SABINA IN THE AFTERWORLD
Proposal for multimedia performance
Can art bring back the dead?
The installation/animation/oratorio project Sabina in the Afterworld aims to soothe our collective sorrow after two-plus years of COVID trauma by singing and laughing out our broken hearts.
Death has become a preoccupation for nearly all of us during the current epidemic, war, and climate disaster. In 2018 my best friend of 35 years, the celebrated Chicago artist and organizer Sabina Ott, died in the middle of creating our collaborative exhibition, which I later titled after her favorite Gertrude Stein work, What Does She See When She Shuts Her Eyes. In Chicago in 2019, I mounted this multi-channel video and sculpture installation, which metaphorically represented her passage. Now, I propose to take a journey beyond death into the afterworld where Sabina will report what humans have always wanted to know: Where do we go when we die?
First, there is music. Entering the room, we’re engulfed by projections on all four walls: a meadow, a river, and two gigantic cartoon girls moving across the walls, talking intermittently. Sabina, like Virgil, instructs Dana, her Dante, on death, sin, love, redemption, interdependence, and the afterlife. At the center, a cello quartet and a choir sing an oratorio written in terza rima, the sacred verse form of Dante’s 1320
Divine Comedy, pausing occasionally for the girls’ philosophical colloquy.
The libretto will be shaped from interviews with philosophers and psychics, scientists, monks, and mystics, and those who have had a near-death peek over the threshold. The cartoon girls will deliver the news from the other side.
When hosted in a museum or gallery, the live performance will be recorded and played during off-hours using speakers on stands, like ghosts.
The piece will be disconcerting and ludicrous, with sets of incongruities: flat cartoon characters in dimensional space, little girls in philosophical discourse, live singers with video projection, contemporary music used for medieval verse form. The structure borrows from Dante’s Divine Comedy, but here “hell” can be the social dislocation that produces alienation in reaction to our systems dominated by corporate greed and false information. The work should disturb, amuse, comfort, and prompt discussion. I’d like to reach people who are worried or fearful, especially about death. Laughter is an antidote for fear. I’d like to learn how art can call the living, as well as the dead, back to life. Seances may be necessary.
I will propose an event with Reimagine, a nonprofit organization that draws on the arts, design, medicine, and spirituality to transform taboo cultural attitudes around death and grief, and to address the inequities surrounding how we live and die.
The following is a sample of the opera’s libretto mimicking the trajectory of Dante’s Commedia in terza rima (a verse form composed of iambic tercets (three-line groupings). The rhyme scheme is "aba bcb cdc, ded, etc.:
I saw Sabina in a dream, when she
departed this life was not long ago.
She closed her eyes and sighed her last for me.
After she said goodbye, where did she go?
Can spirits fly away to above us swirl
in ether, or was she entombed below?
Was she in snowy clouds, her ashes hurled
into the air—by chance in heaven’s sphere?
I knew that it was there her spirit whirled.
I dropped from darkness and could feel her near.
A soothing breath then stroked my head and brow;
euphonious airs streamed into my ear. . .