It’s Probably Art

The Utah Monolith and the American Landscape

The Utah Monolith stood at 38°20′35.18″ North, 109°39′58.32″ West in Red Rock Country, Utah, on a piece of flat ground be­tween two di­verg­ing rock faces. It was in­stalled there by an un­known artist some­time in 2016 (that’s when it ap­pears in satel­lite im­ages), dis­cov­ered by wildlife of­fi­cials on November 23, 2020, and re­moved ten days later by four un­known men. 1

It was ten to twelve feet tall, and made of pol­ished sheet metal riv­eted to­gether along the edges, form­ing a slen­der, tri­an­gu­lar col­umn. Until its re­moval, the struc­ture was em­bed­ded (possibly ce­mented) into a hole of the same cross sec­tion, prob­a­bly cut into the hard ground with a con­crete saw.

In the hand­ful of pho­tographs that ex­ist of the mono­lith, its for­mal beauty is clearly vis­i­ble: Its geo­met­ric form, sharp cor­ners and flat sides, the sil­very shine of its metal sur­face form a strik­ing con­trast to the weath­ered, red­dish-brown rock of the sur­round­ing land­scape. The sculp­ture is framed by the near-ver­ti­cal rock face on ei­ther side; the sym­me­try gives the scene a feel­ing of grav­ity, like a shrine carved from the earth.

The mono­lith re­lated, too, to the park rangers (and later, the hand­ful of am­bi­tious hik­ers) en­coun­ter­ing it. Its height of twelve feet - twice as tall as the av­er­age man - looks like an artis­tic choice rooted in clas­si­cal ideas of pro­por­tion. It’s not a mil­lion miles away from a Greek col­umn.

But this sense of aes­thetic fami­lar­ity is un­set­tled by the ap­par­ent lack of any ma­te­r­ial re­la­tion be­tween the mono­lith and the earth around it. Apart from the con­spic­u­ous ab­sence of veg­e­ta­tion, the ground bears no ob­vi­ous signs of work. There is no plinth; the mono­lith has no base or vis­i­ble sup­port; it’s as if it had sim­ply emerged from the earth al­ready in its fin­ished, in­ert state. Its matte sur­face looks too flaw­less for an ob­ject ex­posed to the el­e­ments, and pro­duces lit­tle re­flec­tion of the sur­round­ing land­scape. If it weren’t for the faintly vis­i­ble riv­ets, and a small mound of loose earth by its base, you might mis­take it for a mis­placed video game as­set clip­ping through the ground from an­other realm.

As you ob­serve it, the mono­lith seems to os­cil­late be­tween these two modes of di­a­logue with its sur­round­ings - one rooted in fa­mil­iar el­e­ments of com­po­si­tion and pro­por­tion, the other in its oth­er­wordly ma­te­ri­al­ity - never quite reach­ing an equi­lib­rium.


Like most peo­ple, I learned about the mono­lith from the news. The New York Times’ open­ing para­graph — A team sur­vey­ing bighorn sheep for Utah’s wildlife agency found the strange ob­ject, 10 to 12 feet tall, em­bed­ded in the ground in a re­mote part of Red Rock Country. It’s prob­a­bly art, of­fi­cials said” - sounded too much like the fake news re­ports at the be­gin­ning of a dis­as­ter fic­tion film to be ig­nored.

The rest of the story was un­event­ful, con­sist­ing mostly of state­ments from lo­cal of­fi­cials con­firm­ing that they had no idea what the ob­ject was or how it got there, ei­ther. They de­clined to give the pre­cise lo­ca­tion of the mono­lith for fear of po­ten­tial vis­i­tors be­com­ing stranded in the re­mote desert and need­ing res­cue.

As I read through these non-state­ments, I could­n’t help but imag­ine the rest of the movie evoked by that first para­graph:

EXT. DESERT - MORNING

GENERAL: How long ‘till we get this goddamn thing dug up?
Govenor wants it gone before the tourists start showin’ up.

SCIENTIST: Sir, we’ve been digging all night, but it
doesn’t seem to, uh, end…

GENERAL: You mean to tell me it goes all the way through
the earth? Are you out of your mind lieutenant?

Cut to a re­search ship on the Indian ocean, on the op­po­site side of the Earth, you get the idea.

