in front of a colorful green and orange background, a white man in orange silk sits with a white blindfold on, which is adorned with one big blue eye
X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963). Courtesy The Block Museum of Art

Roger Corman’s X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963) opens on a giant eyeball, bloody, veined, enormous. You stare at it for what seems like forever, looking at it as it looks at you while Les Baxter’s eerie, dissonant score quivers and scrapes. Finally, the camera pulls back, and you can see that the eyeball is a specimen, floating in a jar, trailing viscera. It is an organ of observation reduced to an observed thing—and it’s difficult to see it without thinking about how you’re seeing it, with organs that will one day cease to see and only have the capacity to be seen. The thing sight reveals is the end of sight. The vision—of science, of the screen—opens on its own blindness. 

The limitations of human perception and human existence, and the longing to extend both, are at the center of the Block Museum’s latest exhibit, “The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto.” Corman’s X is part of a related film series, Science on Screen: Inner and Outer Space, to be screened with a talk by Catherine Belling, a professor of medical education at Northwestern.

Robleto has been working with Northwestern for the last five years or so as the first artist-at-large of the school of engineering. His work presents a “melancholy view of science,” according to Michael Metzger, curator of the Robleto exhibit and of the associated film series. Robleto, Metzger told me, is fascinated by how science allows us “to record traces of people and communities before death and the erasure of time and history.” 

The exhibit includes a series of lacquered brass-plated reconstructions of waveforms that show blood flow from the heart during various auditory experiences—listening to a tuning fork, for example, or to a melancholic melody. A triptych of images called Survival Does Not Lie in the Heavens shows what appear to be stars against a black background. In fact, they’re images of stage lights taken from the album covers of live performances by jazz, blues, and gospel musicians who are now deceased. 

In two almost hour-length films, The Aorta of an Archivist and The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed, Robleto covers a range of topics focused on science, humanity, and loss. He talks about stars that, in an expanding universe, emit light that can no longer reach us, about the oldest human voices ever recorded, and about other doomed but valiant scientific efforts to preserve the unpreservable. The work is immersed in a kind of anti-Buddhism, clinging determinedly to life’s vanishing traces.

Metzger hasn’t yet chosen the films in the series for spring, though he hopes to include a magic lantern performance and a collection of early medical silent films curated by scholar Patrick Friel. In addition to X, the other film showing in winter is First Man, the 2018 drama based on the Apollo program and Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon. University of Chicago historian of science Jordan Bimm will lecture at the screening.

First Man seemed like an appropriate choice, Metzger says, because it resonates with Robleto’s fascination with space exploration—Carl Sagan is mentioned several times in the exhibit. The movie is also about Armstrong’s grief at the loss of his daughter, which in part inspires his ambition and exploration. “It really speaks to the question of how we understand the lives of the people around us,” Metzger told me—a theme that is central to Robleto’s work.

To some extent, though, First Man can be seen as resisting or critiquing Robleto’s fascination with science as a universal human quest for persistence. The Apollo space mission was not a universal quest, but a nationalist endeavor, inseparable from the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. In the movie, Leon Bridges reprises Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon”—a song that indicts the U.S. for using space exploration as a distraction from inequities on Earth.

Robleto muses on the miraculous preservation of human song as a triumph of art and scientific advances. But First Man reminds us that some song, at least, is skeptical of scientific advances, and of a vision of progress that gestures toward universal humanity while leaving some humans behind.

X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes also speaks both to and against Robleto. The film is about Dr. James Xavier (Ray Milland), a doctor who discovers a formula to allow him to see beyond the human visual spectrum. Metzger said he chose the movie because it “reflects not only our desire to see underneath the skin, or underneath the clothes of the people around us, but also to have our vision penetrate the farthest reaches of the universe.” Or as Xavier says early on in the film, “What could we really see if we had access to the other 90 percent [of the visual spectrum]? Sam, we are virtually blind, all of us.”

Science on Screen: Inner and Outer Space
Through 6/30, Block Cinema; X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes (1963) 2/10 7 PM, First Man (2018) 2/18 1 PM, spring screenings TBD; presented in conjunction with “The Heart’s Knowledge: Science and Empathy in the Art of Dario Robleto,” through 7/9, The Block Museum of Art, free

Robleto presents the desire to see further, to know more, to extend human perception, as a noble if doomed goal; he celebrates the science that tries to let us hold onto sight and sound just a little bit longer. X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes is (much) less starry-eyed. Xavier’s increasing powers of sight don’t give him greater insight into the human condition. Instead, his vaulting ambition turns him into an outcast, a murderer, a carnival attraction, and a card cheat. He’s so set on seeing the face of God he ceases to be able to recognize the face of the woman he loves. 

Science is a human thing, and so it reflects human dreams, human fears, and human hopes. Robleto’s art captures that. The films in the Science on Screen series, though, add that science reflects human prejudice and human egotism as well. To want to see more of the universe is natural and even beautiful. But it’s also a dream of power, which can leave you looking only at the dead, gaping eyeball of your own desire.