Sculptor of Time and Loss
Dario Robleto is an artist-at-large at the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. His work has been displayed at galleries and museums across the U.S., and is held in collections including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Krista Tippett, host: Dario Robleto has been called a sculptural artist, a philosopher, and a “materialist poet.” At the heart of his work is a fascination with human survival and the creative response to loss.
Tippett: I just want to actually read some very beautiful words that you wrote about time and memory. “Time is, of course, doing it’s steady work on every object ever made. This complex relationship between the maker, and emotionally-invested objects, and the growing distance between them is not new, only rediscovered each generation,” — I love this — “whether by an artist, a mourner, a mother, or a soldier.” These objects ask very human moral questions. What right do we have to forget? What do we owe to each other’s memories?”
Dario Robleto: So memory now takes on a moral dimension, because — when I go, I’ll hope someone grabs hold of me. But I have to promise I’m grabbing hold of who’s gone before. The vast majority of human lives, they’re just gone. Nobody remembers, even, two, three generations down the road, it’s easy to start forgetting. And so memory has a spiritual dimension in that way to me. Like there was the title of a piece called “Heaven Is Being a Memory to Others.”
Robleto: And I just like knowing I’m going to hold on, I’m going to grasp, pull hard into the last moment. I like that art can do that. So, and I think it should. It should do that.
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
Over the last twenty years, Dario Robleto’s art has been displayed at galleries and museums across the U.S. He’s also been a creative partner to an eclectic range of projects, including the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and university faculties in engineering and neuroaesthetics. He was born in San Antonio, Texas and currently lives in Houston. I spoke with him in 2014 as part of a series of live events with the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
[Music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Tippett: It’s great to be back at Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I feel like I’m an old-timer now, so I welcome you.
Robleto: Well, thank you. [laughter]
Tippett: So, I’ve really been looking forward to this for several months, as we first planned it.
Robleto: Thank you. Me, too. Very much.
Tippett: Yeah. So, if I ask you about the spiritual and religious background of your childhood, where would you start to think about what that means?
Robleto: My grandfather was a Baptist minister. I didn’t grow up around him so much, but his influence definitely was there, in the back of my head. And he was definitely a passionate man. My mother — religion in the home was not ever really an issue, but as, with anyone, I searched it out on my own. I’d ask my friends if I could come to church: Catholic, Methodist, I probably sampled every church of a friend I had. So in my childhood, I would say it was very self-directed. Maybe always within the background knowing that thing about my grandfather that was still this kind of mysterious thing that I didn’t really understand. So maybe it was partly fueled by that, too. This searching.
Tippett: It sounds like, you know, you were interested in science, you were a football player. You weren’t that kid who everybody thought would grow up to be an artist.
Tippett: Right? Or that you didn’t think that about yourself.
Robleto: No, I didn’t, no. No. It was quite a shock. Yeah. [laughter]
Tippett: You know there are two stories that you’ve told, um, across the years that I wondered if you would tell us. And one of them has to do with your mother, one of them has to do with your father. About how you became an artist. You talk about your mother working in a honky-tonk in Texas for a while when you were pretty young, and going with her. And it really is the whole experience, being there with her, taking in the people, taking in the life in that place, taking in the music of Patsy Cline and others, and listening to the jukebox. And it almost feels like the jukebox was your first art object, although you wouldn’t have called it that originally.
Robleto: Yes. Incredibly influential on my life, definitely leaves a mark. [laughs]
Tippett: So how old were you then? You were pretty young, right?
Robleto: Yeah. Six — six, seven. And, there are a full range of emotional experiences, you would imagine, in a honky-tonk. As a six-year-old camped next to the jukebox watching it play out, it really did leave a mark. And what I mean is, you know, having Patsy Cline soundtrack what I’m actually witnessing in the room as she’s singing about it, made this one-to-one connection between the pop song, or the country song, or the art object, and life. And I think that has left a lasting impression on me, which ties into science in maybe an unexpected way in that I want what I do to be metaphor and have a practical — I want it to do something, too, in life.
Tippett: Mm-hmm. And then the other stories, later on, your father was a biologist, correct? And …
Tippett: And was from Nicaragua. And you didn’t really spend that much time with him growing up?
Tippett: But then, um, you’ve told the story about, sounds like when you were maybe in your early 20s, you were depressed, and you went to stay with him in Miami. And we have the Beatles to thank — your father and the Beatles to thank for you truly having this epiphany.
