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What Does She See When She Shuts Her Eyes  Sabina Ott and Dana Berman Duff

Aspect/Ratio, Chicago, 11 January – 16 February, 2019

Alchemy Film Festival, Hawick, Scotland, 2 – 6 May, 2019                                  Please click on arrows and scroll down for more images

What Does She See When She Shuts Her Eyes

Sabina Ott and Dana Berman Duff,  2019

2-channel video installation, 08:31; sound design by A.J. McClenon, texts by Stephanie Barber

Sabina knew she was dying when she asked me to collaborate on her last project in December, 2017.  The show was already scheduled at Aspect/Ratio for January 2019. Even so, it was a surprise when she died at the end of June, 2018 and left me to finish what we started six months before: a collaboration between best friends, with Sabina more or less in charge of the grand vision and with me more or less in charge of navigating, as was often the case with us.


She died before shaping most of the details, so it was up to me to fill in the gaps. I knew only a few things about what she wanted: video of Icelandic lava tubes, some as yet unchosen haiku by Stephanie Barber, sound commissioned from A.J. McClenon. In the studio, her assistant Kate Anderson was building a growing pile of clay balls that Sabina told me she wanted finished in raku black. She told a friend that she wanted a hundred of them. She talked about overlapping videos, but I objected that it would turn the videos into pictures, not spaces. We quickly bumped into the first place of difference in our practices—Sabina was first and foremost a painter, and I’m a space- and time-maker.


A crazy combination: we were opposite in sensibilities as artists: Sabina’s work is bright and colorful and baroque, full-volume pleasure and play. My work is often black-and-white silent film in which nothing really happens other than a structuralist-Calvinist style of bare attention. Sabina believed in constructing images; I believe that images are already constructed; I avoid using metaphor, while she could build a world on an allegorical mountain. I borrowed the title What Does She See When She Shuts Her Eyes from Gertrude Stein, as Sabina did with most of her titles.


The extent of her expressed wishes for this exhibition was limited—a stroke made it impossible for her to tell me more.

What I knew of Sabina’s vision for this exhibition began with the dark lava


tubes of Iceland. We booked a trip, which would have been one more of the many that we took together. Unfortunately, the appearance of a couple of dozen little brain tumors meant I had to take the trip alone, so I reported back to Sabina daily via email as she became my virtual co-pilot. It was also in Iceland where I saw crystal-clear ice caves inside of a glacier. My vision pushed her original theme, starting with lava rock-tumors barreling through deep-earth body tubes, but then passing upward toward water and light in an attempt to invoke the idea of Sabina’s transition to the beyond. I imagined this as up, but in truth I prefer the idea of expanding in all directions, as in Buddhism: make me one with everything. The final sequence is an image of the sea taken from a drone over a beach in Baja, Mexico, near the house that we co-owned there in the mid-2000s.


The gallery had to become the lava tube, not just show a picture of it. Stephanie’s haiku spiral through the tunnel, leading us to the ice and the water. A.J.’s sound makes us feel the volume of the tunnel air and the water in the distance, behind us or up ahead. Sabina’s body is both the vessel and the subject: the one who moves through.


The earth. The tunnel. Dark as a dungeon, a brothel, a haunted house. Clogs and boulders. Brain aneurism, heart valve, lungs and bones and brain tumors, spinal insults, broken hand hangs dangling on its stem. Rumble underground through the tunnels, the canals, the vessels, the guts, the electrical synapses, the branching arteries and capillaries and nerves, the gushing rivers of water and of lava and steam, clear through to the surface and up, up, up to the sky the big beyond.


Come from water—return to water.

In her Ethical Will Sabina said that she thinks we all come from water and when we die, we return to water. In both the large video installation and the smaller cluster of video monitors that's my intent: to attempt to return her to water.


The World Is Round: Re-membering Sabina
Dana Berman Duff, 2019
6-channel videos on monitors and goose-neck stands. Audio compositions by Karen Finley, A.J. McClenon, John Cage (“Living Room Music” 1940; words from Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round, performed by Gert Sorensen and Ars Nova Copenhagen, directed by Tamás Vetö), and audio commentary by Dana from 2005 road trip with Sabina to Baja Mexico. 


Lily pads above copy.jpg

Video below is a simulation of a composition of 6 videos on monitors of various sizes on goose-neck stands of different heights, face-up, so viewer looks down on the screens—resembling lily pads or pools. The audio can be controlled by the viewer in order to hear each video more clearly at different times.

Videos shot by Dana from 2004 to 2018; includes 2 video works by Sabina Ott and a film sequence by Daniel Marlos from 1994. Audio compositions by Karen Finley, A.J. McClenon, John Cage (“Living Room Music” 1940; words from Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round), audio commentary by Dana Berman Duff. 

Link to audio balanced for Karen Finley poem and A.J. McClenon sound:

Link to audio balanced for A.J. McClenon and Baja road trip:

I imagined the video monitors as a series of pools. I saw Sabina floating spread-eagle in the water. Many times in the past four years I’ve imagined Sabina floating overhead in the sky where I beamed her with “healing rays.” The blue water and the blue sky.  


I shot dozens of videos out of the windows of airplanes over the landscapes between L.A. and Chicago, between New York and L.A., L.A. and New Delhi, Chicago and Spain, Italy, Iceland. I shot video of Sabina on the Ganges River steps, where the faithful bathe in sacred water and bring their dead to the pyres. Some of the videos are sections of the long drive from San Francisco to Baja Mexico where we bought a house, and others are of canoeing on a Wisconsin lake during a visit to my parents’ cabin. Our connection is represented in the geography between us—we lived only a few years of our 35-year friendship in the same city, so travel was always an aspect of how we related.

The construction strategy for the six video screens was to make a collage inspired by Sabina’s method borrowed from Gertrude Stein: take the familiar and throw it up in the air and let it land with new syntax. In this case, it’s a syntax blending six different simultaneous narratives. The six videos have soundtracks that interact with each other much as the images do.

The sound will be muted for the Aspect/Ratio gallery installation but can, I hope, be experienced another time. The audio tracks include a poem, “We

R Here All Together,” written and recited by Karen Finley for this piece; another video has a soundtrack specifically designed by A.J. McClenon. One of the videos contains a live monologue, recorded as I watched Sabina pace in a parking lot on our way to Mexico, which ponders how as professional women we cope with power.


The driving rhythm of the entire 6-channel video work is a recording of John Cage’s setting of Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round, called “Living Room Music” from 1940, performed by Gert Sorensen and Ars Nova Copenhagen.


Once upon a time, a, once upon a time, the world was round, the world was round, was round, and you could walk upon on it…


In Gertrude Stein’s children’s book The World Is Round, which Sabina used as the inspiration for her Hyde Park Art Center “mountain,” the little girl, Rose, climbs up a mountain dragging a chair to sit on, so she can see the world from above. In this new work Sabina is Rose, and I think I’m the chair. My work is full of chairs; her paintings are all about the view from the mountain: topologies with lines for rivers and roads overlay all and letters cut lose from sentences hover and flutter across the surface: A ROSE IS A ROSE IS A ROSE. She’s looking down on it all now: yes, the world is round.

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