Prepare to be pleasantly fooled the moment you enter Ancient Beacons Long for Notice at the McNay Art Museum, the first hometown exhibition by artist Dario Robleto in more than two decades.
The photographic triptych that opens Robleto’s exhibition appears to be images from the Hubble space telescope, common enough that they are instantly recognizable. However, the colorful swirls of Survival Does Not Lie In The Heavens are not galaxies and nebulae, but a collage of stage lights from album covers of “now deceased Gospel, Blues, and Jazz musicians,” as the work’s label reveals.
“These stage lights, sound from records, vibrations from heartbeats, all of these things are of interest to Dario,” said McNay Assistant Curator Jacqueline Edwards, “because it connects to this more romantic idea [of] essentially, energy never really dying, as long as the light or sound is still in existence somewhere.”
Artworks in the show, which opens Thursday, June 28, represent eight years of Robleto’s production, but contain up to 10 million years of Earth’s history. One sculpture, American Seabed, combines fossilized whale ear bones dated from one million to 10 million years old, with butterfly specimens and audiotape of the 1965 Bob Dylan song Desolation Row.
“I chose that song because it’s an epic historical narrative of both fact and fiction,” Robleto said during a phone interview from his current home in Houston. Dylan’s song captured “the fears and anxieties of that generation grappling with the long history that led to it,” and stands as “a great example not only of human language and historical knowledge, but also a way of connecting the past to the present,” he said.
“I’m such a lover of sound, especially ancient sound,” Robleto said.
In his work, Robleto suggests that any used record store, stuffed with old recordings, is a more or less romantic equivalent to the Golden Record ingeniously attached to NASA’s Voyager probes launched in 1977. The recordings were meant as portraits of the world as we know it, sent out into an uncertain future. They may find extraterrestrial listeners in millions of years, or not, but serve to remind us that one day, all of us will be ancient.
The famous Golden Record is not only a brilliant work of art, Robleto believes, but “may be the final document of our planet,” he said, quoting its originator, astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who died in 1996. The Voyager probe exited the solar system in 2013, continuing headlong into outer space for a practical eternity.
Prior to the Voyager launch, Sagan assembled a team to gather recordings, from Chuck Berry to whale songs, as well as greetings in 55 languages, images of human anatomy, and a star map of Earth’s location in space.
In particular, Robleto admires the “Life Signs” track on the record, the contribution of team member Ann Druyan, a 27-year-old writer at the time.
“We should understand it as art, and as subversive art,” Robleto said, explaining that Druyan and Sagan had secretly fallen in love during the making of the Golden Record. Druyan surreptitiously arranged to have her brain waves and heartbeat recorded, while specifically thinking of their love, and imagining the life they might have together.
“Technically, it’s a physiological signal of the body,” Robleto said. “But likely, Ann is perhaps the final representative of human love as a physical experience in the body,” he said.
“I find it so amazing that she went ahead and did it, and snuck it on board because she felt this was something worth remembering,” Robleto said. “Of all the things we’ve contributed on the planet, human love is one of the things that should be remembered,” he said.
His admiration of Druyan turned into a friendship, then into a collaboration. Robleto, a respected researcher in addition to being an artist, will appear in an episode of Cosmos Season 2, the update of Sagan’s original 1980s series that Druyan produces.
One work in the exhibition, titled The First Time, the Heart, is in part intended as a gift to Druyan. “What does one give to the only woman whose heart has left the solar system?” Robleto said he asked himself. The artwork that resulted collects 50 examples of first pulse-wave recordings of the human heart, including the first-ever recording of a living heart in 1854, and its opposite, the first-ever recording of a heart having died, in 1870.
The visual symbols of the heart are instantly recognizable to anyone, he said. “You put a pulse line in front of everyone, and a flat line, and they’ll know that’s life, and that’s death.” The project expanded to include other, more fanciful examples, including a heart experiencing “sadness from listening to a sung melody,” and the combined heartbeats of a mother giving birth to twins.
The title of the exhibition, Ancient Beacons Long for Notice, is Robleto’s own poetic voice, said Rene Paul Barilleaux, head of curatorial affairs for the McNay.
“There’s always poetry and melancholy and romanticism in his work, and it permeates everything,” Barilleaux said. The title “has a kind of melancholy quality to it, so it sort of sets you up for what you’re going to see in here, and feel,” he said.
Barilleaux and Robleto will present a public conversation at the McNay on Sept. 20, three days before the exhibition’s closing on Oct. 7. In the meantime, Edwards said Robleto will “have a presence in the gallery through the run of the show,” in a video of a recent talk with poet Adrian Matejka. Fittingly, the artist’s image and voice will be projected through time and space.