Robleto: Yes. No, I really, I didn’t know what an epiphany was until I had one.
Robleto: It really was that. I mean, within 24 hours. I still don’t know how to explain it. It was related to this experience of what was clearly deep depression. Now, when I look back, visiting him, sort of — you know, every young man has to sort of come to terms with that at some point. And I just — I guess I needed to spend time with him. And really the only thing we could communicate on was music. And he was a huge Beatles fan. He pretty much learned English many — and his brothers, from Beatles records, I love that story that he told me — from the lyrics. But I don’t know. One day he left and accidentally left “Sgt. Pepper” playing on repeat on the CD. And I was, you know, locked in my room in some terrible state, and so for 24 hours I heard “Sgt. Pepper” through the muffled wall in the other room. And something just changed. I don’t know how to explain it. But when I came out of the room, I was an artist. [laughter]
Robleto: And, I haven’t looked back since.
Tippett: And you’ve said that — I mean, you did bring out some pastels and a pad of paper? Right? And you started …
Robleto: Yeah, the first thing I told him was, please take me to an art store.
Tippett: Oh, you did. You didn’t happen to have — I wondered about that. You didn’t have pastels on hand.
Robleto: No, no. And that shows you, too, that I didn’t know what it meant to be an artist, so I thought, well, pastels, or paper? [laughter] I didn’t even know what I needed. So, that was where I started. And I’ll never forget that. Every artist has it, that blank page, and the fear, this guttural fear in my stomach, like oh, my God, anything’s possible. I don’t know what to do. I was scared and drawn to it in the same way. And I still have that feeling. It never goes away, I realize that now.
Tippett: So it’s interesting that both of these stories have music in them. Music is absolutely central to them. And, there’s a kinship in you, a kinship with the DJ, and the idea of the DJ runs all the way through a lot of the art projects you’ve done over the years.
Robleto: Yes. It’s — for me to begin to talk about “the sacred,” I have to start with music. And, you know, oddly, I never learned how to play an instrument, and I always — I mean, one of my great — one of the things I’m so envious of to this day is being in a band. And I’ve never been in a band. And I wish so much I had been, and could have been, and even to this day, I — since I was a little boy, to this day, I’ve kept a journal of potential band names and song titles.
Robleto: Just in case I ever got in a band. That — because I couldn’t play an instrument, I could contribute a great band name right away.
Robleto: And that’s turned into its own art object over the years. I found ways to finally get those things out without the music. But, yeah, it’s just part of, I don’t know, the science part of my brain wonders what — how am I wired to lean this way?
Tippett: Yeah, and actually though, some of your earliest sculptures were made from grinding vinyl records.
Robleto: Mm-hmm. You know, like how do you take the actual skills of the DJ — song selections, sampling, scratching, beat matching, just all these things a DJ would do. So very simply, for example, the idea of mixing two records together. I thought, well what if I really melted them in a pot and mixed them together? And what would happen? Why did I choose those two songs? And then, DJs already handle the vinyl as an object as much as an audio experience. So I just kind of took that to an extreme. Like, what if you kept scratching your record until it turned to dust? Like I kept giving myself these kinds of challenges.
Tippett: Mm-hmm. So, you know, there’s a phrase — there’s some phrasing that I really appreciate now of the citizen scientist, and this is also language you use, because you work with science. The citizen artist. And so, as I was, you know, preparing to talk to you, I felt like, you know, you’re kind of a DJ/artist, but I really also think you are an artist philosopher. And I think that’s how I want to draw you out tonight. You know, you deal in all your work either directly or indirectly with the big subjects, you know, life, love, death.
Robleto: Mm-hmm. Yes.
Tippett: Somebody wrote about you, “Dario Robleto is a resurrector of dead things.”
Robleto: Mm-hmm. Yeah, that’s a compliment, yeah.
Tippett: Yeah. [laughter]
Tippett: And you — but what you don’t do, and I can imagine that people might think this when they hear about your work — it’s not about found objects. It’s about, as you say, alchemy.
Robleto: Mm-hmm. That’s a great distinction. It’s about the transformation. It’s about what was hidden inside of it that only the artist’s touch could have teased out through alteration. And that’s alchemy 101 probably. And I like thinking of myself in that lineage, that through transformation of materials that there are other things at stake in the transformation, some of it being spiritual, even.
Tippett: Mm-hmm. And some of it being just chemical, right?
