On December 1, 2017, Skidmore students Teague Costello ’19 and Emily Cooper ’19 interviewed artist Dario Robleto about his works You Make My World a Better Place to Find, 1996–1998, and Falsetto Can Be a Weapon, 2001, both from the Tang Teaching Museum collection. You Make My World a Better Place to Find was on view in the fall 2017 exhibition Other Side: Art, Object, Self.
This interview was part of a series of interviews with artists conducted by Skidmore students in the Art History course “The Artist Interview,” led by Dayton Director Ian Berry.
Teague Costello ’19
Could you start by discussing growing up, your influences, and becoming an artist?
I was a very curious kid. I still am a curious man. I have a deep passion for many subjects: music, science, history, poetry. I became a biology major, but I realized early on that art was the road to pursue if I couldn’t choose a passion, and I just couldn’t. Art is this umbrella term for me that allows me to pursue them all. And that has evolved into a practice that’s wide-ranging as far as what I do and what I think an artist can or should do. I always make objects; I love materials. But my practice extends more broadly out and that comes from a deep-rooted, wild, broad curiosity as a little boy.
I’m really lucky to have had my mother and my grandmother, two beautiful, loving women, in my life. I like to say that whatever is good about me as an artist is because of my grandmother. When I was a little boy, my mother ran a honky-tonk in Texas. On occasions when she didn’t have anybody to look after me, I would go with her and she would hand me a bunch of coins and I would plant myself next to the jukebox. As a six-year-old, I was choosing what songs to play in that honky-tonk.
This core thing I had learned—I couldn’t have articulated it then, of course, but later I realized it—is that the lyrics coming out of the jukebox were not only metaphor, they were life, exactly what I saw happening in the honky-tonk. The lyrics were dictating broken hearts, cheating, crashing a truck, whatever, it was all right there, and a pretty dark side of it, too. I’m glad I saw that because I think then I realized art is life.
My mother moved on to running a hospice for twenty years, which also left a deep mark on me and my attitudes about art and art making. So somewhere between this honky-tonk and a hospice, I formed my worldview of art, and I’m still trying to uphold the values I learned from those experiences.
Early on you did some deejaying and sampling with music. By becoming an artist, you still employ deejaying in some sense.
I never let go of any passions; they are all still moving at some level. Some, like deejaying, have mutated into my practice as an object maker. Becoming a DJ started to form a worldview that was technical like mixing two records together, sampling, splicing, song sequencing. There’s an artistry to all those things of course, which I wanted to explore as a creative expression. But it became more of a worldview, especially sampling. Everything around me has a possibility to come to life again with some reorganization, some manipulation, some alteration. Hidden inside a groove of a ten-cent record at the bottom of a dusty record bin in a thrift store, if you know how to manipulate it, there is a whole universe to unlock. And that was a bigger principle: why not apply that to all of life?
Can you speak about manipulating music and lyrics into a physical object?
Early on I learned skills at a technical level, like scratching a record or splicing or beat matching—things that any DJ needs to know—and I brought that technical skill set over to the sculptural world. So, for example, I thought, what if I kept scratching a record until it literally turns to dust? Patsy Cline’s voice just moving back and forth over and over until the stylus disintegrates her voice into powder? And then sweep up the powder, hold it in my hand, Patsy Cline’s voice in my hand, all that she represents, all her power and beauty.
At its core, I was still sampling. I took one thing and through manipulation, I changed it into something else. But new meaning arose from the alteration, and that is the beauty of sampling to me, that you can tease something out of it in this unexpected way when you change its material composition. So it was pretty crucial to my early work to have that DJ background.
Emily Cooper ’19
You Make My World a Better Place to Find is made by gathering an assortment of materials and then combining them into a single strand of thread. There is a subsequent scattering as you use the thread to repair mittens and other things. Could you speak to the relationship between the additive and reductive themes in your work?
It’s one of my earliest sculptures, and it arose from this problem many artists face—one I still face—which is whether your skill sets match the ambition of your idea. Early on I had such big ideas, and I did not know how to make them happen. I identified core strengths that I already possessed. For example, I have a lot of patience, and I thought, how do I harness my patience as an artistic tool?
That piece arose from a series of maybe fifty works that I called “Actions,” and they were my attempt to grapple with this idea that I wanted art to change the world, but I didn’t have any skills to do it, so how do I proceed? I did these small, incremental things that really anybody could do. It was very important to me that in principle anybody could do these.
A simple daily observation I noticed is how often we carry lint on our shoulder, our jeans, wherever on our bodies, or a piece of thread that was kind of swept up with a ball of dust in the corner. It’s just the residue of life around us. I started secretly picking the thread off of friends or strangers. Sometimes it’s done as a caring act, and I did it that way as well. It took about two years, but I finally had enough to make this really long string and through the touch of glue, just barely any at all, I wrapped them together and spooled the thread around one of my grandmother’s spools. But then to activate it into life I used it. I wanted it to be useful again. I’d fix a hole in a pair of socks or sew a button on a shirt.
I like to say that I’m a tragic optimist. And adding and subtracting fits along those lines. If something’s gone then I’ll replace, if there’s too much I’ll take away. I remember being startled that some of the early criticisms of my work interpreted it as destructive, and that made me think about how we define the difference between construction and destruction.
There can really be culturally biased ways to define an action. If I turned Billie Holiday’s records into buttons that I sewed on shirts all over town, technically I lost something in the melting, but my focus is on what I gained. What I gained was honoring her voice in a brand-new way and giving it a new function in the world that wasn’t just auditory. It was something as simple as keeping your pants up or holding your shirt together. In my mind, nothing can be destroyed. Matter and energy are always just changing. This is a fundamental law of all matter in the universe.
So to say that we’ve destroyed something becomes a very specific human interpretation and loses sight of what was gained in the process. My work is not about vandalism. It’s about this point of teasing out new meaning through the alteration. Always, to me, it’s construction, not destruction.
There’s a side of your work that lies within the beauty and poetry of the title.
I operate a little backward here in that the language comes first to get to the object. I generally don’t feel I’m ready to get to the construction of an object until I have a lot of the language worked out. I will write materials that I imagine may exist. I don’t even know if they exist, but it doesn’t matter at that point because I’m just trying to write an interesting word. And then that will lead me to wonder if this really exists and I’ll go look for it—all because I pushed myself to write that poetic phrase.
I remember something that sounds simple but so beautiful like “Icelandic lava,” and I just wrote it down one day. I love it: Icelandic lava, you know? Hot and cold. And of course, there is Icelandic lava and I got some and I used it. But I don’t think I would have stumbled on that. Or I’ll write a more complicated phrase like “men’s wedding ring finger bones coated with melted bullet lead from every American war.” It’s just something I’m writing as a sentence. And then I go out and see if this is true, if I can do this, if I can find it and make it happen. So language always opens a door for me.