Sabina Ott is an enigma. According to a Wikipedia page she is “an American painter, sculptor, installation and video artist known for her broad range of work and her central role in the art world as teacher, administrator, and recently as the founder of the exhibition space Terrain, which invites artists to create installations and performances using the exterior of her Oak Park, Illinois home.” Sabina is also rumored to be a saint. What we can say for certain is that she is certainly a fixture in the Chicago artists community.
Interviewed by: Kristina Daignault & Michael Soto.
Kristina: I’ve read many descriptions of what kind of artist you are, and I haven’t seen the same one twice. What do you consider yourself?
Sabina: I’ve been working since 1985, so people have been writing about my work, when I’m lucky, since then, and the work was very different over time. So, I think that’s kind of funny that you say that. I think it’s true. I think you could Google and find that my work has changed over time.
K: I do see that you merge paintings, sculpture, digital media, and installation. But that’s not a specific, “I am X type of artist.” Do you have a category you like to consider yourself?
S: You know, it’s funny. I have to say I grew out of categories. Actually, my work evolves quite a bit. I’ve had to think about what the very beginnings of my work and what my work now have in common, and what are the threads that are consistent? And to me the thread is that it’s usually about the relationship between things, between people and things, and between people and where they are in the world–their places. And so the installations initially made environments that people were constantly moving through and experiencing themselves in relation to various types of objects that were usually completely made by me. They were either paintings or sculptures or videos that I had made from those paintings and sculptures. There was always a sense of movement. Kind of like when you read Alice in Wonderland. It’s always about her relationship to the world, and her scale is changing, and her relation to language is changing, and everything in constant flux, but that’s the content of the book, right? It’s how you become autonomous–how you become yourself in relation to all of these cultural signifiers and manners and ways of being, and I really feel that my work jumps into that discourse.
K: You have a quote on your website from Alice in Wonderland about “uglifying,” and I wonder, now that you’ve mentioned it again, do you think about that a lot?
S: Yeah. I do. On my studio door, I’m going to put a sign up that says, “Contributing to the notion of bad taste since 1985.” I really like the idea of things that are really grotesque and not tasteful, over-the-top, and extravagant. I think there’s a real hidden… not-so-hidden perhaps, but a joy in those things, and for me, it’s an embracing of working against notions of class. Certainly the class of the art collector is the class that likes tasteful objects. I really like the idea of proposing that bad taste is a political statement.
K: I’m kind of amused by that. I hope that’s ok.
S: That’s ok. I think it’s true. I think that there’s a real normative state that was proposed starting in the Renaissance, that’s really about some idea of truth and realism that’s very controlling. “This is the way the world is, this is how it looks. You apply perspective, and you make it look exactly as we say it looks.” And I’m much more interested in the crazy visionary world that comes out of something like a more medieval or carnavalesque aesthetic that’s not beholden to science, not beholden to… all the principles that came out in the renaissance, alongside the church, the patriarchy, and everything else. So I really like the chaos of color and craft materials.
Michael: What do you want people to think or feel… how do you want people to react?
S: That’s always a really hard question. It’s not a helpful question when you’re making something, for me or for anyone in a way, because it pre-determines the end. The job is to do this. I’m working a little bit against jobs, in a sense. The things I like to look at and the things I like to make have a lot to do with fun and really work against an assumed value of seriousness. I’m really committed to making objects that embody joy. But there’s a dark side to that as well. I almost died a couple of times pretty recently. So I can’t say that I’m an expert on anything like that, but I can say that having done that has made me more committed to creating an experience for myself in my work that brings me to some kind of precipice, whether it’s joyous or fearful, or something extreme… something that ends up in a way celebrating just being able to have that emotion.
M: I know it’s an odd question to phrase.
S: No, no, it’s not. Not to dwell on it, but it’s a normal question. “What do you want your work to do?” or “What do you want people to get from your work?” And we ask that all the time as teachers and things like that, but it’s a question that I’m going to start outlawing in my classes because I get bored looking at so much artwork because I can look at it and say, “Oh, the artist wants me to think this,” and then I just want to go to sleep or go home.
K: That actually makes sense in relating it to films that you could guess the ending to. It’s not a surprise anymore.
S: Yes, exactly.
M: I think of it in a couple of ways. If you think of art as a form of communication, and you give out any message, people are free to take this message and interpret it in a lot of different ways, and at some level, you have something in your mind that you want to get in someone else’s mind… and on the other hand, maybe not.
