THE BODY POLITIC: Art + Science = Empathy
“The First Time, the Heart (A Portrait of Life 1854-1913)” is a portfolio by Dario Robleto, of fifty lithogrpahs about his research into the history of the human heart, and more specifically, our attempt to record a heartbeat.
Words matter and images matter, especially, when they are attached to our understanding of the human body. I recently participated in a collaborative art project with world renowned contemporary artist Dario Robleto, “The First Time, the Heart (A Portrait of Life 1854-1913)“ Dario Robleto’s work is a synergism between science and art. He removes the partition, reinforced throughout our education, that art and science must operate exclusively devoid of the other; if they are to be understood and lead to understanding. Robleto asserts, as a matter of fact, that simultaneously seeing through the lenses of art and science, increases our capacity to know.
“The First Time, the Heart (A Portrait of Life 1854-1913)” is a portfolio by Dario Robleto, of fifty lithographs about his research into the history of the human heart, and more specifically, our attempt to record a heartbeat. Each print created in the series shows a human pulse taken between 1854 and 1913. The prints include the scientist’s original notations of the conditions under which each subject’s pulse was recorded. The inadvertently poetic notations included phrases like, “smelling lavender”, “religious guilt”, “arising from sleep”, “Young boy, dreaming” and “Exhausted by misery and undernourishment; rest and being fed”.
The Spencer Art Museum has acquired this portfolio for its permanent collection. The artist Robleto, asked if the portfolio could be creatively resequenced. The portfolio has been resequenced and displayed with the assistance of poets since its debut. The original sequence was created by poet Adrian Matejka per Robleto. It was important to Robleto that another artist was brought into the project to amplify the language inborn within the images.
Robleto’s portfolio will be presented at Kansas University’s Spencer Art Museum’s exhibit, “Healing, Knowing, Seeing the Body”. The exhibit explores the human bodies capacity to connect us through shared experience. Though the body is an individual and intimate experience for us all, that experience is informed by cultural context, social expectation and our own particular situation. This exhibit acknowledges the importance of artists working within the context of the body. The body’s disposition to constantly be labeled, studied, and explored. This attempt to label, study and explore the body by artists has led to conversations about how and why the body is, as the Spencer Art Museum adduces, “…a site of violence and debate, providing visible ways to identify and label difference that can lead to widespread injustice.”
I was asked to participate in the exhibit by Cassandra Mesick Braun, Ph.D, curator of Global Indigenous Art at Spencer Museum of Art. For several years she has been immersed in an interdisciplinary research project that explores the intersections between art, medicine and the body. This work has taken many forms, including an ongoing project about the history of medical racism, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, “Chronic Conditions” as well as, “Healing, Knowing, Seeing the Body.” Mesick asked me to participate so we could explore questions of empathy, care, memory, individuality and personhood with respect to our bodies and selves.
I met with Cassandra to see Robleto’s lithographs. At the time, the Spencer was not open to the public. We met and got to work in a room away from the galleries. Each lithograph was pulled out with intention and with white gloves. They were laid out on a white table in a white room. The sizes of each image varied. The smoky-lens prints were all laid out to be seen. I walked around the table and read each word. I paid little to no attention to each lithographs appearance. I was brought here to amplify the words. I was now collecting data related to my task. The images were sent to me beforehand to review but Mesick and I were in accordance that they had to be seen in person to resequence. They had to be experienced and not just observed from a distance to truly be absorbed.
Two things informed my selection process, the covid-19 pandemic and the presidential election of 2020. The division and isolation we were all experiencing has created less empathy and understanding between us. The way information was being recorded, sent, received, reconfigured and shared regarding the pandemic and election was having a profound impact on us all. I challenged myself to take a snap shot of the world we are living in today with the data provided to us from 1854 and 1913. What could we learn from a heartbeat that no longer existed, from a person we never met, during a moment only they could have experienced? I took individual heartbeats from complete strangers and created a time in a life that could have occurred today. I wanted, if only for a moment, the images to tell a story, to spur empathy in the observer. When data is separated from the person (subject) it is collected from we begin to distance ourselves from the humanity inherent in the knowledge we are presented. These images, these words, this data, if even for a short time, represent a part of a life. And data is being collected now, about the world we are experiencing and I hope someone in the future can learn from us the way I have learned from Dario Robleto’s “The First Time, the Heart (A Portrait of Life 1854-1913)”.