Robleto: Yeah, I’m interested in …
Tippett: That gets at the scientist in you, as well.
Robleto: Yeah, no, I’m interested in the molecule, up to the spiritual and everything in between in the material. But also the language of what the material was. Which is why I use this term, materialist poet. That I — I always try to …
Tippett: To describe your work.
Robleto: Yeah. I always try to emphasize the role of language in this process, because for an object maker, it’s a little backwards in that the language often comes first, rather than the object comes first and then the language. So, often, I write my title, my material list is completely worked out before I ever start the object.
Tippett: Somewhere, I think this was part of — I looked at so much and I didn’t keep good notes about where it came from — but this was on a website that was about one of your exhibitions. And it said that you ask yourself questions, jot down instructions or toy with a poetic phrase, which is what you just described for us. And that here’s a to-do list that you’d culled from challenges you’ve presented to yourself across the years. Do you remember this list?
Robleto: I do.
Tippett: I mean, I’m just going to read a few of them. There are 20 questions — questions or wonderings, I’d say. You know what this reminds me of? It reminds me of how Einstein said that, you know — I mean, his science was all about pursuing wondering. Right? So, like, here you said, “culture dormant bacteria from grooves of mother’s rock and roll records.” That’s just really an enduring theme.
Robleto: And I did do that, by the way.
Tippett: Yeah. You did? [laughs] “Number six, how do I change the sound of the ocean?”
Robleto: Mm-hmm. Still working on that.
Tippett: Okay. [laughter]
Tippett: “How do I reunite a million-year-old rain drop with a million-year-old blossom?”
Robleto: I did do that.
Tippett: Did you?
Robleto: I did.
Tippett: How did you find a million-year-old rain drop?
Robleto: Yeah, so this is where only language could have gotten me there, and then I have to figure out — because I just wrote that down.
Tippett: So you write the question, and then you have to pursue the question.
Robleto: Yeah. And I have to pursue, is this possible? Does such a thing exist? If it does, where is it? Can I get it? So, yeah, so for example, a million-year-old blossoms exist, uh, trapped in amber, for example.
Robleto: You know, it rained tens of thousands of millions of years ago. A particular rain drop got caught just in the right moment when some sap was coming out of a tree. And before it had a chance to evaporate, another layer of sap formed a perfect air pocket over it.
Tippett: Oh, that is amazing.
Robleto: And there it is, a preserved rain drop from another time. And these things exist in the world, and I didn’t know that until I had just poetically challenged myself, as language.
[Music: “Glide and Prejudice” by Daniel Alflatt]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with the artist- philosopher Dario Robleto.
Tippett: It’s very hard to talk about art on the radio. You know? Or even in a room where we’re not looking at something. But for example, a project you had called “A Sadness Silence Can’t Touch.” A small memento box containing six Civil War pain bullets, which were the bullets that soldiers bit on when they were undergoing surgery before the era of painkillers. Made — so what were the …? You tell that. They were made from …
Robleto: This is a piece that language was being used as a material. And the role of the war poet — so the war poet’s voice is this vital memory of a thoughtful, reflective mind in the most worst-case scenario of what we can produce on the planet. And those voices are really important. So those pain bullets are made — each one is made from a different recording of a war poet from different wars.
Tippett: So, these were audio tapes, cassette tapes?
Robleto: Yeah it was audio tape …
Tippett: Melted down …
Robleto: It was melted down and then made into — I cast the original pain bullet. So the pain bullets, they have marks of soldiers’ teeth in them. Everybody knows that term, “bite the bullet.” This is where it originates, which we’ve lost the context with that history. But, it has a much darker background, which is, they’re literally biting on a piece of lead more than likely as an amputation is occurring. And, so those marks, as a person sensitive to materials and form, when I see a tooth mark in a chunk of lead that’s been buried in the ground for 150 years, it’s as deeply moving to me as anything I’ve ever seen. But as a form, a forgotten form of memory, I wanted to cast it, and remake it in the — what I think is the power of the poet’s voice. And all of these poems, I should say, were chosen because they were forms of protest by the poet.
Tippett: And it was …
Robleto: Who was on the front line.
Tippett: … Walt Whitman, Tennyson, T.S. Eliot, Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas.
Tippett: Siegfried Sassoon, I believe.
