Robert Gehrke: Utah’s obelisk was a beautiful mystery and it’s a good thing it’s gone

“I did it. Let’s just get that out of the way.”

That’s what my friend Trent Harris told me when I asked him what he thought about the monolith (technically an obelisk) discovered in a relatively remote canyon in southeastern Utah. He was joking... at least I think he was.

Harris is a filmmaker and artist who has explored both Utah’s deserts — in “Rubin and Ed” where two misfits journey to the desert to bury a frozen cat — and Utah’s unique weirdness, most notably in his book, “Mondo Utah.”

Utah has a history of putting weird things in the desert, installation artwork like the famed Spiral Jetty and the Sun Tunnels. But he sees the obelisk as something simpler, understated and “kind of beautiful.”

“I didn’t ever see it as a weird thing,” Harris said.

Based on Google satellite images, it appears the thing had been installed around 2016 and there it stood, as far as we know undetected through the blazing heat and bitter cold, wind, snow and rain.

Last spring, I camped not far, roughly 10 miles, from the spot and of course had no idea it was there.

Wendy Wischer, head of sculpture intermedia at the University of Utah’s Department of Art and Art History, suspects that, based on the fairly remote and untrammeled location, whoever the artist is, worked with someone — or possibly several people — who knew the landscape and could help get it installed.

It was well thought-out, she said, and the placement, in a remote, rarely visited canyon, was key.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

“Somebody clearly wanted this to be discovered and the search for who did it,” Wischer said. “All of that is part of it. If someone wanted it found right away, they would’ve done it differently.”

Indeed, what appears to be a copycat of the obelisk cropped up in Romania, but it doesn’t capture the imagination or have the same pull as the original.

Wischer said, “It’s about discovery, curiosity, mystery, humor.”

Sure, there’s the science-fiction element to the obelisk, an obvious homage to Stanley Kubrick’s telling of Arthur C. Clarke’s book, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The leap to aliens placing it was almost obvious.

Beyond that, though, the thing seemed to capture everyone’s imagination. Literally everyone had their own ideas about it, speculation about who put it there and what it’s supposed to mean. If you’re the artist who bolted it to the rock — not for recognition, but art for the sake of art and maybe just to blow people’s minds a little — you’re probably giddy with how flawlessly the plan worked.

Even the timing — obviously a complete happenstance — during a time of a pandemic and political upheaval, couldn’t have been better.

“If you think about all the things we hear in the news, this is something that isn’t negative. It’s fun, it’s a distraction, it’s something different to talk about,” Wischer said. “I think we all needed that right now, tremendously. And on one hand that nods to the power of art, what art can do and how art can bring people together.”

Naturally, after sitting for years unnoticed, the metal column became an international phenomenon when it was discovered.

People by the hundreds traveled, in some cases many hours, to a place they would never think of going to see some sheet metal riveted into a prism and embedded into the desert.

It became a backdrop for hordes of Instagram selfies and Tik Tok videos.

We could debate the damage done to the public lands itself.

On one hand it was a crime and vandalism and we don’t need every self-styled artist treating these areas like their own canvas, carving and bolting into rock, any more than we need them scratching their names into cliff walls.

On the other, there’s a long history of guerrilla art — most notably the Banksy works spray painted on buildings.

But after Friday night, that discussion is moot after four men came in and removed it during the night, hauling it away. A Moab BASE jumping and slackline guide posted a video Tuesday taking credit for removing the object.

(Courtesy of Michael James Newlands) Michael James Newlands was visiting Utah's mysterious "monolith" Friday night, when he witnessed four men knock the sculpture over and haul it out on wheelbarrow. "Sketchy" Andy Lewis of Moab claims he was part of the removal effort.

While the San Juan County Sheriff and the Bureau of Land Management say they will investigate the supposed theft of the obelisk, it seems to me that it’s best that it’s gone, inasmuch as we don’t need throngs of ill-equipped visitors rushing to scenic and sensitive parts of the state to take photos in front of the unlawfully erected sculpture in the first place.

BLM said the hundreds of people who flocked to the location, which has no designated trails or toilets, left behind tire tracks, toilet paper, new paths and other damage to the area.

But removing the monolith also makes the thing more enigmatic, that it was there for years and now it’s gone and the place returns to its solitude. Instead of fixating on the actual physical piece, we’re left wondering what exactly it was and wondering what else might be out there waiting to be found.

(Utah Department of Public Safety via AP) This Nov. 18, 2020 photo provided by the Utah Department of Public Safety shows Utah state workers checking out a metal monolith that was found installed in the ground in a remote area of red rock in Utah.

“What is the thing?” Harris wondered. “It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a mystery. The image itself has such a wonderful history from Kubrick’s movie and the dawn of man and the first use of tools. That’s what that whole thing was about.

“All of that stuff is pretty damn interesting,” he said. “That’s why I wouldn’t call it weird. It’s kind of the perfect piece. And now that it’s gone, it’s kind of the perfect ending.”