S: I think that’s a really accepted way to look at art. Again, I’ve probably said that to a million students, but I don’t agree with it anymore. I would have said it at another time, I’m sure, but I don’t think it’s a job. I don’t think it’s a communication in that way. I think it’s sensory. Guy Deleuze is one of my favorite philosophers, and he always says that art is an aggregate of sensation. It’s not a message. It’s not literature. It’s not advertising. There’s not a text that you read, beginning, middle, and end. And there’s a sentence that tells you what it is. It’s sensational. It’s visual, it’s smell, it’s touch, it’s comparing your body to its body–and that’s where I think the greatest strength is in an artwork–in its sensate-ness. And so, that sort of takes away an idea of dictating…
K: Like a linear trajectory for it…
S: Yeah, exactly. A logical linear statement that is to be understood from those sensations. It doesn’t happen in that way. I think the most interesting things for me are things that I can’t put into a logical statement that force me to reframe my thinking in some way. That’s what I want to go for for me, and those are the kinds of things that I like to look at. So I really want to be working right now from the idea that I am my own best audience, and I’m making work for me in that sense, and I want to make things that I want to look at for a long time. And I do now. And no one else really gets to see them very much–I see them more than anybody else–and I’m having a ball. And that may have a lot to do with it, too, because my work is really staying with me a lot longer than it ever did. I used to sell everything I made for a long, long time, and now it’s here with me, and so the relationship is very, very different. It has to be something I want to be around for a long time. Like this painting in the kitchen. I don’t even know if I think it’s a good painting or not at all, but I really like spacing out and leaning against the sink and looking at it, and when the fan goes, the glitter is going, and it holds me. I don’t have any message from it at all. It’s just a sensation.
K: If you’re living with them longer, do you ever find yourself staring at them and thinking, “I need to change this”? Do you modify?
S: Sometimes. To a certain point, though, but then it stops. I have, and I appreciate being able to work on it longer, but there’s a threshold.
M: There’s a composer, Maurice Duruflé, who only composed nine organ solo pieces, and he republished some of them over the course of his life because he kept going back and correcting things. You’d think once it’s published, it’s done, but he still went and changed it. On one, he changed the entire ending. I was just thinking of an artist going into a gallery and touching up their work.
S: I did that once. I got in trouble with… this woman was curating a show… well, it doesn’t matter where it was, but I kept changing this thing, and she was a real curator… and she was going to shit her pants. She was so upset.
K: I can barely resist the urge to touch everything in the museum. I’m like the worst museum-goer ever. I’m like, “Stand in front of that guard, I want to paw that.” Really can’t resist sometimes.
S: Me too.
K: I’m probably going to get arrested someday.
S: It’s very bad. No, I do that a lot. I don’t even worry about it.
K: I saw a lot of mention that Gertrude Stein influences you. Is that still continuing in your work, do you think?
S: Yeah. In my work and really also in my life. There’s just some people that I think are incredible visionaries, and people talk about Gertrude Stein as being a great modernist and creating a kind of modernism, but she really is a 21st century artist, even though she’s not around anymore. I mean, what she does to text is so far beyond any modernist project that it’s incredibly influential to me. I have to say, finally, I’m making things that are equal to Tender Buttons, maybe. That piece I made for the Chicago Artists Coalition, I went home and I realized, “Oh, that’s ‘A carafe, that is a blind glass.'” That’s the opening line to Tender Buttons. And I just thought, “Yes! I made this thing that like a Stein–like a Tender Buttons poem.”
M: I’m interested in Gertrude Stein–she’s been floating around in my head since high school–partly because it’s hard to wrap my mind around her. You have a story unfolding in a sea of rhythmic language. I’ve never really studied her or what people have to say about what she was doing, but I just live with some of the poems for a while.
S: You can’t read anything all the way through, anyway. I can’t. Nobody can. Her peers say things like, “I said I read the whole thing; I never did.” You can’t, but it’s amazing work. That whole thing of taking the familiar and putting it in a context amongst other words that completely de-familiarizes that object. Once you read it, you understand it as it is, and then you understand it as it is, and then you understand it as it is. It’s like that third thing, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Everything is lifted and separated, put down, lifted, and separated, put down, lifted, and separated, put down. So the world is in a state of flux. I think the way she wrote is really present to how we experience things via internet, particularly how we get information now, but also how the brain works. I think it’s how the mind really works.
M: I found an article called “An Interview with Gertrude Stein,” but I’m not sure if it actually was or if someone wrote a pretend interview, but they use this term irregular commonplace.
S: That’s a nice term.
M: It’s the idea that you can have a house, and a painter will look at it in terms of colors, and an architect will look at it in lines and different people take away a different thing based on their backgrounds and experiences.
S: I’m really interested in folded things.
S: Layers suggests that they’re still separate. Folded is that they’re still all in one thing, and I think it’s the way I want to live my life. Terrain is a good example. The house is a good example; the studio is a good example. It’s teaching, learning, living, making, teaching, learning, living, making, and it’s all this thing that goes all together all the time. And so, I’m an artist, I make things, and the things are now functional, sort of… but they’re also paintings, and they’re also sculptures. The house is also a place of gathering and an art space and also a place where I have my home life. It’s all of those things all at once. And there’s not necessarily a hierarchy to it. Sometimes things have different relations. I actually think that’s a really radical politically different way to live than the way that we’re trained to live. You’re pretty much moving through space laterally as equals, and acting not in a hierarchy.
I think for me, the idea of the local is where I can do it. And when I think about that, I think about my neighbors, and I think about them having over two years come to terms with the idea that the lady down the street and her husband have a front yard that is multifunctional.
K: Everything always looks really interesting at Terrain.
S: Yeah, and people are like, “You can’t take that down! You can’t get rid of that!”
