The room is dark. A single concert spotlight exposes two pelvic bones-one male, one female-delicately resting atop one another in a lovemaking embrace. Isolated from any other bone, skin or human structure, the scene is odd, disturbing in the fact that all that's presented is the framework for reproduction.
Even odder, those aren't bones at all. The male pelvic piece is made out of the entire rock 'n' roll record collection of Dario Robleto's father. Likewise, the female bone is cast from the record collection of his mother. The Texan artist-through a strenuous combination of material science and sculptural art-has discovered how to melt down vinyl records and recast them into whatever he likes.
He calls this piece "Our Sin Was in Our Hips."
"Even the size of records are taken into account," Robleto explains. "I used her 45 records and his 33s. I'm always intrigued by the history of rock 'n' roll.... I'm just mesmerized, specifically when you get into personal issues, and the idea of a whole generation understanding their bodies for the first time in an overtly sexual way because of their musical decisions. I'm also enthralled by the idea that your musical decision could've been a moral decision. For me and my generation, I don't know that I've ever had that much at stake in my musical decisions, and that makes me mad."
Robleto is both envious and curious of that time period when the sexual revolution of rock 'n' roll was a threat to American culture, a cyst on the body of Puritanism. How many of the current generation were born because Elvis and Chuck Berry helped teens in the 1950s discover their bodies for the first time?
"I know for a fact that my parents met and became sexually active because of rock 'n' roll," Robleto says. "What propelled them together, what briefly held them together, was rock 'n' roll. And coming from a very incredibly strict, moral upbringing to all of a sudden understanding you can't help but to shake your hips anymore because of music... It totally intrigues me that I'm here today, in some way, because of that. But the baggage that comes with that, like the title hints at, that "our sin was in our hips,' that it was a sinful thing."
Robleto painted and stressed the "bones" to make them appear old and worn, thus embodying the sexual, "bump and grind" connotation of rock 'n' roll. Under the spotlight, they are exposed for what they are-dirty and lascivious, just as people like Frank Sinatra viewed rock music upon its inception.
"Our Sin Was in Our Hips" will be presented, along with eight other sculptures, as part of Robleto's installation called A Surgeon, A Scalpel and A Soul at the one-year anniversary of Museum of Contemporary Art's "Thursday Night Thing." Through the evening-with live DJs providing aural ambiance-viewers will witness how Robleto's pieces grapple with the notion of soulfulness and what it means to Americans.
"Nobody's going to argue that Aretha Franklin doesn't have soul, but the Backstreet Boys are never going to have it," the artist explains. "I'm just curious why. What's the mechanism that decides those sorts of things? When you start to ask that soul question it immediately becomes a more complicated one. It becomes a racial question, a gender question, a class question."
Eventually, Robleto will have answered each question through his work. His first project began with race, melting and powderizing individual Motown records and recasting them as sculpture. In the future, he plans to use folk records to explore class issues. San Diego will see his largest sculptural work "Diva Surgery" in which Robleto tackles the gender quotient of soulfulness.
"The idea of the diva-the soulful woman-that somehow the pain is coming through in her voice," he explains. ""Diva Surgery' begins deconstructing that very voice-and I mean on a material level. A lot of this comes from my exposure to DJ culture and the techniques of a DJ I apply in a sculptural sense. So the idea of "mixing records' to me means literally melting them in a pot and mixing them together."
The result is an odd, Victorian-era surgery table on which Robleto is literally trying to "extract" the soul from 10 principal divas (Patsy Cline, Etta Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, an avant garde opera singer, etc.), funneling the contents of their most soulful moments (say, the actual groove in the vinyl that contains the chorus to Cline's "Crazy") into a sort of concentrate.
"There are dozens and dozens of female vocals-literally the grooves on the record have been spliced and extracted and physically removed from the record using a number of experiments on the vinyl-mixing it with sulfur and all kinds of weird things.
"The whole point being-can I locate that soul? Can it be something we can somehow distill down into an essence, like a drip? Like somehow that soul is lying in the material plastic of the record. And so, of course, with each project I emphasize the point that it's a failure. The very thing that I'm looking for, which is soul and warmth, the pieces end up looking cold and sterile."
Robleto asserts through his work that-contrary to popular science-"soul" isn't something that can be boiled down to a material essence. You can't hold Aretha's fire in your hand.
"I think the manifestations of soul are beyond the body at some level," he concludes. "The sterility of the actual structures [I've created] I think says that."