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It began as something else: A Defeated Soldier Wishes to Walk His Daughter Down the Wedding Aisle (2004).

Melt for You

By Nadine Wasserman

Dario Robleto: Alloy of Love

Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, through Jan. 25

In 1994 I had the pleasure of viewing part of the Havana Bienal with the critic and author Dore Ashton. At one point we were looking at a floor installation made of opened books that were covered in splatters of oil, and Ashton expressed her dismay at the destruction of literary works. Her concern gave me pause. Didn’t the message of the piece outweigh the sacrifice of the books? Are some objects more sacred than others? Does it make a difference if they are one of a kind? I was reminded of these questions when I first heard that Jake and Dinos Chapman had “rectified” Goya’s Disasters of War etchings by adding their own modifications. Was it OK to alter historical material when there were other copies in existence? I have never been able to definitively answer any of these questions, but I am reminded of them when I see the work of Dario Robleto.

Robleto is a sort of alchemist who uses alteration as a form of creation. He equates his process to sampling in music. For a piece like The Creative Potential of Disease, Robleto has taken a self-portrait doll made by a Civil War Union soldier and sewn on new material from a modern-day soldier’s uniform, and added a new leg made of femur bone dust, prosthetic alginate, shrapnel, and bullet lead. The piece is representative of Robleto’s interests in mourning, healing, history, and belief. While I appreciate Robleto’s dedication to his labor-intensive process, there is something about his end product that bothers me. I personally believe that the power and weight of history are contained in an object’s original form. Once that is altered, it loses its intrinsic aura and becomes something else. It is not so much the alteration of the original that bothers me here, but rather Robleto’s unwavering belief in the physical residue of memory that at times makes his work seem overly fetishistic. Similar to the above work, a piece like No One Has a Monopoly Over Sorrow combines melted bullet lead from various American wars, melted shrapnel, men’s wedding bands excavated from American battlefields, preserved bridal bouquets, fragments from a mourning dress, and hair flowers braided by a Civil War widow. I find this piece to be excessive to the point of kitsch. The story it recounts is overly sentimental and has too many competing narratives.

That is not to say that there are not times when nostalgia and oversincerity are not appropriate. These sentiments work well for a piece like There’s an Old Flame Burning in Your Eyes, or, Why Honky Tonk Love Is The Saddest Kind of Love. In this piece, Robleto coated the heads of wooden matches with melted-down vinyl recordings of classic country songs. He left the boxes of matches in various bars so that when they were struck, the residue of the songs would float in the air as smoke. This ethereal piece is far more beguiling in its subtlety and says just as much about love and loss as the more heavy-handed work. But Robleto’s over-the-top aesthetic does work in pieces such as The Diva Surgery. Inside a glass cabinet, he has combined antique laboratory glassware, medical equipment, and various chemicals and organic matter with ground and melted recordings by such artists as Nico, Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Billie Holiday, and Yoko Ono. The piece functions as a shrine to female vocalists, but it is much less affected than some of his later work.

The pieces that reflect Robleto’s interest in music are the most compelling in the exhibition. Your Moonlight Is in Danger Of Shining for No One is a glass drumstick displayed in a custom-made oak box lined with velvet. The drumstick is ground from trinitite, a glass formed by the first atomic test explosion. Inside the lid of the box is an engraved plaque dedicated to Keith Moon. Sometimes Billie Is All That Holds Me Together is a shirt with buttons made from melted-down Billie Holiday records. I’ve Kissed Your Mother Twice and Now I’m Working on Your Dad is a lipstick holder made from melted-down records by David Bowie, the New York Dolls, and the Sex Pistols. These pieces feel less contrived than others in the show. They are nostalgic and saccharine without being heavy-handed. Ultimately, Robleto’s work confirms for me that there are times when the message does indeed outweigh the sacrifice of the materials. But there are also times when it is best to let the original materials speak for themselves.

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