What do we owe to the memories of one another’s hearts?

This central question resonates throughout the exhibition The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto, presented by Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art and the McCormick School of Engineering from January 26 through July 9, 2023.

For American artist Dario Robleto (b. 1972), artists and scientists share a common aspiration: to increase the sensitivity of their observations. Throughout the history of scientific invention, instruments like the cardiograph and the telescope have extended the reach of perception from the tiniest stirrings of the human body to the farthest reaches of space. In his prints, sculptures, and video and sound installations, Robleto contemplates the emotional significance of these technologies, bringing us closer to the latent traces of life buried in the scientific record.

The Heart’s Knowledge concentrates on the most recent decade of Robleto’s creative practice, a period of deepening engagement with histories of medicine, biomedical engineering, sound recording, and space exploration. The exhibition organizes the artist’s works as a series of multisensory encounters between art and science. Each piece seeks to attune viewers to phenomena at scales ranging from the intimate to the universal, returning always to the question: Does empathy extend beyond the boundaries of time and space?

In “The First Time, the Heart (A Portrait of Life 1854–1913)” (2017), Robleto transforms early measurements of heartbeats made by 19th-century pioneers of cardiography into exquisite photolithographs executed on paper hand-sooted with candle flames. For the installation “The Pulse Armed With a Pen (An Unknown History of the Human Heartbeat)” (2014), Robleto digitally resurrects these historic heartbeats, allowing visitors to listen to pulses of life recorded before the invention of sound playback. Two immersive video installations, “The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed” (2019) and “The Aorta of an Archivist” (2020–2021) weave Robleto’s archival inquiries into the first recorded heartbeats with a meditation on the cosmic limits of perception, while intricate sculptures like “Small Crafts on Sisyphean Seas” (2018) give shape to the speculative search for intelligent life in the universe.

The Heart’s Knowledge marks the culmination of Robleto’s five-year engagement as Artist-at-Large in Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. This exhibition reflects the spirit of that enterprise, expanding conversations around ethics and empathy in scientific fields, and inviting us to look and listen to the life that surrounds us with curiosity and compassion.

The companion publication is currently available through ARTBOOK DAP.

The Block Museum of Art is always free and open to all.

To learn more, visit blockmuseum.northwestern.edu.

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