K: It must be hard for you. I think if it were at my house and it all looked so great, it would be difficult to remove.
S: No. It’s not for me, really, because I’m an artist, I make my own stuff–do you know what I mean? Then I also feel like I can’t wait to see the next thing that somebody comes up with, actually. I really can’t.
M: But you would never want, say, an Edra Soto permanent installation that became part of the space?
S: No, because it would become difficult then for any artist after that. It’s really important that the house just be a house so the art really stands out. J.C.Steinbrunners mailboxes are great… well, we can’t keep the mailboxes. There was a sandbox that somebody had, and kids were playing it in, and it was great because somebody gave it to them, which was really good. So that’s down the street now, but I couldn’t keep it here.
K: Do you think you’ve made your whole neighborhood understand art better?
S: Yeah. Oh yeah. Totally. And I think this neighborhood is very sophisticated anyway, and I don’t think I needed to teach them anything at all, but I think that they find it useful for their children, and I think that they find it a delight that they don’t have to get on the train to go to the art museum to actually have a conversation about art in their lives with their kids or with each other.
What Theaster [Gates] is doing now is really now integrated with the city in a huge way, and that’s going to have a big impact. There’s a lot of folding of what an artwork can be. It’s spreading out a lot. Every artist that has an apartment gallery is doing a huge site-specific piece, in a way. If only they would let people in. I’m proud of this space because you don’t have to know me to experience the space. I think it’s important.
K: You think that some apartment galleries function differently?
S: Yes, I do. I think because they’re set up in enclosed spaces, and set up even a little bit like a traditional gallery, except they’re in somebody’s house, that it predetermines an audience. I really like being in Chicago where almost every artist has a gallery that they run at some point or another. I think it’s really important and totally valuable in every way. I tell my students to do this. I did it a long time ago. I do it now. I think it’s really, really important to do. I think it’s challenging and hard and exciting to think about spaces that aren’t on the atelier model.
K: Would you consider Terrain a gallery?
K: But you call it Terrain Exhibitions?
S: I do. We don’t sell anything, ever. There’s no money that exchanges…
M: So “gallery” entails money?
S: Yeah, and a gallery to me implies walls and things.
K: So if somebody saw a piece outside your house that they wanted to buy, do you think you would say no?
S: I would just tell them to call the artist. I wouldn’t have anything to do with it. And I wouldn’t take money from the artist, because I don’t give them money either. Nobody asks that much, which is nice, and they do their own thing. It would be nice to have like $300 or something to give an artist for materials. I haven’t applied for any grants, partially because I just don’t want to be beholden.
K: This is really linking up to my next question, which is in San Francisco, you had a gallery or exhibition space?
S: I worked with others and had a non-profit exhibition space.
K: I read that you guys got an NEA grant that you sent back. How did that happen?
S: Well, it wasn’t my fault. But I was happy to send it back because I was a “radical.”
K: You’re not sounding like you’ve changed very much.
S: It’s very funny to me. I think… what happened? Well, there were two couples, and we had this building that was amazing. It was like 2 or 5 cents a square foot in the heart of downtown San Francisco at 9th and Market. I don’t know if you know San Francisco at all, but it’s right there. And this family were the people that started Bank of America, and they had huge real estate holdings, and everyone in North Beach was really pissed on at them because they had just raised the rent on the rich people, and they were in shit’s creek, and so they were not able to get permits to tear this building down, which they wanted to do to build a hotel.
They rented it to us for 5 cents a square foot, the whole building, and there was all kinds of rubble and shit in the basement, and it was just a mess. So we did a lot of stuff, and there were a lot of galleries in San Francisco at the time like that. There was one called the A-hole, and there was one called Club Generic, and there was one called Museum of Conceptual Art, and there were just tons of spaces. Club Foot–that was my favorite. And then there were a lot of places, and we got everyone together and we made a calendar. There was something every night. It was really an amazing period of time.
Karen Finley, I went to school with, and she was doing stuff there at the time: Survival Research Laboratories. Frederica was an art history major at Berkley. She wanted to make a non-profit status for the place, so she did. She really did it just to see if she could. So we had non-profit status, and we had no money. We just made stuff up. We got $1500, which in 1979 was a fucking fortune. We thought it was a fortune. But then, we didn’t know that you would have to claim it. We thought they would just send it to us. We didn’t know you had to do a project report. And I don’t think any of us really know what Frederica had said we were going to do, and by that time, we were all in disarray–we only ran for two years because we almost killed each other, and it was horrible, crazy, so we just sent it back. We sent a letter saying, “We don’t want to fill out the paperwork. You can have the money back.” And so I think that really put us in bad stead with grant givers for a long time.
M: So it wasn’t rebelling against the government or something?
S: No, I don’t think we were thinking that big. We just didn’t feel we should have to fill out the paperwork. If you’re going to give us the money, just give us the money. Why should we have to prove what we did?
K: There is a lot of paperwork, I will say.
M: You have to give them a budget.
K: So that’s not a thing you’re going for?
S: I was going to, and then I got tired of filling out the paperwork.
You can see here and there pink melon joy, Sabina’s latest show at the Chicago Cultural Center.