It’s rare that an anonymous work of art makes international headlines, especially given the political and pandemic news cycles of the past year. But 2020’s final surprise might be a nearly 10-foot-tall stainless-steel pillar in the Utah desert. The monolith, as it is now referred to (it already has a lengthy Wikipedia entry), was installed by an unknown party some time between July and October 2016, according to satellite imagery, in a red sandstone slot canyon in Lockhart Basin, a site that had been part of public lands until the Trump administration removed it. It was discovered on November 18 of this year, when state biologists spotted it during a helicopter trip to survey bighorn sheep. The piece was carefully planned, with a hole drilled into the rock.
Monolith mania took hold almost immediately on social media. A few hours after the Utah Department of Public Services announced the discovery, a Reddit user named Tim Slane had identified its exact location. Over the following days tourists flooded the area, trekking as one traveler did “four hours in the car, hiking nine miles with over 2000 feet of elevation” just to see the polished metal stand in the middle of the rock basin, the perfect manmade geometry of Minimalist sculpture contrasting with the organic curves of geology and the force of erosion. The monolith became an Instagram trap, like a mural of angel wings in a gentrifying neighborhood: there are now more than a thousand Instagram photos tagged #utahmonolith. A photographer named Dave Koch dressed up in a gorilla suit and posed next to it, referencing the alien monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The monolith’s perfection seemed otherworldly — was it extraterrestrial? Or was it perhaps made by the artist John McCracken, creator of many metal monoliths? That speculation was backed up by David Zwirner gallery and a comment recalled by the artist’s son that McCracken wanted to install his work in remote places to be discovered later. “He was inspired by the idea of alien visitors leaving objects that resembled his work, or that his work resembled,” Patrick McCracken told the New York Times. The Postmasters gallerist Magda Sawon suggested it might instead be the work of prankster-artist Maurizio Cattelan.
By Friday, November 27, however, the monolith was gone, removed in the night by a group of four men, as documented by photographer Ross Bernards. Utah residents Sylvan Christensen and Andy Lewis, who runs an outdoorsy YouTube channel called MrSlackline, later admitted to the act. They arrived with a truck and toppled the monument, which was actually a hollow structure made of thin sheets of metal over plywood. “This is why you don’t leave trash in the desert,” Bernards recounts the men saying. “Leave no trace.” The crew was trying to protect the landscape rather than requisition their artwork, though they did inexplicably leave the triangular top of the sculpture at the site. According to the Art Newspaper, a note reading “Bye bitch” was also found.
But then another monolith showed up, this time in Neamt, Romania, at the archaeological site of the Petrodava Dacian Fortress, built around 80 BCE. Sloppily welded and haphazardly polished, the second monolith clearly didn’t belong to the same creator. After a day, it, too disappeared. Then, on December 2, a third monolith appeared on a hiking trail in Southern California, closer in appearance to the clean Utah sculpture than the Romanian. A vigilante group of iconoclasts destroyed that one, too, and replaced it with a wooden cross while chanting “Christ is king.” Must be aliens, right? The serial appearances and vanishings were the tipping point: From an obscure piece of installation art, perhaps never meant to be found, the monolith became a straight-up Internet meme.
Even as they disappear from the physical plane, the monoliths proliferate in the virtual as people guess where they will pop up next. Either meme or incident of mass hysteria: In the physical isolation of quarantine, the monolith is the only kind of public art the entire planet can experience collectively, a wholesome, or at least joyfully absurd, moment of connection.
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Part of the fun is in theorizing about the monoliths’ origins. So let’s try: First, assume these were all intentionally planned by the same artist or group. The artist would have had to install the Utah piece in 2016 and then wait, with infinite patience, until it was randomly discovered to begin coordinating the disappearance and installation of other monoliths, first Romania, then California. It would be an incredible effort, plus a theatrical performance from the faux-vigilantes. Or, second, an artist planted the initial piece with no expectations of discovery and the magnitude of its public unveiling inspired a few copycats to weld together some planks of steel and stick them in the local ground as an echo, like taking up a mass chant. Or, third, a brand slash creative agency is behind the copycat monoliths, recognizing a prime marketing opportunity and capitalizing on it, which will culminate in some kind of terribly banal product launch. Or, fourth, aliens did it all and the human race is doomed. I believe one of the above will prove to be the case; I favor the second.
One problem when it comes to identifying authorship is that the monolith as a form is both anonymous and universal, maybe the first form of art. It’s a phallic pillar, the vertical agglomeration of a stalagmite or cairns, a geometry that isn’t found in nature except for the trunks of denuded trees. Thus it represents some kind of human handiwork or intervention, an abstract gesture that says I was here. By definition a monolith is a single, massive piece of solid material, so technically the current examples don’t qualify — they’re just geometric sculptures. The form has been used for many millennia as an enduring statement of authority or mastery over landscape, from the standing rocks of Stonehenge circa 2700 BCE to the ancient Egyptian obelisks carved from red granite that emerged around the same time. The Romans later tore those down and ferried the monolithic pillars on ships to erect them at home under emperor Augustus in 13 BCE.
