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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                                 

What Does She See When She Shuts Her Eyes

Sabina Ott and Dana Berman Duff,  2019

2-channel video installation, 08:31 loop; 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 the beach in Baja, Mexico near the house that we co-owned 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.

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