It felt like “a great opening for a science fiction story,” said Adi Robertson in The Verge.com. Sheep counters employed by the state of Utah and traveling by helicopter had discovered a mysterious monolith in a remote red-rock canyon, and the public was warned to stay away.
The public did not comply. Within a day, a Reddit user had used Google Maps and video from the helicopter flight to pinpoint the location. Curiosity seekers began long drives to reach the site. All the while, the source of the three-sided stainless-steel pillar remained unknown and a source of worldwide online chatter. Was it a prank, or an abandoned prop from a film shoot? Some jokingly credited aliens, noting the object’s similarity to the black monolith featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Chances are,” though, “this is an art object,” said Paul Ratner in BigThink.com. “Deserts are great places for unusual art installations,” and Utah has many examples.
The mystery soon took an even stranger turn, said Jason Slotkin in NPR.org. On Friday night, just days after the first tourists reached the obelisk and began posting photos and videos, the nearly 10-foot-tall tower “vanished from the Utah desert as mysteriously as it appeared.” The next day, the Utah Bureau of Land Management denied having removed it and attributed the disappearance to “an unknown party.” Two more days passed before Colorado photographer Ross Bernards posted photos backing his claim that he and three friends had witnessed four men arriving a few hours after sundown and pulling the column down, carting it away on a wheelbarrow.
Bernards claims that one remarked, “This is why you don’t leave trash in the desert.” The monolith itself wasn’t junky, said Zak Podmore in both Slate.com and The Salt Lake Tribune. It was fashioned from three precision-milled sheets of stainless steel that had been cleanly riveted together. A shallow triangular hole had been cut into the sandstone to secure it at perfect plumb, and few could overlook “the pleasing contrast of metal and rock” or the tower’s careful placement in a dry narrow watercourse.
Satellite imagery indicated it had stood undiscovered for four years. Briefly last week, a prominent New York gallery claimed the pillar was the work of deceased sculptor John McCracken, famed for his minimalist planks. Whoever created it had, in any case, “found a way to cross landscape art with performance art,” generating a global sensation. The day it vanished, at the once pristine site where it had stood, trucks and Jeeps were coming and going, “dirt bikes ripped through fragile desert soils off-trail,” and toilet paper blew across the ground. Bighorn sheep will reclaim the land soon enough. In the meantime, here’s to the monolith: “For a few brief days, it sucked us all in.”