Robleto: Yes, Sassoon. Yeah, who were all in some way, they were speaking to the gruesomeness of it, which can’t ever be forgotten or lost. I imagined the poets, the force of their voice moving their mouth, moving their teeth, and making new impressions into the bullet. But they’re impressions of protest, rather than the original impression made from pain of an amputation, for example. So, it was very specific, why I chose language in the form that was made by the mouth.
Tippett: And that also gets at something that is so evocative that you talk about, also as your work as an artist, of healing back through time.
Robleto: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it’s …
Tippett: I mean, which is an amazing thing for any of us to think about.
Robleto: At least for me as an artist, my point about, I don’t think I have the right to forget certain things. That I think it’s a luxury of our time that should be pressed harder against. Every generation of warriors comments on the gulf they feel when they come back. So, could I at least try to heal that divide? And so that’s more of a metaphorical divide, but it’s also a real direct psychological — it could have real-world consequence if you could initiate a conversation of — between the home front and front line. So, the healing thing takes on many forms in my work.
Tippett: How did you get interested in war? You know, you are not really of a generation — you kind of missed the Vietnam War, you were born in 1972. I mean, of course you live in this post-9/11 world, but I’m just curious about this…
Robleto: It was 9/11.
Tippett: … intensity. It was 9/11?
Robleto: Yeah, it was absolutely 9/11.
Tippett: And then that also took you back to Civil War and World War I.
Robleto: Yeah. No, I tend — when I get involved in a project, I go all in. And I, you know, I thought — you know, if everybody remembers what was the big question in the moment, it was why? Why us? There was this complete confusion about how? Why? And I was like everybody else, I was like I realized I didn’t have a good answer.
Tippett: Were you in Houston at that time?
Robleto: San Antonio. And, I was so frustrated with myself that I couldn’t answer that question. So I decided, I’m going to make work — as long as the country was at war, I thought, okay, I’m going to make work in response to it, because I was grappling with this, what’s the artist’s responsibility in a time of war? Of course, nobody knew we were entering the longest war in our history. And so, a decade later, I was still making work about the war.
Tippett: But I think what’s important about that is, you know, the news cycle — yes we’ve been at war all this time in some sense — but the news cycle moves on. But you’ve actually, as an artist, you’ve continued to hold that reality. And also I think the fact that you’re doing it in a spirit of a question, can you heal back through time?
Robleto: Yeah. No, it — the idea of a sustained meditation on a problem, you know, seems like this format quickly going out of style. So, that takes on another dimension in our time of trying to go against the grain of immediate gratification or short-term memory, short-term attention spans, which, you know, have — many artists have used that in brilliant creative ways in their work. And, you need the sustained meditation — you need those voices on certain problems.
Tippett: Yes, in that mix.
Robleto: Yeah, and you need artists on the front line, in a sense, with the other people in other fields who are also not losing their attention to this problem. I really believe that. So, I tend to latch on to a topic for many years when I commit to something.
Tippett: And it’s interesting because you — you reflect sometimes about being part of your generation. I don’t know, are you a Gen X? Is that …?
Robleto: Gen X, mm-hmm.
Tippett: Yeah, I get — I can’t keep track anymore.
Robleto: I don’t know what we’re on. What letter are we on?
Tippett: Yeah, I don’t know what letter we’re at. But you’re right. The stereotype of Gen X is not too deep, cynical.
Robleto: Yes, it just drove me crazy.
Robleto: That I was being lumped in with this apolitical, apathetic, cynical, overly-ironic generation, which was all true …
Tippett: Also lazy is, I think, is the stereotype.
Robleto: Yeah. And certainly that was there, but…
Tippett: It’s not the whole story.
Robleto: Yeah, no, and no generation is all that. And I really wanted to push back against that.
Tippett: I mean, you pushed back against it, just in by being who you are. I really appreciate you said, “I assume that my viewers are smart and want to engage.” Again, that’s kind of a countercultural statement. We’re comrades in this.
Tippett: Assuming the best of our audiences.
Robleto: Yes. I like assuming the audience is smart when pretty much everywhere else in culture, I think they think we’re stupid. I’d rather assume the opposite. Because that actually changes decisions I make in the studio. It has a studio value in how I make an object.
Tippett: Mm-hmm. Say some more.
Robleto: Well, in that the layers of meaning in my work that I purposefully put there hoping that if someone were to want to continue through those layers that I promise there’d be something interesting. You don’t have to go, but the door’s open.