Monolith
IMG_3534

Utah Department of Public Safety

For all its sculp­tural qual­i­ties, most of us never ex­pe­ri­enced the mono­lith as a sculp­ture, but as pho­tographs of one, ap­pear­ing (to para­phrase the art critic John Berger) not on the aus­tere walls of a gallery, but the screens of our phones and lap­tops in our homes.

We have been look­ing at works of art in this way for a long time: Berger wrote his sem­i­nal book Ways of Seeing in 19722, when tele­vi­sion sets had just en­tered the home, and Walter Benjamin saw the trend in the 19th cen­tury, when photo-en­grav­ing had made the mass-re­pro­duc­tion of paint­ings pos­si­ble for the first time. But usu­ally there is at least the op­tion (however the­o­ret­i­cal) to go see a work in per­son. This was­n’t the case with the mono­lith - not only was it in­stalled in an in­ac­ces­si­ble lo­ca­tion, but we’ve been con­fined to our homes for months; and travel be­tween states, let alone coun­tries is a dis­tant mem­ory for most of us.

All we have are the four still pho­tographs and three short videos of the sculp­ture re­leased by the Utah Department of Public Safety 3 (I’ll re­fer to them here by their file­names).

In Monolith.mp4, which ap­pears to be the first in the se­quence, we see three men in green over­alls de­scend­ing a slope and walk­ing slowly to­ward the mono­lith. The fourth man, who is hold­ing the cam­era, com­ments: Okay, the in­tre­pid ex­plor­ers go down to in­ves­ti­gate the, uh, alien life form”. In the fol­low­ing im­ages4 the cam­era has fol­lowed the men down the slope, and we see them ex­am­in­ing the mon­lith closer. Though the cam­era moves around through­out the se­quence, we al­ways see the mono­lith from a more or less frontal per­spec­tive.

Monolith
IMG_3946

Utah Department of Public Safety

3946 is par­tic­u­larly evoca­tive. We see two men, both wear­ing olive-green over­alls and heavy boots, form­ing an el­e­ment of rep­e­ti­tion against the sin­gu­lar mono­lith. The worn rock face fills the back­ground. One the men stands on the oth­er’s shoul­ders; his head reach­ing just above the mono­lith. He is hold­ing two cor­ners of the mono­lith to sta­b­lise him­self as he turns slightly to­ward the left, look­ing across the top of the mono­lith at a point on the rock wall a few feet away. The mo­bile phone’s cam­era brings the en­tire scene into sharp fo­cus.

It’s per­haps the im­age that most ef­fec­tively cap­tures the sub­lime el­e­ment of the scene - that elu­sive qual­ity of phys­i­cal, spir­i­tual, and aes­thetic great­ness be­yond hu­man com­pre­hen­sion sought by artists since the 18th cen­tury.5 Here we see two men do­ing their very best to un­der­stand the ob­ject in front of them; we might even read the act of stand­ing on one an­oth­er’s shoul­ders as a metaphor for the sci­en­tific method. But on top of the mono­lith, there is no knowl­edge to be found - only the tow­er­ing, im­pen­e­tra­ble, an­cient rock face be­yond.

A lone hunter is seen among tall, dark trees in a winter landscape.
Caspar-David Friedrich: The Chasseur in the Forest (1814). Oil on can­vas, 66×47cm. Private col­lec­tion.

Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This sense of awe in the face of Nature is of­ten as­so­ci­ated with works by the English painter J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), but he never did much for me (maybe I grew up too far from the sea). I recog­nise it more eas­ily in the still­ness of a paint­ing like Caspar David Friedrich’s Chasseur in the Forest (1814). Here, too, the hu­man fig­ure shrinks away against an over­whelm­ing land­scape, the black trees re­sist­ing any at­tempt at en­light­en­ment.


The Monolith’s lo­ca­tion did­n’t stay se­cret for long. Less than a day af­ter the Times pub­lished their story, a Reddit user named Bear__Fucker had found the mono­lith on Google Earth6, us­ing pub­lic data about the he­li­copter’s flight path and clues like the colour of rock, and the shape of the hills in the dis­tance vis­i­ble in the pub­lished pho­tographs.

After a few failed at­tempts at get­ting the link to load up on my lap­top, I copied their co­or­di­nates and went look­ing for the place my­self. The ten min­utes I spent mov­ing my cur­sor slowly across the end­less Utah desert while eye­ing the po­si­tion dis­play in the cor­ner of the screen were strangely ex­hil­er­at­ing; like a real-life trea­sure hunt with a su­per­nat­ural un­der­cur­rent.

