Conceptual artist Robleto’s sampling strings together past and present art

Artist Dario Robleto strips vinyl records and makes casts from bullets to breathe life into forgotten stories and letters. His work has been showcased in museums such as the Whitney in New York City, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Francisco and North Adam’s MASS MoCA. Dario Robleto’s lecture in Lawrence Hall last Thursday, “Some Longings Survive Death,” introduced his method of artistic sampling. He began with commentary on sampling in its musical context. Artists like Puff Daddy, Robleto explained, are known for sampling other songs, but lazily. Still, Robleto made it clear that he wanted his audience to consider sampling a positive method of uniting the past with the present. “Even if all we have is wreckage, we’re going to make something out of it,” he said.

The pieces Robleto creates emphasize the unity between music, writing and artwork in his creative process. Robleto is passionate about music – his favorite artist is Patsy Cline – but he is also inspired by literature written by other famous writers. He considers the wall labels for his art as important as the art itself, with the ability to be read “like a haiku.” “I’d hope my texts are satisfying enough that a mental image would appear,” Robleto said, also noting that he wants his viewers to take responsibility for understanding his art. Overall, he tied these themes together by describing what he calls “historical empathy,” the correlation between sampling and mourning in creations inspired by loss.

Untitled, (1998-1999) the first piece Robleto shared, embodied the idea of sampling music to create something new. Robleto created a spool and needle from iron pyrite. The single thread wrapped around the spool is the sliced vinyl of Patsy Cline’s “Fall to Pieces.” Here, music is the stitch that holds us together.

There’s an Old Flame Burning in Your Eyes (1998) also used an everyday item – a matchbox – and infused it with musical samples. He glazed the bright red head of each match with specific parts of vinyl from country songs. The matches, he explained, retained their original use: several of these matchboxes were put in bars. The effect was that each struck match produced a puff of smoke, “a puff of the lyrics,” so that people were “literally ingesting into their lungs Patsy Cline.”

After Sept. 11, 2001, Robleto reevaluated his role as an artist. He still used sampling techniques, but created more political commentary. He began researching historical stories and using them to create new from the old, specifically in the context of war and the preservation of love. Robleto moved away from focusing on autobiographical information and now uses art to tell the stories of people who can’t do it for themselves.

A Defeated Soldier Wishes to Walk His Daughter Down the Aisle (2004) is based on letters Robleto found about a WWII veteran who carved his own wooden legs so he could play a role in his daughter’s wedding. The piece is two maroon boots, made from vinyl, one of which contains a wooden leg that used to belong to a soldier. The boots stand in a pile of sand with two trails behind them, which suggest that the boots have been dragged to a halt. The sand was made from ballistic gelatin, a material that mimics human flesh and is often used to determine the strength of bullets. One of several questions on Robleto’s mind when creating this piece included, “could music get you down the aisle?”

Bullets play a prominent role in A Sadness Silence Can’t Touch (2005-2006), a collection of seven “pain bullets” – bullets that were put in soldiers’ mouths while doctors amputated their limbs. The bullets are imprinted with marks from gnawing teeth. Robleto created forms from these bullets, and then filled them with dissolved audiotapes of poets like Whitman, Eliot and Sassoon reading their own works. While the piece illuminates the immortality of pain, it also enforces Robleto’s belief in the power of poetry.

Robleto has evolved from an artist concerned with his commitment to music to an artist who uses stories in letters and historical texts to remember those who have been forgotten. While his newer pieces are created in the likeness of those texts, he still retains musical motifs. In Robleto’s work, acknowledgment and appreciation of the past is the canvas for new art.