Tippett: I just want to actually read some very beautiful words that you wrote about time and memory. This subject. This long view of time you have. “Time is, of course, doing it’s steady work on every object ever made. This complex relationship between the maker, and emotionally-invested objects, and the growing distance between them is not new, only rediscovered each generation” — I love this — “whether by an artist, a mourner, a mother, or a soldier.” Later you say, you know, that you have to let go, right? Loss is about letting go. “But that we let go with the hope that others will grab hold. These objects ask very human moral questions. What right do we have to forget? What do we owe to each other’s memories?”
Robleto: So memory now takes on a moral dimension, because — that’s why I take it so serious — because when I go, I’ll hope someone grabs hold of me. But I have to promise I’m grabbing hold of who’s gone before. And I love that memory binds us in that way. And, of course, those lines get severed all the time and, I mean, I just sometimes I’m overwhelmed when I think of how many people have ever been on this planet and the actual tiny, tiny fraction of them that are actually remembered to this day. Nobody remembers, even, two, three generations down the road, it’s easy to start forgetting. And so memory has a spiritual dimension in that way to me. Like there was the title of a piece called “Heaven Is Being a Memory to Others.”
Robleto: Like, my grandmother who I was deeply close to. I remember her, deeply, every day. And when I go, probably no one’s going to remember her in that way again. So, for the next few decades her memory is still in a sense, life after death. This is in a sense what I think memory can do on the planet. But it’s going to taper off at some point, with her in particular. And many of our family members. So I just like knowing I’m going to hold on, I’m going to grasp, pull hard into the last moment. I like that art can do that. So, and I think it should. It should do that.
[Music: “Together We Build the Nest” by Don Bodin]
Tippett: After a short break, more with Dario Robleto. You can always listen again, and hear the unedited version of every show we do on the On Being podcast feed — wherever podcasts are found.
[Music: “Together We Build the Nest” by Don Bodin]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today with the artist philosopher Dario Robleto. He explores how ordinary objects — in life and in culture — can become meditations on love, healing and loss. We had this conversation at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, in 2014.
Tippett: In about 10 minutes we’re going to open up and have some back-and-forth and see what’s on your mind. Before we do that, I’d love to talk about — you allude to this — but you really do have a cosmic view. Right? It’s not just about history. And you’re working on this project about the Golden Record. And somewhere I saw this described as, you know, returning to love and memory, like what we were just talking about, across vast reaches of time and space.
Robleto: Mm-hmm. Yes. The Golden Record. It’s a big topic for me. I take it very seriously, too. Just as a quick preface, if you don’t know what it is, it’s literally a gold record, that’s attached to the Voyager probes that were launched in the late ‘70s. And Carl Sagan had been asked to basically produce a document of life on earth. And he had to do it in the space limitations of a record, which at the time were about two hours of content. Which, think of everybody’s phone in here right now, has thousands of time — of more power than he and his team had to work with.
So it was just incredible — incredible problem to tell the complexity of the planet through sound and image, in the space limitations of two hours, and on a medium that we ourselves have already long ago got rid of. But in September of just last year Voyager crossed a milestone — what scientists call the solar bubble. It had essentially entered interstellar space and attached to the side of the probe, which had this whole other mission of planetary exploration. But attached to it is this symbol, a long playing record with our story on it. And what’s on it is a much longer story, and a beautiful one.
Tippett: And you’ve called Carl Sagan the ultimate DJ.
Tippett: And that the Golden record is the greatest mixtape of humankind ever compiled. [laughter]
Robleto: Well, no, it really is. And I mean — well because my point earlier about what’s at stake with your musical selections? Forever is at stake with that record. But you bring an artist in, and I feel they look at it differently. And I was determined to find something that had been overlooked. And I feel confident I did.
Tippett: Can you tell us what it is?
Robleto: Well, it’s a longer story …
Tippett: Is it top secret? [laughter]
Robleto: But …
Tippett: Can you put it in one of those poetic sentences?
Robleto: Love survives the death of cells. Yeah.
Tippett: The death of cells?
Tippett: I think it’s fascinating that you — that love is that thing you honed in on. There’s this, you know, that the philosopher in you also talks about love a lot. In a very philosophical poetic way. There is a sentence that you repeat, and you actually use this in the context of the Golden record. “With nothing to risk, love can’t exist.” Tell us what that sentence means to you.
Robleto: Well, I can very specifically — also, honky-tonk memory. During those years I remember just being floored when I read in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! — somewhere, I don’t quite remember what it was. And it’s become this urban myth of the mother who lifts a car off their child who’s been injured. And I remember reading that and just being — I was shocked. And that, you know, in my young mind, sitting in a honky-tonk, mixing with all the other songs on that jukebox, I see now it started to turn into a philosophy, which I feel like I’m more fully exploring today. But, god, it was mysterious in youth when you first realized that loving something can actually physically change your body. And that connection, that my science mind again comes in, as far as that something abstract had a real-world consequence. So I love my child, and then I turned into the Incredible Hulk in the process …
Tippett: Right. Yeah.
Robleto: … to lift this car off them. And yeah I think, I mean, it’s so simple but it’s an important thing, that something has to be at risk. Something’s got to be on the line to reveal these, I think, the much more strange, complicated parts of love. That I’m more interested in. Because you say love and our minds go to cliché often. But no, it’s really weird and strange if you know where to look. And it’s on these weird edges of love when it’s at risk and the things people will do in that moment that I find tell this beautiful alternate history of aesthetics.
Like, I like to say that if you could put on the table everything anyone’s ever made in a moment of loss, that that would tell as beautiful a history of aesthetics and creativity as the proper art history that we all know. But that discussion doesn’t happen in art history because it’s — the people making it aren’t artists or it’s just — it’s all of us. When push comes to shove what would you do? What could you make? What are you capable of? And something has to be at risk. So I’m interested in the creative response that comes. And often it’s some form of love that we didn’t see coming until that happened.
Tippett: There’s a — there was a project you did called “Lunge for Love as if it Were Air,” which I think also had that story.
Tippett: In its DNA.
Robleto: Yeah, I like — it’s just one of the my titles that I wrote. It was actually a song title on my song title list.
Robleto: So, that — my titles have become — they find their form finally in my objects. Even though I thought they would be for a band. So in a way, I still released them in a way, I guess.
Tippett: Yeah. So, I think there are some microphones wandering around that we can pass around. Oh, here it is. I like this method, I was saying beforehand, because I think the format where you have the microphones up here and people have to come to the microphone privileges the extroverts in the room.
Tippett: And so I want to encourage introverts to raise your hand. And you don’t have to be too conspicuous, the microphone will come to you. Yes.
Audience Member 1: It seems like a lot of your work — it has to do with materials and material objects. And I’m just wondering how you feel about a world that seems like it’s increasingly digital and has a lot of information that’s not necessarily embodied in physical objects.
Robleto: I’m definitely not an anti-technology, back-in-the-old-day kind of guy. I always resist going down that road. But, for example, the past several years the only growth industry in music has been the sale of vinyl records. And I find this — these kind of forgotten little charts, indicators of something deeper happening in culture.
Tippett: Because I was wondering what would the Dario Robleto of today — you know, he might not grind of vinyl records to dust. I mean, what would you do? Grind dead iPods to dust or something?
Robleto: Yeah, no. No, it’s not the same, yeah.
Robleto: But I suspect people will surprise us in how they answer this question, in ways we just don’t know yet. Which I always — never worries me about this question because it’s just too human to need to attach emotions to things. And, a quick little anecdote to your iPod point that really floored me that happened recently. A group of students I was talking to — one of the students mentioned that his father had willed it to him his record collection, and how touched he was by it. And the other students were sort of making fun of him, like, you’ve got to carry that in life now? They were thinking of it as a burden, a physical burden, to carry records forward in life. And I just had this impromptu thought. Like, I asked them, “Has everybody had an iPod?” Of course everybody raised their hands. And then I said, “Has everybody had several iPods?” Everybody raised their hands. And I said, “How many of you could foresee a day when you will your iPod collection to your child?” Nobody raised their hands. But what was so interesting is that instinctually they knew that seemed odd. And I don’t know what to make of that, I’m just saying that there’s weird things like that that will happen that I will be excited to see how we solve it in the future.
Tippett: Where’s the microphone? Raise your hand. Okay.
Audience Member 2: Hi. I really appreciate the way that you honor the spirit of your material that you’re working with. And I like the way you talk about memory. Particularly, I’m interested in the memory of water. And I was wondering what it felt like when you reunited that million-year-old water drop with that million-year-old blossom.
Robleto: What did it feel like? You know, just to me? Well…hmm.
