrick Feaster to digitally resurrect these heartbeats in audio form, giving visitors access to intimate pulses of life recorded before the invention of sound playback.

“Wavelengths”

Robleto has recently embraced digital video to create works that narrate transformational episodes in the recording and study of wave phenomena. “Wavelengths” comprises two hour-long immersive video installations. “The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed” (2019) is inspired by NASA’s Voyager Golden Record, a gold-plated phonographic disc launched into space onboard the Voyager I and II space probes in 1977. In “The Aorta of an Archivist” (2020-2021), Robleto investigates three breakthroughs in the history of recording: the first recording of a choral performance made with an Edison wax cylinder, the first heartbeat captured while listening to music and the first effort to transcribe the brain wave activity of a dreaming subject.

“Horizons”

In the final section, “Horizons,” Robleto evokes the spirit of the Hubble telescope and the search for extraterrestrial life, gazing out at the boundaries of the observable universe. Inspired by his time as an artist-in-residence at the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and as artistic consultant to the Breakthrough Initiatives, his intricate sculptures, such as “Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas” (2018), give shape to the speculative search for intelligent life in the universe. Other works like “The Computer of Jupiter” (2019) are framed as “gifts for extraterrestrials” offering an alternative view of the best way to begin a dialogue with alien intelligences.










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