Modern materials made it much easier to build such strict designs. Modernism in the early 20th century and Minimalism in the 1960s turned glass and steel into an aesthetic fetish. Artists adopted the cold geometry and superhuman scale that they enabled as a way to break free from the legacy of Western art history. Artists like Donald Judd and John McCracken made monolithic boxes of metal, reducing the creative process down to a choice of materials and measurements. (The artist Anne Truitt’s monoliths were softer and warmer, painted in organic colors.) Minimalism came to represent a cool intellectualism that was picked up by more mainstream popular culture, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, in which harsh angles, monochromatic spaces, and empty rooms represented the future.
Minimalist art shocks the viewer into an awareness of space and volume: While circling an object, observing its facets, you also notice the room you’re standing in and the physicality of your own presence. The Utah monolith was a perfect combination of Minimalism and Land art, an evolution of the same principles that saw artists like Michael Heizer carve geometric cavities into earth, sometimes in obscure desert locations. The Utah monolith isn’t just about the shininess of the pillar or the surprise of its location, but its position in the center of curving rock, creating a visual contrast. While the rock landscape was, of course, beautiful before, the effect of the sculpture is to highlight it: The object and its context are united in the same way that Judd carefully installed his steel boxes in rooms that he designed, as at his loft in Soho. The construction of the first monolith doesn’t seem nearly as immaculate as McCracken’s professionally fabricated pieces but its composition at the site is intentional, leading me to think that it was installed by an artist or artists in secret as a kind of Minimalist homage to the rock and the grandeur of nature.
The Romanian monolith is what makes this episode seem more like a stunt. It was installed quickly in a simple hole in the dirt, near the ancient fortress and close to a ridge overlooking a beautiful view, but it doesn’t look like a specific response to its context. It doesn’t have the finish of the Utah piece, let alone the product of an artist’s studio. I emailed the Pennsylvania metalworker-artist Sephi Itzhaki to get his thoughts on the construction. “It seems like it’s a hollow structure with three walls. It is a a common solution for a three-dimensional sculpture structure,” Itzhaki wrote. Instead of a smooth reflective surface, the Romanian monolith had curlicues on it, a distracting effect: “It appears to me like a folded sheet of stainless steel and the grinder makes those spiral textures.” The Southern California monolith was similarly unprofessional: It was only packed in loose dirt and could be gently pushed over.
Crowds of internet onlookers have sought to divine a meaning in these works of art, whether as an alien sign or a purposeful prank. One Reddit user guessed they were to mark Coronavirus outbreaks (since deleting the post); another drew a line connecting the Utah and Romania sites and extrapolated it across the globe, hoping to divine what the monoliths are pointing at. The iconoclasts of the California monolith were clearly spiritually betrayed by its abstraction, perhaps feeling that it symbolized an unholy power. There’s a combination of conspiracy theorizing and aesthetic frustration: doesn’t every work of art have to mean something or symbolize something?
Yet that’s exactly what Minimalism was resisting. There was no narrative, no symbol, no reference point, no message to the art, just an abstract form that every viewer perceives in their own way. The individual perception was the endpoint of the artwork. As Frank Stella said in the ‘60s, “What you see is what you see.” That we’re still so desperate for interpretation shows how revolutionary an idea the original Minimalism continues to be: It doesn’t have to mean anything.
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Whatever its origins, this brief monolith mania couldn’t have struck at a better time. A lesser consequence of quarantine is that many people the world over have been starved for visual art, since most public museums are closed — not the most important side-effect, but, I believe, a significant one. We collectively miss the ability to go see a Piet Mondrian canvas hanging on a wall with a group of strangers. And so we’re fixated on the monoliths as a public work of art available to anyone, at any time, over the medium where it thrives: social media. It’s not public because we can all visit; it’s public because we’re sharing in the experience, gawking and wondering together. We’re having a dialogue about art, like a conversation in a museum.
Monolith mania isn’t technically mass hysteria, along the lines of medieval dancing plagues, because it doesn’t induce a shared medical response. The term’s definition “excludes collective manifestations used to obtain a state of satisfaction unavailable singly, such as fads, crazes, and riots,” as Professor Simon Wessley of King’s College London says. But a collective manifestation used to obtain a state of satisfaction unavailable singly is exactly what’s going on. The pandemic means that the internet is one of the few spaces we can all gather in, and the monoliths provide a communal target for our ennui, a brief balm for our starved souls. It doesn’t matter if you’re making an actual pilgrimage; turning the sculpture into memes about Juuls or ATMs; or just meditating on a photograph of one of them, basking in the mystery.
Yet we haven’t been able to let the original monolith be the artwork it was intended as. In the Instagram era, the dominant mode of appreciating a visual experience is holding your phone up to it, taking a photo or a selfie, then walking away to post it online later — another gesture of I was there. It has to be turned into a meta-experience, an artifact, souvenir, or trophy. The Utah monolith likely needed to be removed, and its permanent damage to the rock was real, but the viral sensation has obscured the actual object, which was the whole point in the first place. We can still appreciate that original human intervention in the landscape, an act as old as civilization.
Though mystery and dread are plentiful, surprise and delight are in short supply right now. Thankfully, that’s exactly what art can deliver. Whether or not the secondary copycat monoliths reveal themselves as viral marketing, the fascination they have sparked is something deeply joyful and human.