There’s a good chance we’re not alone in the universe. We, the citizens of Earth, have yet to knowingly communicate with extraterrestrial lifeforms, unless our cats or David Bowie are keeping something from us, as we suspect they might be. But we have tried, on many occasions, to project our planetary identity into the unfathomable vastness that surrounds us. In 1977, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan selected images and audio recordings to be shot into space via the “Golden Record” aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 probes. The contents of the record, which continues to float through the cosmos, are intended to express the essence of life on Earth to anyone or thing that will listen. Even if attempts like this are totally in vain, and there is no one on the other end who is listening or even exists, defining ourselves to the universe is an essential of understanding our own nature.
Houston-based artist Dario Robleto, whose solo exhibition “Setlists for a Setting Sun” is on view in the Front Room of the Contemporary Wing at the Baltimore Museum of Art through March 29, collects visual and sonic artifacts from Earth’s natural and cultural histories, blurring the distinction between the two by constructing complex installations and visual displays. Through the fragmentation, manipulation, and rearrangement of found images, natural artifacts, and handmade materials, Robleto testifies to the existence of our relatively insignificant speck of a world.
Oddly enough, the exhibition looks like a religious shrine for scientists. Three box-shaped installations sit altarlike in the center of the room in front of a backdrop of eight colorful, cosmic prints. The three central sculptures are encased by glass tanks, as if their contents were alive.
The middle piece, ‘American Seabed,’ displays dozens of fossilized, prehistoric whale ear bones—which have an uncanny resemblance to the human ear—elevated over concrete cubes by brass rods. The cubes hover at varying heights over the surface of the pedestal, with white coral ends growing underneath like roots. Real (dead) butterflies perch on each ear bone. There must be hundreds of butterflies throughout the exhibition, and every single antenna—the only synthetic part of the insects—is made from stretched audiotape. The antennae of the butterflies in ‘American Seabed’ are fashioned from tapes of Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row.’ The combination of ancient, modern, natural, and industrial elements evokes the conflicting forces on Earth, including time in itself, a dystopic sense expressed by Dylan’s song.
Written descriptions of Robleto’s materials are necessary to understand the content of each piece. Some materials, such as the handmade antennae, or the human hand bones made from pulverized family records in his small sculpture ‘Melancholy Matters Because of You,’ are not what they seem. Artwork that requires explanation from the artist has always been a strong point of contention among artists and critics, some of whom contend that all artwork should speak for itself. But while the labels that accompany Robleto’s work inform the experience significantly, his pieces are just as visually rich without them.
Flanking the ‘American Seabed’ centerpiece are twin pieces ‘Setlists for a Setting Sun (The Crystal Palace)’ and ‘Setlists for a Setting Sun (Dark Was the Night).’ On both pedestals, white, cyan, and cream objects are arranged like a collector’s display under glass tanks. Many pieces are covered by plastic or glass domes, some so small they look like bubbles. Crownlike structures constructed from decoratively arranged shells, butterflies, crystals, minerals, coral, sea urchin shells and teeth, beetle wings, cut paper flowers, feathers, bones, and other natural treasures sit with small cyanotypes and prints, which visually function like scientific labels for the artifacts in a museum display.
The parenthetical subtitles of the two installations refer to each accompanying audio recording, from which the same audiotape is used for the butterfly antennae. Through headphones, museum-goers can listen to Handel’s ‘Israel In Egypt’ in 1888 at the Crystal Palace in London, the earliest known recording of a live music performance, and Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 blues classic ‘Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.’ ‘Israel in Egypt’ is hardly discernible; it sounds like shuffling and static over distant, ethereal notes. Johnson’s melancholic song was included on the Golden Record shot into space on Voyager 1. The cyanotypes and prints depict images and news clippings referring to the context of each respective recording: images of spacecraft, planets, and Blind Willie appear in ‘Dark Was the Night’ and ‘The Crystal Palace’ contains images from events that took place at the palace. Both audio pieces serve as testaments to human history, as much as the remnants of natural life beneath the glass tanks are artifacts of time on Earth.
At first glance, the eight digital prints hanging behind the three centerpieces, collectively titled ‘The Sky, Once Choked With Stars, Will Slowly Darken,’ look like grainy, magnified photographs of distant celestial bodies. The museum label reveals that the images are actually taken from sections of various live concert album covers, all from deceased musicians, including Johnny Cash “Live at San Quentin” and Marvin Gaye “Live at the London Palladium.” With this context, the stage lights in each image still feel astronomical, evoking the romantic comparison of a music icon drowned in lights and applause to a spacecraft engulfed in the cosmos. Although similar idealism has been echoed by writers of music history, Robleto’s sentimentality toward these dead stars is not exhausting or eye-roll-inducing. The prints capture the spirit of these monumental creative experiences, rather than iconize the musicians for worship.
‘Life, Left to Struggle in the Sun’ presents similar relics from cultural heroes like pieces of scientific or historical evidence. Sixteen cyanotypes made from original drawings, lyrics, and poems by writers and rock stars hang together in glass frames, appearing wet and slightly warped, as if discovered floating in a body of water. A bizarre drawing by Kurt Cobain depicts a seahorse ejaculating little wisps of baby seahorses with the words “the male seahorse carries the children and gives them birth.” Michael Jackson’s messy draft for the lyrics for ‘Morphine’ is placed next to a dark self-portrait by Charles Baudelaire, along with an abstract face sketched by Jim Morrison, Tupac’s lyrics for ‘My Burnin’ Heart,’ and a cartoon-ish doodle by John Lennon, among other engrossing images. Each print lends insight into the mind of each enigmatic figure, but together they present evidence of monumental human creativity.
“Setlists for a Setting Sun” is the rare kind of show that attracts the non-art-inclined as much as enthusiasts. Robleto’s materials and imagery are derived from themes that are almost universally fascinating to the curious mind: outer space, rock stars, dead things, evidence of a time before our own. His presentation is almost psychopathic, like the lab of a mad scientist or Frederick Clegg’s butterfly collection in John Fowles’ “The Collector.” It’s only that kind of off-kilter perspective that can remix Earth’s elements and relics to illuminate, in so few and inevitably limited expressions, something close to the soul of our planet.