Guest blogger: Christian Schultz
January’s installment of the UMFA’s ARTLandish: Land Art, Landscape, and the Environment series features a curious collaborative installation of in- and intervention, there’s no place like time: a novel you can walk through by Salt Lake City-based artists Andi and Lance Olsen. They’ll present and screen videos from there’s no place like time Tuesday, January 31, at 7 p.m. in the UMFA’s Katherine W. and Ezekiel R. Dumke Jr. Auditorium.
Consisting of text, video, and objects, the exhibition is meant to be a retrospective of the career of Alana Olsen, one of America’s most overlooked video artists. Alana’s powerful body of work—curated by her daughter Aila, a Berlin-based art critic—evinces her lifelong obsession with Robert Smithson’s Land art masterpiece Spiral Jetty and has influenced artists as varied as Lars von Trier, Douglas Gordon, and Martin Arnold. For contemporary art enthusiasts, this is perhaps a familiar windup. But a closer reading of the exhibition’s inventions reveals strange oddities, perhaps the most interesting being that neither Alana nor Aila are real.
So, who is Alana Olsen, then?
“That’s more difficult to say than it might first appear,” says Lance Olsen, a writer of innovative fiction and professor of English at the University of Utah. Lance is the co-creator of there’s no place like time, along with partner and frequent collaborator Andi, an assemblage and video artist.
Alana originated as a protagonist in Lance’s 2014 novel Theories of Forgetting, an exploration of Smithson’s earthwork and the idea of entropology, the study of the process of disintegration, textually signified by the wearing down and decay of language and character. Over the course of the narrative, Alana succumbs to a deadly pandemic, which is precipitated by a period of memory loss. “Both Alana’s husband and daughter spend much of the novel trying to figure out what they really knew about her,” Andi says.
With this installation, Andi and Lance further invent and obscure Alana in new situations. “As Lance and I began to think about how this novel could spill further out of its binding, further confuse itself with the world, the idea for there’s no place like time arose: a retrospective of the videos Alana made through the course of her career,” Andi says.
Set in 2018—after Alana’s death—the retrospective is a three-dimensional multimedia speculative fiction. “In other words,” says Lance, the project grew into “a conceptual multimodal installation dedicated to a fictional character’s project. . . . a real retrospective of a video artist who never existed, curated by a fictional character.”
Smithson’s labyrinthine Spiral Jetty, located less than a two-hour drive from Salt Lake, is a fitting symbol for examining these and other fictions, many of which—history, truth, identity—have become so normalized we forget that they are fictions too.
“In our post-truth contemporary, it’s become labyrinth all the way down,” Andi says. “That is, we think of the labyrinth as a way of knowing, a way of being, an extended and dense metaphor for our current sense of lived experience—the feeling, for instance, of being awash in massive, contradictory, networked, centerless data fields that may lead everywhere and nowhere at once.”
There’s no place like time might reflect viewers’ own fiction-saturated data fields back at them. “One can imagine the installation as a labyrinth that the participant is invited to navigate as he or she likes, in any order she or he likes, as much as he or she likes, making sense of Alana and her daughter Aila as one might any fictional constructions—which is to say anyone we might meet in our everyday lives,” says Andi.
It’s fitting that the project will be presented as a part of the UMFA’s ARTLandish program, a series of talks, films, meet-ups, and more that explore our complex relationship with the world around us. Arguably, it’s become impossible to fully examine this world around us with any one medium. “At the moment of the book’s relentless disembodiment in our culture via Kindles and iPads and other screens,” says Lance, “we wanted to ask: ‘What, precisely, makes the book bookish? What can a book do that other media can’t? And, naturally, what can other media do that a book can’t?’”
Whitney Tassie, UMFA curator of modern and contemporary art, finds the project to be a great addition to the series, which, she says, “is meant to tease out our concrete and psychological relationships with the land.” In this digital age, the physicality of one’s surroundings can be more difficult to discern than one might think. This is precisely what the project takes aim at.
“I love the confusing swirl of there’s no place like time,” Tassie says. “It’s hard to pin down. What’s real and what’s imagined? Is it a work of literature? Of performance? Or is it an intimate archive? It’s so fitting that Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty plays a central role since the physicality and mythology of that iconic earthwork are also hard to distinguish.”
Central to the project is how its visitors interact with and read this mediated environment. “The closer the participant reads her or his environment, the richer it will become,” Andi says. Such attentiveness should hopefully imprint on visitors. “One could say, then, that there’s no place like time is an exercise in reading, paying attention, being present,” says Lance.
ARTLandish is sponsored by the S. J. and Jessie E. Quinney Foundation and presented in partnership with the University of Utah’s College of Fine Arts and J. Willard Marriott Library, and the Salt Lake City Public Library.
Christian Schultz is a writer and editor based in Salt Lake City and, simultaneously, the world around us. Follow him on twitter: @shydebord.