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.
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.
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.
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.