Sabina Ott

Sabina Ott on her installation at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago

View of “Sabina Ott: who cares for the sky?,” 2016. Photos: Tom Van Eynde.

Sabina Ott’s 2014 exhibition “Here and there pink melon joy” at the Chicago Cultural Center exploded her previously painterly work into a multidimensional journey through purgatory, heaven, and hell. As Jason Foumberg observed on, “This dream is no escape from reality; Ott builds the type of world she wants us to live in.” Her new project, who cares for the sky?, is her most ambitious to date, featuring an eight-thousand-cubic-foot mountain that can be scaled on a series of stairs or burrowed into via a treasure-filled underground tunnel, presenting a lopsided monument to innocence, persistence, and wonder. The installation will be on view at Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago through May 1, 2016.

IT COULD BE THAT MOST ARTISTS have just one or two central ideas. In 1985, I painted a rose and a mountain. The oil paint was thick, and the material really became the subject. Then in 1990, after reading Gertrude Stein, I began a body of work with roses and wax. There’s something so beautiful and inexplicable about the way Stein takes an everyday object, removes it from its context, and then places it next to another familiar thing in the wrong way. The syntaxes switch, everything is thrown up in the air and falls down, and then you can experience it again in a fresh way. The image of the rose, and Stein’s technique, became important sources for me. Since beginning my work with foam in 2014, I’ve come to understand that the material was my way of expressing a desire to take painting into another dimension. The sculptures and videos in the exhibition achieve the kind of layering I sought in my paintings.

As soon as I walked into the gallery here, I knew I’d build a mountain. It fills this space—which is twenty-two feet tall, twenty feet wide, and seventy feet long—and it can be viewed on one side from a catwalk. It was built by a team of about ten people, mostly volunteers, over twenty-one days. The stairway that leads to the top of the installation is very steep, you don’t know what to expect when you get to the top, but instead of a solitary summit there is a play space with benches and beanbags and children’s chairs where people can interact, hang out, and watch one of the videos as an enormous projection. The great thing about mountains is that they position you in the middle. When you desire to get to the top of a mountain, you think you are going to the top of the world, but you end up between above and below. All three videos re-create the perspective shifts that occur by using aerial footage shot from a plane as well as footage shot of clouds from below. Individual letters float and then spin over the aerial landscapes, a letter becomes dislodged from a word, and then it becomes a frame for the landscape, a frame for movement. Language becomes a means of abstraction.

The tunnel represents, among other things, the community of artists that I joined when I moved to Chicago in 2005. I asked about seventy artists to each contribute a small, personal work that could be installed on the tunnel’s walls. It’s a very mixed batch of things from a very mixed batch of artists: There’s a photograph of a carrot-head character framed in rubber by Jeanne Dunning, a small conspiracy drawing by Deb Sokolow, a photograph by Meg T. Noe, an altered painter’s palette by Michelle Wasson, a drawing of an elf by teenager Zoe Gordon, a glittery piece by artist and critic Matt Morris, a painted entry buzzer by Kelly Loyd, a drawing of a backward American flag by six-year-old Naava Stein, and a small painting by Michelle Grabner. But it’s not always clear that most of these pieces were made by professional artists. There’s something that happens when you abstract a single piece from a body of work that renders it talismanic. Each piece, seen on its own, has an emotional power that is quite different than the experience you’d have in viewing it in the context of the artist’s larger body of work. The experience of the tunnel hovers somewhere between that of a shrine filled with offerings and that of a catacomb filled with bones.

I’ve always believed that my artworks offer a place where trauma can be transformed into something else by turning things inside out and dislodging them into a space of pure play. When I made paintings, I was experiencing that kind of play by myself and it was very personal. But here, in these spaces, it’s very public. I feel like this space is really an offering. I was not in total control of this project at all and I liked that feeling. Someone who came to the show compared it to writing a poem: You begin, but don’t know how it’s going to end. The mountain has an illusion of solidity, but it feels very temporary to me, perhaps even still growing, and in a way, that’s a beautiful thing.