Tom Clyde: The Utah monolith
Last week our plague-weary world was delighted by the discovery of the monolith in San Juan County. Somebody had constructed a metal obelisk about 10 to 12 feet tall out in a remote corner of the desert. State wildlife officials, who were counting bighorn sheep from a helicopter, spotted the reflection and flew in for a closer look. The structure had been there for several years, but had gone undetected all that time.
The photos of it were intriguing and appealing. The spire aligned with a natural slot in the canyon wall, and during a rainstorm there would have been a waterfall down the crevice and out on to the flat around the mysterious spire. Imagine the reflections. Who put it there? Why? Was it done by aliens? Whatever it was, it was a blessed distraction from twin plagues of COVID and Rudy Giuliani. The discovery came just before Thanksgiving, and if we’d had Thanksgiving, it would have been the perfect redirect to safe and interesting dinner conversation.
The best part of the story is that the person who put it there did it years ago, and has been patiently waiting for the moment of discovery. What a secret to sit on for so long, wondering if today is the day it is discovered. Officials were quick to point out that it is technically illegal to go out on public land and erect structures without permission. It is somewhere between littering and vandalism, and as a general rule not something to be encouraged.
This felt different. This was art. And that brings up a whole complicated conversation about what is art and what is junk. If the sunlight reflects off a metal sculpture in the desert and there is nobody there to see it, does it still count as art? Who gets to decide? Locally, we are very proud of our Banksy graffiti. It’s technically vandalism, and when a lesser artist vandalized the Banksy vandalism, they hauled a suspect back from California to prosecute him for vandalizing the vandalism. Gang tagging is stupid and ugly. Can’t be removed fast enough. An air-brushed rat on the same wall, well, for some reason, that’s entirely different.
If the artist/vandal had posted his plans on Facebook, and then put up a YouTube video of the work in progress, the monolith would have been reduced to a stupid stunt. Letting it marinate silently and anonymously for years tipped the scale toward art.
The simplicity of the piece is also just right for the location. A statue of a San Juan County commissioner on his ATV would be junk. A steel monolith that has no obvious message other than “here is a steel monolith,” well that’s different. A 1960 DeSoto installed in the same spot would have been a monument to American culture with all its successes and excesses. A 2008 Toyota Corolla in the same place would be a parking violation.
The monolith attracted world-wide attention. Stephen Colbert did his entire opening about it one night. Within days, the coordinates were posted online (the monolith has its own Wikipedia page), and people flocked to the location to get a look at it in person. Land managers were afraid that tourists in rented Kia Rios wouldn’t make it in the rough terrain, and would require expensive rescues. The crowds came, trampling the desert, leaving poop and garbage behind. There were reports of at least one group arriving by private plane.
This object of silent mystery had become a screaming beacon to the masses. It is a perfect parable of destruction in the search of beauty and wonder. That seemed like the inevitable arc of the story that began with the years of secrecy.
And then it was gone. It vanished, leaving the seekers with nothing to see. At first the disappearance was unexplained, as mysterious as the initial discovery. Did the space aliens come back for it? But in a world where nothing seems to stay secret for long, word got out. A photographer reported that his group had come to the site and witnessed the removal. Two men with a wheelbarrow announced that people should leave no trace, and that they were removing it to protect the sanctity of the desert.
The removal was, of course, posted on social media and YouTube (really poor camera work). The defenders of the desert are described as a slackliner and a BASE jumper from Moab. They were able to free up time in their schedules to remove the monolith. So it’s done. We had our moment with the monolith, and took what joy there was to be found in it.
Mother Nature did a perfectly acceptable job designing the redrock county. There is a risk that every doofus with a Jeep and a welder will now decide to “improve” on the natural beauty of the desert by sticking their own work out there, in search of internet fame. That’s a bad idea. Part of what made the monolith art is that it was first. Anything after is litter. The artist’s anonymity is essential to the art.
It had a good run, but it’s over now.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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