Tippett: We’d like to know what it felt like to the water drop, but…
Robleto: Yeah. It’s such — I think I’m being articulate and then I stumble here, because I don’t know. There’s still this area where I don’t have quite the words for it sometimes. You know, I prep so long, I look so hard, so much time and energy went into finding that rain drop and that blossom, and then the moment comes when they’re together again. And it’s — I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain it. I couldn’t have done it, as I’d mentioned earlier, what do I need to do to earn the respect of that material? And all those things that I did to get to that moment produced this sensation that’s hard for me to describe. So, I’m sorry I’m stumbling on that.
Tippett: Was there actually a moment though where you brought them together? I mean …
Tippett: And that you …
Robleto: Yeah. The idea was to bring them together again. I have this question I like to ask about. Can art finish something that never got finished? And in this way it was, could that drop finished hitting that blossom all these years later? So, that was a manifestation of that question. And that question’s propelled many artworks. Can art finish something that never got finished? That leads to these kinds of interactions.
[Music: “Quiet” by This Will Destroy You]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett and this is On Being. Today I’m with artist-philosopher Dario Robleto. We’re taking questions from the audience.
Audience Member 3: I think it’s true that there’s this common perception that art connects us with the artist in a way that art is a self-expression, and so kind of the idea is that it’s a way to get inside the artist’s head. When I look at your work, and then when I listen to the way you describe it, it feels like instead of connecting us with you, it connects us with other lives. Another way I was thinking about it is when I’ve looked at your work, it’s almost like walking into a natural history museum. And that I’m connecting with something else kind of bigger, or other lives, or something distant. How do you think about the role of the self in the artwork? Do you consciously try to erase or cover up?
Robleto: To me, this is a great fundamental art question about — because as most artists, we tap into our own history as a starting point. Many young artists do that. And, you know, Patsy Cline is — we believe her, because she’s singing about her heartbreak, and that’s why it counts. But my relationship to those histories that I’m often referencing in the work, the dynamic’s different. It can’t be about me. I mean, I’m making it. I’m initiating it, but the point is not me. And I do try to taper out myself as much as I can, because it’s not, you know, especially when we’re talking about the suffering of war. I mean, come on, how can I — how can I even pretend to know? So to answer you, I do try to taper out my voice in that way because the narrative I’m trying to talk about is what I want all the attention on. But then, you know, I made the object and the artist can never remove themselves totally from it. So it’s not always possible.
Tippett: But I would think that it must please you to hear someone describe your work that way.
Robleto: It does.
Tippett: That your work connects our lives with other lives.
Robleto: It really does. Because I — you know, like I ask young artists that I work with, “Why should anybody care about your problem?” And, when you make work about that problem, and I think every artist should be hard on themselves about that. And, you know, that’s why someone like Billie Holiday or Patsy Cline have done this. They’ve somehow solved this riddle of singing about their own experience, but it means — but it was all of our experience. And I mean that’s like this puzzle I’ll always be trying to figure out, of how do you tap in to the personal, but it’s meant to be for the public interaction and meaning.
Tippett: I think the microphone is over here somewhere, right? Here?
Audience Member 4: Hi. You had mentioned earlier something that I found intriguing, and it just kind of got glossed over. Being very badly depressed when you were younger and visiting your dad, and having this experience in the room with hearing “Sgt. Pepper’s,” and you came out and you were an artist. And it seemed like — I guess the way my mind thought, it was like, well, that must also mean that you were very depressed and you came out of the room and you weren’t depressed anymore. I don’t know if that resolves as quickly as becoming an artist, but I just was wondering if you could speak a little bit more on what was out of kilter that was causing that depression. And how did that resolve?
Robleto: Hm. Yeah. Hm.
Robleto: You know, this is one of those topics we’re afraid to talk about, and we shouldn’t be at all. And I really believe that. But yeah, I hesitate because it’s related to the previous question where I don’t like my work to be about that. But clearly, when I look back, it was depression absolutely. But I mean, five years old, it was a constant in life, and I just didn’t understand what it was. And it has never gone away. If anything I’m an artist because partly I need — it gives me a way to harness it. And to funnel it into something that takes it beyond my own problem, as I was saying. But, I didn’t — when I left the room it was still there. And it just had a purpose that it didn’t have before. And I struggle every day to keep that purpose on sight. But there’s nothing like reading a story of a Civil War soldier carving their leg from scratch that will set you straight very quickly on your own personal depression. And I am constantly looking for those narratives to help put things in perspective.