Finally it ap­peared: a thin black line across the washed-out ground. Here was proof that the thing re­ally ex­isted, and had done for years.

It oc­cured to me that the mono­lith was just the right size to be viewed by satel­lite: large enough to be clearly vis­i­ble in pub­lic im­ages with­out re­veal­ing too much of the mys­tery. It re­minded me of those satel­lite cal­i­bra­tion tar­gets else­where in the desert.7


It’s no ac­ci­dent, I think, that the im­ages of the mono­lith are so com­pelling: The scene feels like it was al­ways de­signed to be pho­tographed.

Its ro­man­tic sym­me­try only works from the front”, so that’s where the pho­tog­ra­pher nat­u­rally po­si­tions them­selves. The mono­lith’s scale keeps them from get­ting too close, crop­ping it would look wrong. Even the light­ing was con­sid­ered: had the mono­lith been placed a few feet back, it would dis­ap­pear in the shadow.

In this view, the mono­lith is less of a sculp­ture and more of a prop in an elab­o­rate out­door set. The wildlife of­fi­cials and hik­ers be­come un­wit­ting ex­tras.

The Utah monolith is toppled in a blurry cellphone photo
The Monolith top­pled

Michael James Newlands / The New York Times

In fact, the cell­phone im­ages of the top­pled Monolith show that it was built ex­actly like the pro­to­typ­i­cal Hollywood prop: not of solid metal, but thin sheets of alu­minium mounted to a hid­den ply­wood frame 8.

From here it’s only a small leap to an ear­lier ver­sion of the same prop: the alien mono­lith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968). It was twelve feet tall (just like the Utah Monolith, and the pyra­mid in Arthur C. Clarke’s orig­i­nal short story9), though of a dif­fer­ent cross-sec­tion and made of wood cov­ered in black paint and graphite pow­der.10 It ap­pears in each of the film’s four episodes, but the first two seem most sig­nif­i­cant here: Against the back­ground of a pre­his­toric desert land­scape, among a group of ho­minids at the dawn of civil­i­sa­tion, and later at the bot­tom of a starkly-lit ex­ca­va­tion site on the Moon, sur­rounded by weary as­tro­nauts.

We clearly see the im­pact of Kubrick’s pho­tog­ra­phy on who­ever set up the Utah Images. The shock of the sharp-edged, ar­ti­fi­cial ob­ject against the weath­ered land­scape, the group of weary ex­plor­ers de­cend­ing to­wards it, even the space­suits are mir­rored here. The ref­er­ence is so clear that the man hold­ing the cam­era in Monolith.mp4 recog­nises it within sec­onds.

Kubrick’s film in turn fol­lows pho­tographs and paint­ings of the sub­lime land­scape of ear­lier pe­ri­ods, both in its theme and its aes­thet­ics. I would­n’t be sur­prised to find a pho­to­copy of The Chasseur some­where in Kubrick’s vast archive.11

But the chain of in­flu­ence runs the other way, too: Our whole no­tion of The Landscape, and in some cases its phys­i­cal re­al­ity are them­selves cul­tural pro­duc­tions. In the 18th cen­tury, European aris­to­crats planted trees, dug lakes, and built prop ru­ins of Greek or Roman tem­ples to bring their land closer to what they had seen in paint­ings of their day. 12

In the 19th cen­tury pho­tog­ra­phy, hav­ing in­her­ited the vi­sual lan­guage of paint­ing, helped shape the fan­tasy of the great, untouched” American land­scape that still lingers to­day. Photographers like Carleton Watkins did­n’t discover” places like Yosemite Valley, but con­structed them with com­plex op­ti­cal ma­chin­ery and painstak­ing work in the dark­room. 13

Heads up! This page con­tains em­bed­ded con­tent from Vimeo, who might use cook­ies and other tech­nolo­gies to track you. To view this con­tent, click Allow Vimeo con­tent.

2001′s Star Gate se­quence (1968)

In 1968, those fa­mil­iar im­ages of the American Landscape re-ap­pear in 2001s ter­ri­fy­ing Star Gate se­quence. As we’re trans­ported through in­ter­stel­lar space, we see them dis­fig­ured by swirling pho­to­chem­i­cals and dis­torted glass, all dis­solv­ing into a pool of pure, acidic colour. It’s the ul­ti­mate up­side-down of the stately sil­ver-gelatin prints of the pre­vi­ous cen­tury, but the lin­eage is there non­the­less.

