If you knew exactly where to look, you could find it on Google Earth going back as far as 2016: an L-shaped aberration in the Utah red rock, formed by a strange, right-angled object and its shadow.
But for at least four years, no one looked. The object was tucked away miles from any paved road in an otherwise pristine canyon, a place that rarely sees a human visitor. If any aircraft noticed a strange gleam from the ground, if any cowboys stumbled across it while retrieving a few wayward cattle, the discovery was kept quiet.
Just before Thanksgiving, that all changed. Utah public safety officials shared a brief press release after a helicopter crew spotted a metal object while studying bighorn sheep in the area. The images in the release showed a handful of people in jumpsuits at the base of a large prism, rising perfectly plumb in an amphitheater of crimson sandstone.
The imposing silver structure—which immediately evokes the famous prehistoric monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—was teased by the officials’ Instagram account with a spaceship emoji, and the international tractor beam was set. Within 24 hours, even though they had little more than a press release to go on, news organizations from the New York Times to the South China Morning Post had written about the “mysterious monolith” that had “appeared” in the desert.
And as with the apelike hominids in 2001, who gathered around their monolith in a hypnotic reverie, the structure in Utah became an international fixation. YouTube UFO enthusiasts investigated, Twitter users argued over the ethics of landscape art, and Stephen Colbert performed a 12-minute “monolith monologue.” In short, millions of people across the pandemic-weary globe gazed toward this mystical-seeming apparition in the desert.
The press release discouraged people from trying to find the remote site, but it didn’t take long for internet sleuths to deduce the object’s location. A few outdoorsy Utahns soon found their way to visit it in person. I followed them last week, my wife and I leaving early one morning from our town of 260 people near the Four Corners, where I work as a reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune.
My beat is San Juan County, a geographically huge place that’s larger than several eastern U.S. states but with a population of just 15,500. The county is home to one stoplight, the country’s last conventional uranium mill, and millions of acres of federal public land. But for once, San Juan County was the epicenter of a viral internet outbreak.
We arrived two days after the first images were posted online to a few cars parked along the dirt road. With the help of a GPS coordinate sent to me by a friend, we navigated through the canyons to the rectangular shadow on the satellite image—and there it was. The 10-foot-tall prism of sheet metal, riveted together at the edges, had lost some of its sheen since the first photos were taken due to so many visitors laying their hands upon it, but it remained an impressive work of art. Whoever built it had placed it in a hidden alcove not visible from any of the surrounding landscape. The sculpture (which, because it wasn’t made from a block of stone, isn’t actually a monolith) was aligned with a dry falls, where a narrow slot canyon opens into a smooth bowl of slickrock. The contrast of angular, gleaming metal and sensuous sandstone was captivating.
But it was also a decidedly terrestrial object. Two rivets had been ripped out of the top, perhaps from an early visitor trying to peek inside, and the entire surface was covered with streaks and fingerprints.
“It looks like it’s smeared with snot,” said a man in his early 30s who was on vacation in the area when he heard about the so-called monolith.
“And there’s a little blood on the back,” his friend added, speculating that someone may have cut themselves on the metal while trying to climb on top.
A half-dozen people wandered in over the next couple of hours, some who had driven six hours to reach the remote spot. It was clear more crowds were coming. You could easily imagine the T-shirt stands (“I caught COVID at the monolith: 2020”), the novelty keychains, and the tour guide operations for those who didn’t feel comfortable venturing into the backcountry alone. The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area where the sculpture was discovered, said the piece of art was illegally installed but announced it had no immediate plans to remove it. The internet and the media kept buzzing. Scott Simon of NPR’s Weekend Edition called me to ask, “Are we alone?” I was contacted by news producers from New York, Canada, Scotland.
Hundreds of people got in their cars and started driving.
Three days later, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, someone sent me a not-totally-convincing Instagram post claiming the sculpture had vanished overnight. In a series of videos shot in the moonlight, a man from Colorado showed what looked like a wheelbarrow track leading away from the site and said the mystery monolith had been stolen. I immediately packed my truck for a return trip.
When we got there, I found a landscape that had transformed in just a few days. Nearly 50 vehicles were parked along a dirt road that might go weeks without any traffic in normal times. More trucks and Jeeps were coming and going, kicking up huge clouds of dust into the afternoon light. A jacked-up tow truck made its way out to retrieve a stranded passenger car. Dirt bikes ripped through fragile desert soils off-trail, another illegal act. On my first visit to the sculpture, I had seen only scattered footprints. Now, a spiderweb of trails radiated in toward it from every direction. Dogs had left long white claw marks on steep rises of sandstone. Toilet paper blew across the ground.
And the monolith was really gone. All that was left was the hole that had been sawed into the bedrock to mount it and its triangular steel top. The destination had changed from a kind of adventure art viewing to a scene of exhausted mourning. One man had driven from Kansas. Another sat on a rock with his head between his knees. Four friends from Los Angeles had got into a rented Jeep at 11 p.m. and stopped only for gas, arriving at 4 p.m. the following day. They heard the sculpture had been removed when they were already on the trail out to see it. If the monolith’s discovery created a social media sensation by offering people a sudden burst of purpose and fun after months of pandemic restrictions, as one visitor put it, then its disappearance left a void—and a less intriguing mystery.
As of Monday, no artist had come forward to claim the work. The local sheriff’s office, which would be tasked with investigating the apparent theft of the sculpture, made it clear it had no plans to do so. Perhaps the sculptor removed their work to complete their artistic act, or it may have simply been torn down by vandals. Others have imagined vigilantes who drove out in the dark to dispose of the “glorified litter,” as it’s been called, that the federal government was allowing to stay in place, causing hordes to stampede through the landscape.
The “believers,” naturally, joked that it had been beamed back to space.
Why did this hunk of metal become an international sensation? Did its creator anticipate this level of response? Are there more monoliths out there? Many questions remain. But it is clear that intentionally or not, whoever was behind the project found a way to cross landscape art with performance art. The same project, done with permission in full view, may have attracted some regional attention, but it’s unlikely it would have become a global sensation. The sculptor was able to put public art into conversation with America’s vast public lands, producing a novel response that won’t be replicated, though after another monolith was spotted in Romania this week, it appears the inevitable copycat attempts have already begun.
Our attention will soon move elsewhere, and the bighorn sheep, pushed out by the sound of a thousand motors and shouting voices, will begin to return to the area, ignoring the monolith site that drove so many primates toward erratic behavior. In 2001’s unforgettable final sequence, astronaut David Bowman approaches an enormous monolith discovered near Jupiter, which pulls him through a tear in spacetime into an otherworldly realm.
If the Utah structure was created in homage to 2001, it’s hard to imagine the artist anticipating just how well its discovery would align with the film. The online obsession with an inanimate object, not particularly difficult to construct but oddly placed, generated its own gravitational field, and for a few brief days, it sucked us all in.