The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed, Dario Robleto’s latest exhibition at the Menil Collection fills one modestly sized room. But in that single room, the artist manages to create an atmosphere that feels rarefied, almost holy. Some artists play to the awe of their audience, creating works that are so large or heavy or phenomenally crafted that we can’t help but gawk. Robleto is a magician, able to stir this sense of awe by combining equal parts yearning, mystery, and discovery. I would consider him a conceptual artist, but he is particularly adept at giving concept corporeality, and his specific vernacular (he uses objects that hearken to the dawn of modern medical technology) is pitch perfect.
The central piece in the room is a massive walnut table, lit by the golden nostalgic light of Edison bulbs. Their lovely, weak filaments gleam against the fine surfaces of the installation: domed glass, prematurely aging paper articles, and many oddly-shaped shells. The “shells” are apparently vinyl albums that have spent years underwater, trading their auditory information for a kind of geometric dimensionality. The paper articles refer to the events surrounding lost NASA space-probes . In reading their chronology, we watch them go silent, swallowed by the enormity of the universe. There are also references to the building of the first artificial heart.
Exploration, loss, and the enduring mystery of life are constant themes in the entire exhibition. Robleto shows us the groping nature of science, which for all its seeming mastery over death leaves a trail of bodies in its wake. Rather than balking at these horrors, he presents them with the tenderness of religious ritual. In one wall case, he presents books, daguerreotypes, and diagrams that map out scientist’s attempts to find the physical evidence of emotion and thought.
Another display presents some of the earliest recordings of human hearts. Through headphones we can listen to the muffled beats of the hearts of a mother and her babies as they are born in 1863, or the dronelike hum of the first artificial heart (which kept its user alive for five weeks) in 2013. I must note here that this was Clementine’s favorite element. Her eyes grew wide as she exclaimed, “oh…loud!”
As information-packed as these displays are, we get the sense that they are carefully curated. Robleto’s exhaustive research is paired with a visual sense of the marvelous. Every detail serves to immerse us deeper in his narrative. In this small room at the Menil we are struck with awe, not of the grandeur of objects but of the amazing fact of our own existence. We are suspended in this weird space between past and present, between the glory of discovery and the vast mystery of the world. In some ways, it is possible to feel smaller next to these objects than any room-filling sculpture.