Kubrick shot that se­quence just a hun­dred miles south of where the Utah Monolith ap­peared some­time in 2016: The lat­est state­ment in a cen­tury-long di­a­logue be­tween im­age-mak­ing and the land­scape.


Over the fol­low­ing days, I kept fol­low­ing the news sto­ries about the mono­lith. There was the ques­tion of at­tri­bu­tion: The gal­lerist David Zwirner made, then walked back a state­ment say­ing it was a work by the min­i­mal­ist sculp­tor John McKracken (who’s es­tate Zwirner hap­pens to rep­re­sent).14 A few other artists where floated, but swiftly is­sued de­nials.

A hand­ful of so­cial me­dia users went to see the mono­lith in real life, in­clud­ing one ex-mil­i­tary man who drove 200 miles through the night to be there first (I ad­mire the com­mit­ment).15

Finally it dis­ap­peared, ten days af­ter it was dis­cov­ered. According to a cou­ple of eye­wit­nesses, four men made it their mis­sion” to re­turn the land­scape to its natural state”16, it­self an act loaded with aes­thetic and lin­guis­tic bag­gage. I don’t ex­actly know how to feel about it. On one hand it feels like a loss; I en­joyed the idea of this un­ex­plained ob­ject out there in the desert, un­af­fected by the world around it - as a friend of mine put it in a text mes­sage, it’s nice to feel an ounce of magic in a shitty time.

But on the other hand, I think the mono­lith’s ap­peal was never re­ally about the phys­i­cal thing any­way; that was just a prop. What’s more im­por­tant is the cul­tural out­put in­spired by it: the im­ages, videos, news re­ports, col­lec­tive spec­u­la­tion, and even the af­ter-dark per­for­mance of its de­struc­tion. That col­lec­tive body of work sur­vives.

In this year of never-end­ing cri­sis, where any at­tempt to look more than a few days into the fu­ture seems ut­terly hope­less, and our move­ments have be­come small and repete­tive, the Utah Monolith man­aged what many on­line art ex­pe­ri­ences strug­gled to do: For a mo­ment, it led our gaze, and our mind away from the world im­me­di­ately in front of us: up, to­ward the stars ★

This story first ap­peared on Medium.

  1. Alan Yuhas / The New York Times (2020): A Weird Monolith Is Found in the Utah Desert ↩︎

  2. John Berger (1972): Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books. ↩︎

  3. Utah Department of Public Safety (2020): DPS Aero Bureau Encounters Monolith in Red Rock Country ↩︎

  4. 3526, 3527, 3528, 3532, 3534, 3546, and mono­lith.jpg. I won­der what hap­pened to the miss­ing files in the se­quence. ↩︎

  5. Christine Riding and Nigel Llewellyn (2013), British Art and the Sublime’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, Tate Research Publication. ↩︎

  6. Reddit/DOTTheMath (2020): Help me find this obelisk in re­mote Utah wilder­ness ↩︎

  7. Atlas Obscura / ran­dalscott: Corona Satellite Calibration Targets ↩︎

  8. Incidentally, you could see this as an ar­gu­ment against the idea that the Monolith is a sculp­ture by McKracken - his are made of stain­less steel. ↩︎

  9. Arthur C. Clarke (1948): The Sentinel, pub­lished 1951 as Sentinel of Eternity. Available on the Internet Archive ↩︎

  10. Bruce Handy / Vanity Fair (2014): Weird, Unseen Images from the Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey ↩︎

  11. Jon Ronson / The Guardian (2004): Citizen Kubrick ↩︎

  12. Paul Cooper / The Atlantic (2018): Europe Was Once Obsessed With Fake Dilapidated Buildings ↩︎

  13. Ana Cecilia Alvarez (2019) in Real Life Magazine: Look for America: How Land be­came scenery ↩︎

  14. Amanda Holpuch / The Guardian (2020): Theories abound over mys­tery metal mono­lith found in Utah ↩︎

  15. Alexandra Mae Jones / CTV News (2020): Hiker drove six hours into Utah desert to see metal mono­lith be­fore it van­ished ↩︎

  16. Serge F. Kovaleski, Deborah Solomon and Zoe Rosenberg / The New York Times (2020): How a Mysterious Monolith Vanished Overnight (It Wasn’t Aliens) ↩︎