If you have access to the internet – which you clearly do – you’ll have noticed the increasing number of reports of mysterious monoliths turning up all across the world. The spontaneous emergence of these tall metal structures, each 10 to 12 feet tall, has been an unexpected source of delight and fascination in an otherwise disastrous year. But what the heck are they and where do they come from?
The first of the mysterious monoliths was discovered in Utah on 18 November ( although Google earth sleuths have worked out that it had been hanging out there for years!). It was discovered by a helicopter crew who spotted something reflective down in a remote desert canyon, reports Constance Grady for Vox.
“I have to admit, that’s been about the strangest thing that I’ve come across out there in all the years of flying,” said helicopter pilot Bret Hutchings, according to the New York Times. The crew that discovered it added that the location of the monolith would have been hard to reach on foot, particularly if someone were hauling a massive stainless steel slab along with them.
Authorities removed the Utah monolith on 27 November, citing environmental concerns on account of people coming to see the artwork, which by then had become an internet sensation.
Adventure guide Sylvan Christensen, one of the men who removed the structure, wrote on his Instagram that the land in which the monolith stood “wasn’t physically prepared for the population shift (especially during a pandemic). People arrived by car, by bus, by van, helicopter, planes, trains, motorcycles and E-bikes and there isn’t even a parking lot”.
He continued that “We want to make clear that we support art and artists, but legality and ethics have defined standards– especially here in the desert— and absolutely so in adventuring. The ethical failures of the artist for the 24” equilateral gouge in the sandstone from the erecting of the Utah Monolith, was not even close to the damage caused by the internet sensationalism and subsequent reaction from the world”.
However, almost as soon as the first monolith was removed, another appeared.
The second popped up outside the Romanian city of Piatra Neamt on 27 November, before vanishing without warning on 2 December.
On the same day, another materialised at the top of Pine Mountain in Atascadero, California on 2 December. Unlike the Utah monument, this one wasn’t embedded into the ground, and that may be why it was so easily toppled by a group of young men on 3 December, who exclaimed “Christ is king in this country. We don’t want illegal aliens from Mexico or outer space,” before destryong the structure and replacing it with a wooden cross.
The monolith showed up again on the 4th.
There was a fleeting appearance of a fourth in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which was also torn down on the same day.
Where are these mysterious monoliths coming from?
The world has been gripped by the thrill of these seemingly alien objects emerging to briefly alter landscapes, before once again apparently vanishing into thin air. But of course, we’re not assuming they are in fact alien artefacts just yet (but how exciting would that be?). Rather, these ephemeral structures are the kind of art that we needed in order to distract us from this nightmare year.
While there’s much speculation about who installed the first two, according to Grady the third monolith can be attributed to a group of metal artists in Atascadero, who were inspired by the appearance of the first two. It’s likely that the fourth too was assembled by a copycat artist.
Grady cites a popular theory which posits that the original monolith in Utah may be a leftover prop from the series Westworld, which was filmed near where it was discovered.
Another theory is that the first monolith was an instalment by minimalist sculptor John McCracken, who passed away in 2011. Grady writes that ” it bore a striking resemblance to one of McCracken’s planks. And McCracken’s son Patrick McCracken told the New York Times that his father had once envisioned setting up art installations in remote places for viewers to stumble upon in the wild”.
However, David Zwirner, owner of the David Zwirner Gallery, which represents McCracken’s estate argued that McCracken would not have built the machine-made Utah monolith, as he preferred to create his sculptures by hand. “I love the idea of this being John’s work, but when you look closely at the photos of the Utah monolith, you will see rivets and screws that are not consistent with how John wanted his work to be constructed. He was a perfectionist,” Zwirner told Vox.
Knowing who constructed them – or not knowing as is the case here – doesn’t really change the fact that the world is enthralled by these structures, and that they can indeed be called art on account of the public interest and discussion they provoke. They’re simultaneously memes, objects of science fiction, and gripping mysteries.
According to reports, similar monoliths have since turned up in the Netherlands, Germany and Spain, proving that they’ve captured the imagination of people across the globe, and inspired them to create similar pieces of art – although their motivations may differ.
If they are indeed alien artefacts, it seems whatever they’re trying to tell us is becoming more urgent as the frequency of of their appearances increases rapidly. However, what’s more likely is that the whole world needed a distraction, and to believe in something other than the apparently impending pandemic apocalypse, and we’re not ungrateful for the diversion.