"People don't take trips. Trips take people." So reads a journal entry by Alana Olsen, the experimental videographer whose work is being shown in a retrospective in Germany and much of America during early 2017. Her body of work, spanning four decades, has been said to have influenced everyone from Lars von Trier to Martin Arnold. Oh, and she's also a fictional character in University of Utah English professor Lance Olsen's 2014 novel Theories of Forgetting.
The Alana Olsen retrospective, titled There's No Place Like Time, won't be seen here, since she doesn't actually exist. Instead, Lance Olsen and his wife—assemblage/video artist Andi Olsen, who collaborates with him—delivers a lecture at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts that's a kind of virtual tour of the retrospective, including selected videos and artifacts, as part of the museum's ARTLandish series of events that explore our relationship to the physical world.
The Spiral Jetty—the desired subject of Alana's film project in the novel—is the physical center of Lance Olsen's book. But in this work, the center is more like the eye of a cyclone that spirals out to encompass characters, places and times, like the shape of the earthwork itself, from Salt Lake City to Berlin, Thailand and Jordan. Alana and her husband, Hugh, are both victims of maladies that induce, among other things, mental degeneration, whose symptoms include the "forgetting" of the book's title, which is also the title of Alana's planned video about the Jetty. The effects of time include entropy, and the book is a kind of "entropology," a term Spiral Jetty artist Robert Smithson borrowed from anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss to describe the study of processes of decay.
Olsen's book is disorienting because Hugh's and Alana's narratives are printed on the same pages, back to front to one another, such that when you are reading one, you have to turn the book upside down to read the other. Interspersed are handwritten notes by the their daughter Aila to her estranged brother Lance, a sort of literary intervention, and Aila curates the video installation. The book even includes a URL you can visit to watch some of Alana's videos. "We were discussing how we could get this book to spill out of its cover even more," Lance says of the project's genesis. "The way you would lose yourself in a novel and just inhabit that world—we wanted to translate that into the gallery space," Andi adds.
The nature of time and place, narrative and reality, as well as nature itself (a quote by Robert Smithson—"Nature is never finished"—introduces Alana's section) are questioned, in the most profound sense. "Any time you start to narrate the past, you begin to fictionalize it," Lance Olsen says. Chair of the board of directors at Fiction Collective 2, an experimental fiction publisher and the recipient of a Guggenheim, Fulbright and a Pushcart Prize, the author is one of the foremost practitioners of experimental writing in the world.
"Q: Why is the Spiral Jetty so beautiful? A: Because it is in the perpetual process of misremembering itself," reads a passage from Alana's section of the book. It's a key to understanding this entire convoluted project, as well as a hint at why the earthwork so fascinates her. The videos are to some degree populated with text, which is as misbegotten, misfigured and sometimes misspelled as it often is in this book. This is a look at the fractal nature of space and time through the prisms of these characters.
The labyrinth of the Spiral Jetty also provides a fundamental symbol in the book. "The labyrinth is a way of being in the world," Lance explains, "that we're always moving among the fields of data, trying to figure out what's significant and what's not. The labyrinth is a metaphor for contemporary lived experience, whether it's on the web, listening to 'fake news,' or just trying to navigate our daily lives." One other key to understanding is the catalog of the installation that you can pick up at the lecture. Lance notes, "a lot of people approach it as a kind of game, and try to figure out the rules."
Given all this complexity, the lecture might be taken as a guide through a retrospective you can't see, of this artist who is so obscure it's difficult to tell if she ever existed. For in the threshold between obscurity and renown, who's to tell if there aren't some highly significant artists whose work has vanished? It has been known to happen. Doesn't a work of art create the artist in some ways, rather than the opposite? Inscribed in a work such as this, the Spiral Jetty itself permeates as well as punctuates, starts to appear like a gyrating, unremitting question mark.