Short Features

Contemporary Art, From the Collection

Dario Robleto’s Things Placed in the Sea, Become the Sea

Detail of Dario Robleto, Things Placed in the Sea, Become the Sea, 2013-15. Sea urchin shells and spines cast and coated with hand-ground and melted vinyl records salvaged from the deep sea, stretched audiotape recordings of various probe and heartbeat signals, soft coral, various crystals and minerals, various rock slabs, homemade crystals, various seashells, sea urchin teeth, Van Dyke prints (lost probes, probe planetary imagery, news and magazine clippings), watercolor paper, beeswax, aqua resin, entomology pins, walnut, gold and bronze-mirrored acrylic sheet, glass domes, brass, copper, light bulbs. Including pedestal and vitrine: 64 ¾ × 57 × 57 in. (164.5 × 144.8 × 144.8 cm). Purchased with major funds provided by Nina and Michael Zilkha, Franci Neely, Bettie Cartwright, Cecily Horton, and Brad and Leslie Bucher, with additional funds provided by Bridget and Patrick Wade, Clinton T. Willour, Clare Casademont and Michael Metz, Cynthia Toles, Rebecca S. Trahan, and American International Group, Inc. 2015-8 Photo: Thomas DuBrock

The deep sea is one of the least understood regions of the planet. For artist Dario Robleto, its exploration along with that of outer space and our own human biology challenge the unseen boundaries of life. In Things Placed in the Sea, Become the Sea, recently acquired by the Menil Collection, Robleto layers these areas of exploration and the connection between them to examine our understanding of what it means to be human.

Things Placed in the Sea, Become the Sea is a smaller modification of a work Robleto created for his 2014 exhibition at the Menil, Dario Robleto: The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed. The show was commissioned and developed in a joint residency with the Menil Collection and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, University of Houston. The commission emerged out of research Robleto conducted with the medical and scientific communities in Houston. Presenting all new sculpture alongside objects from the museum’s collection, the exhibition wove together a diverse collection of sounds, ideas, personal narratives, and scientific research to link together two remarkable undertakings that took place in the United States in the 1960s: the space race and the development of the artificial human heart, both of which have close relationships to Houston. Robleto’s goal was to challenge and augment the way the scientific and medical worlds understand the emotional ramifications of their role in perpetually extending the physical and theoretical boundaries of life.

In Things Placed in the Sea, Robleto encapsulated his research by meditating on the human desire to connect with and apprehend the least known realms of human knowledge: the deep sea, the outer limits of space, and our own biology, especially the human heart. To illustrate these parallels, he brings together a variety of materials related to man’s exploration of the biological, cosmic, and aquatic terrains. Here, seashells and sea urchin spines mingle with images of Sputnik and the Liotta-Cooley artificial heart. Newspaper articles, culled from the Associated Press and the New York Times, discuss space probes that have lost their connections with Earth and the scientific teams that continue to wait for their signals, for a sign of life. Melted vinyl records—a signature medium Robleto has long explored as a symbolic distillation of sound—salvaged from the ocean floor are incorporated into the work, binding together mysterious and invented sea creatures. Through this comingling, Robleto also draws out the formal similarities of the scientific devices and the aquatic shell–encrusted forms with radiating appendages. They are all designed to withstand incredible pressure.

Things Placed in the Sea, Become the Sea installed in The Boundary of Life Is Quietly Crossed (2014–15). Photo: Paul Hester

Dario Robleto’s sculptural work is layered with emotions and meaning, and draws from science, music, popular culture, philosophy, war, and American history. His method of utilizing diverse and unexpected materials is like that of a disc jockey who samples, mixes, and weaves together different sounds to create something entirely new. As the critic Marcus Civin wrote, “Encountering Robleto’s work is like reading an aching Valentine written in Morse code. It connects seemingly disparate and vulnerable technologies and forms of expression out of a desire to discover and validate an unquantifiable bliss shared by humans, a feeling which can be lost across space and between cultures and generations.”

Things Placed in the Sea is the Menil’s first acquisition of a work by Robleto, whose work was exhibited at the Menil in the 2008 group exhibition NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith. Robleto found much resonance in the de Menil’s history of exploring art and science when creating this work. When he was working in the Menil Archives, for instance, he came across footage that he used in the show for a never-completed 1960 documentary by Roberto Rossellini titled Science. Created while the famous director was in residence at Rice University under the patronage of John and Dominique de Menil, the 16mm film included shots taken at NASA and of pumping cardiac machines. It is also important that this work has a home in a Houston institution. Home of NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the Texas Medical Center, the city played a large role in the race to put a man on the moon and the efforts to create the artificial human heart, two histories that define the sculpture.

About the Artist

Houston-based artist Dario Robleto (b. San Antonio, TX, 1972) has had over 30 solo exhibitions since 1997, most recently at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver. He has been included in such noteworthy group exhibitions as More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness, Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Old, Weird America, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston; and the 2004 Whitney Biennial. His work is in the collections of institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; and Le Centre d’Art Contemporain, Montpellier, France.

Related exhibitions

Aug 16, 2014 – Jan 4, 2015
Main Building
Dario Robleto: The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed