Its origins are a mystery. It stood in the desert for five years in secret. Then, in less than a week, its image had been broadcast around the globe, speculated and obsessed upon, memed and re-tweeted. People made pilgrimages to it, claimed to be the first to see it, photographed, posed, and twerked on it until—as mysteriously as it appeared—it vanished in the night. It seems that an object of such mystique simply could not, or should not, exist under the weight of so much attention.
I am no different than the masses who heard of the monolith and were immediately fascinated by the bizarre installation. The Utah Department of Public Safety’s press release was surreal. It featured photos of men in matching flight suits standing on each other’s shoulders peering into a polished steel tower against a Martian-red backdrop. A government agency acknowledging an extraterrestrial monument in a “secret” location was nothing short of an invitation to a treasure hunt. The clues to finding the monolith were all there: It was near bighorn sheep habitat, the photos showed distinct layers and depths of rock, the shadow of the monolith even told a keen observer the orientation of the canyon. My own Google Earth search got me within 7 miles of the actual location before I heard the profane news: The coordinates were being shared across the internet like an intercepted grade school love letter. Finding a needle in a haystack had been reduced to finding the nearest Starbucks™. If the monolith had once been an alien antenna, it was now a magnetic pole with a thousand-mile field attracting eyes, feet, tires and feces.
Say what you will about the legality of installing a sculpture on public lands: Maybe it is litter, but I liked it. The shining geometric chrome was a striking contrast against the organic shapes and textures of sandstone, but then again, an overturned Tesla Cybertruck in a dry wash would be equally jarring. The monolith’s appeal was not its construction or setting—its appeal was secrecy. The magic was in the glimmering chance, rarely manifested, that someone could randomly wander upon it and be filled with awe. That wonder is lost when you can just follow your GPS. That wonder is turned idolatrous when influencer pilgrims blow past actual lithic monoliths to pose with the inanimate celebrity.
And this phenomenon is nothing new. Anyone who has spent time around Moab already knows that the perfect campsite, the serene vista or the iconic arch are all victims of their own appeal. Archeologists have learned to keep locations close to the chest and never share photos with identifying landmarks. Petroglyphs and granaries a hundred times older than the monolith dot our landscape. They too feel the pressure of visitation, but the sheer immensity of focus on this one spot in the desert seemed to leave its own footprint, as though the collective consciousness, facilitated by social media, had its own mass. I was pulled into the orbit as well and reposted DPS’ photos, drawing more eyes and minds into the growing vortex. From our couches, we willed our neighbors and strangers to travel to the location we held in our mind’s eye. The mysterious appearance of a monolith signified a breakthrough of sentience, just as in Kubrik’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But instead of self-aware machines, we can now remotely summon strangers into the desert where they will perform insta-rituals under the spotlight of our attention.
And now it is gone. The physical marker is gone, but the social trails still radiate outward and the otherwise arbitrary spot will continue to see visitors. I like to think that the theft was committed by the reticent artist who installed it in the first place. That the removal is a reclamation of both landscape and property. I want to believe that the ego that wanted to make an artistic comment on solitude and desolation realized, in horror, that this work was obliterating both. That only infamy could be earned by claiming responsibility for a tourist trap. The only action of integrity was to remove it. For Good.
Jonny Jew is a martian with absolutely no incentive whatsoever to encourage the idea that the monolith is anything more than a human art installation. While the canyons of Moab are delightful, he is eager to return home to Olympus Mons once the Earth-wide travel restrictions are lifted.