Tippett: You talk a lot about your lifelong fascination with survival. And the human creative response to loss. And it sounds to me like that’s just a huge root for you of that in your own life.
Robleto: Yeah. If I had to say in one word what’s the overarching theme of my work, it’s survival. And then it divides off into all these other things. But yeah, the two terms I like to use are the logic of loss and the creative response to loss as histories that cross over culture and time. That speak to something basically human. That every era, every culture deals with grief, and mourning, and loss, in that the creativity was the response to the loss. That the loss insisted on some sort of aesthetic. Writing a poem. Making an object. Something. So that notion that loss and love are connected at some fundamental level like that I find just beautifully human.
Tippett: Or even I think as you — you talk about memory, you know, intentional memory is itself a creative response to loss, right?
Robleto: Yes. Memory, yeah. Memory is one of our tools.
Tippett: You don’t even have to be an artist. Yeah.
Robleto: Right. It’s a tool. It’s a weapon against decay and against loss being permanent. And that’s a very human thing to want to struggle against that.
Tippett: You are also working more recently on a project called “The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed.”
Tippett: Which does come a bit to this notion of the big, philosophical, existential reality of death. And my understanding is that a kind of central motif for that is your experience of your grandmother’s heartbeat as she died. Is that right?
Robleto: Yes. Yes. I had the, what’s clearly now seems like a privilege of being by her as she passed away and just instinctually put my hand on her chest. And I’ll never forget those last five beats. And what they felt like. And, that deeply changed me. And the time span between the last beat up to the moment we’re sitting here is a very distinct space that I feel. Because you always assume there’s a beat after the last one. And then the brain realizing that’s not coming is something I still grapple with. But I think what hit me the hardest in that moment was that I didn’t know anything about the heart. And it was like 9/11 in that I thought, how am I ever going to understand this experience if I don’t understand the heart? It’s cultural history. It’s mechanics. It’s, I mean, everything. So right now I’m in this long process of trying to answer to myself that question of, what does the heart mean?
Tippett: Right, “the largely unexplored history of the human heartbeat.”
Robleto: Yeah. And as usual, there’s 100 things that nobody knows about, that I’m sure nobody knows that are fascinating about this story, about this unknown history of the human heartbeat. But it originates with her, definitely.
Tippett: It’s moving to think about it. That’s moving to think about you with your grandmother, because now, anyone who has a baby now, it’s one of the first things that happens, that you hear the heartbeat, and it’s so incredibly exciting.
Tippett: Thrilling beyond measure. But really when you tell that story about being with your grandmother and hearing her last five heartbeats … You know, I think that kind of comes back to some of these driving questions in your work. Does art have the power to fix something that never got fixed? To correct a wrong that’s never been resolved? What can art do anymore? I wonder, just in closing, if you would talk a little bit about how those questions and how you live those questions changes as you go through life, and changes you, changes how you live your life.
Robleto: My idealism has not budged at all. And I’m not going to let it budge. I love the nonsense that it seems like when you hear an artist say, art can change the world. And I don’t care if it’s true or not, I like believing in it. Because it changes how you make things. So I’m constantly trying to find ways to still create objects that there’s something at stake with them. And, of course, changes me in the process. And in no way am I suggesting I’m there, or that I’m ever going to get there, but that’s almost not the point. It’s — the point is the struggle to keep trying to find it. I don’t know if that answered you so well.
Tippett: Yeah, no, it does. And I think the piece you didn’t say is then to hear it come back at you, you know, the idea that then you have created objects that join our life with other lives.
Robleto: Yeah, I hope that happens. You never know. But the artist in me keeps trying for that to happen.
Tippett: Well, Dario Robleto, citizen, DJ, philosopher, artist. It’s been a pleasure to be in your company tonight. Thank you.
Robleto: Thank you. Thank you so much.
[Music: “Awake” by Tycho]
Tippett: Dario Robleto is currently an artist-at-large at the McCormick School of Engineering of Northwestern University. His work is held in collections including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. You can also see some of his work online, at dariorobleto.com.
[Music: “Awake” by Tycho]
Tippett: Special thanks this week to the Minneapolis Institute of Art – now known as MIA — and the former curator there, Elizabeth Armstrong.
The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Laurén Dørdal, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Colleen Scheck, Christiane Wartell, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, and Jhaleh Akhava
The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.
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