For the 2019 Art Show, Inman Gallery is pleased to present a solo booth of work by Houston-based artist Dario Robleto (b. 1972). Sponsored by the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), The Art Show is presented at the Park Avenue Armory, February 28 – March 3, 2019, with a Gala preview on Wednesday, February 27, benefiting The Henry Street Settlement.
Robleto’s newest body of work includes collages and sculptures which take his ongoing conversations with scientists, engineers, andmathematicians and consider the role of empathy in interstellar communication. For three years, Robleto has been engaged in research with the astrobiologists who work at the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI), and in 2015, Robleto joined a team of scientists as the artistic consultant to Breakthrough Initiatives, a multi-year private consortia whose goal is to search for extraterrestrial intelligent life. The work shown here is the first to be developed from these collaborations, and it asks the question of what and how we might imagine such communication.
There is a melancholy embedded in Robleto’s works, just as there is in the ongoing search for life beyond our solar system. Since 1983, SETI has been sending messages into the distance, imagining ways of communicating human experience to an unknown entity beyond our understanding. While the vastness of the universe suggests the great likelihood of intelligent life beyond our world, the expanse of time needed to cross such distances means that even if our best efforts at contact reach their destination, they will fail to do so within a human lifespan. The search for contact, then, is weighted with sadness, as it is pursued by scientists who are keenly aware of the boundaries of their own mortality.
In his collage Sisyphus’ Archivists (2018), Robleto pays homage to the people and ideas that founded SETI. Using archival images that represent Democritus, Frank Drake, Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan, and Johannes Kepler, the artist circles them with words and decorative pearls. “More to Search Than Time Allows,” reads the frame around Drake, an astronomer, astrophysicist, and SETI founder. Druyan, Creative Director of NASA’s Golden Record (and whose heartbeat was included on that record), is described as “A Theorist of Love’s Memory.” Around them, intricate arrangements of cut paper, cut and polished seashells, green and white tusks, squilla claws, and crushed glass and glitter float in flower-like configurations.
Robleto is particularly interested in the disjunction between human and geologic time scales. Historically, astrobiologists have assumed that communication with other life forms should be done through light, because of its speed. Speed, though, means that the communication loses its decipherability, as the beam of transmitted light widens over time. By communicating with light, the likelihood of sending anything that can be translated decreases and the light becomes just noise. Despite the human impulse for speed, slowness actually seems to allow long-distance communication to be interpreted better. Robleto believes that sending objects into space allows the message an even higher probability of being deciphered.
If we were to send an object, Robleto asks, could a thing perform both archival and emotional communication from one species to another? And if you were to send an object from Earth into space, what would you choose? As Robleto is quick to point out, the transmission needs to assume no shared experience, and so the object’s context and embedded information will most likely be entirely foreign to its recipient. What, then, might communicate even a fraction of the complexity of life, here? In his three studies—Study for Moon Flowers (2016), Study for the Waiting (2016), and Study for Seams in Monoliths (2016)—Robleto imagines prototypes for what this first object might be. Indeed, Moon Flowers takes an astronaut’s gesture toward communicating with future space travelers as its departure point: in 1972, Charlie Duke left a photograph of his family on the surface of the moon. Believed to still be there, the photograph includes Duke’s hand-written note on the back: “This is the family of astronaut Charlie Duke from planet Earth who landed on the moon on April 20, 1972.” Duke would later describe his gesture as the “human side of space exploration.”
While Duke’s gesture was an intimate one, many of the scientists Robleto works with imagine a different form of communication for extraterrestrial life. “Science would send math,” Robleto says. There is evidence that physics is universal, he adds. And math—a human construction—is how physics is communicated. And yet, thinking as a visual artist, he wonders, what object might best convey math?
Robleto’s proposal is a seashell. At once math, form, and home, a shell is a unique equation (the golden ratio) and a beautiful, symmetrical object. The Nautilus shell in particular, Robleto notes, is a living fossil, a creature that has almost completely bypassed the evolutionary drive over time. It is a symbol of proportional perfection and, having survived without changing over millions of years, it meets the slowness of space travel. In the sculpture Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas (2017–2018), Robleto constructs a floating shell world. Nautilus shells are held aloft over transparent domes that seem like little worlds, filled with configurations of seashells, urchin spines and teeth, mushroom coral, green and white tusks, squilla claws, butterfly wings, and various beads, pigments, crushed glass, and glitter. The effect is transcendent, and laden with hope.