Utah’s mystery desert sculpture: Art or graffito?

The Obelisk, Utah • Several years ago — likely sometime in 2016 — one or more artists carrying well over 100 pounds of stainless steel hiked into a remote alcove in San Juan County, expertly cut a hole into the sandstone with a rock saw and erected a three-sided obelisk beneath a narrow pour-off.

The sculpture was carefully placed away from roads and out of sight from any distant vantage point in an obscure canyon, which, in December 2016, would become part of Bears Ears National Monument until President Donald Trump shrank its boundaries. For four years it sat. If a few wandering hikers or cowboys happened to stumble across it, they kept the discovery to themselves.

That all changed last week when biologists doing a bighorn sheep survey for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources spotted the shining structure from a helicopter and filmed the crew circling the perfectly plumb construction tucked into its redrock alcove. The photos were posted online Monday by the Utah Department of Public Safety — complete with an extraterrestrial tease — and speculation about the object soon became a global internet sensation.

The discovery has been covered in publications from the South China Morning Post to The New York Times to Al-Jazeera and has drawn comments from all corners, including Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show.” Many noted the object’s resemblance to the monolith in the famous opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

“What could it mean? Is it aliens making first contact? Is it a site-specific art installation that examines the dynamic tension between man and nature?” Colbert said in a recent opening monologue. “Or is it a really poorly installed stainless steel backsplash. Utah is the ultimate open concept kitchen.”

On Tuesday, a host from the Discovery Channel’s “Diesel Brothers” show flew a helicopter to the site in Lockhart Basin, speculating on camera that he could be the first to reach the sculpture since the biologists. When he landed, however, others had already beat him to it — some 30 people throughout the day — who had arrived by ATV, e-bike, Jeep and dirt bike.

On Wednesday, a similar-sized crowd congregated at the structure. Ryan Quiggle and Elliott Evans, two students at Brigham Young University, drove for a dozen hours to reach the obelisk and make it back to their graveyard shift at the Missionary Training Center in Provo.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brigham Young University students Elliott Evans, left, and Ryan Quiggle pose with the obelisk on Nov. 25, 2020.

“It was definitely aliens,” Quiggle joked, rapping on the stainless steel with his knuckles to produce a sound that indicated there was foam inside.

The sculpture measures 9 feet, 7 inches from the custom-cut hole in the rock to its top. The three sides are just under 2 feet wide and joined with rivets. A ribbon of silicon caulk runs around its base.

“It looks like it could have been assembled by a single person,” said Brad Zercoe, a 30-year-old engineer from San Jose, Calif., who was on vacation in the area when he saw the news about the sculpture and decided to go find it. “Each of the pieces could have been carried in separately.”

Bureau of Land Management officials say the piece was illegally installed, but they have no plans to remove it in the near future.

“I can assure the public that we aren’t going to be hasty in our decision about the future of the structure,” said BLM spokeswoman Kimberly Finch. ”We also are enjoying the conversations, the inspiration, the fun that people are having with it. We completely encourage that. So we hope people will continue to have fun with it and to be safe as far as accessing the site.”

The agency is investigating how the obelisk got there. Ordinarily, any moving of earth or placing fixtures on public land requires a review under the National Environmental Policy Act. Last summer, someone illegally erected a political flag over U.S. Highway 40, which the BLM took down promptly, according to Finch. Even if the obelisk qualifies as art, the BLM doesn’t want to see similar installations elsewhere without proper approval.

“We don’t want people to be inspired to do this on their own,” Finch said. “There’s a process. It has to be safe.”

While some critics of the sculpture have called it “litter” and “glorified vandalism,” multiple visitors Wednesday worried the obelisk itself would be marked up by graffiti. Others made too many bad alien jokes about being probed.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brad Zercoe, left, and JP Baker were in Utah for vacation when they heard of the obelisk and decided to go find it. Nov. 25, 2020.

Eye of the beholder?

Humor aside, however, historian Patricia Limerick believes the object is art that should be taken seriously. To her, it fits into Utah’s tradition of land art that began with ancient Native American rock art and culminated with Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” on the Great Salt Lake’s north shore.

“Art doesn’t always have to be in the control of museums. You can do things that are art that are way, way beyond the boundaries of a gallery,” said Limerick, who directs the University of Colorado’s Center of the American West. “That’s one of the things I have enjoyed about the rise of land art in the 1960s.”

But how do you know when an object installed in nature is art?

“Welcome to the question that the humanities have struggled with for centuries,” Limerick said. To her, the apparent deliberateness of the obelisk’s construction and placement on the landscape qualify it as a piece of art.

The object is assembled from precision-milled stainless steel, but it bears no inscriptions or other identifying features, according to Lt. Nick Street of the Utah Department of Public Safety.

“Somebody would have had to really do some planning,” he said, “and have the will and desire to carry all this stuff, along with some pretty precise cutting equipment that they used to cut out the rock base.”

The triangular hole cut in the rock perfectly matches the dimension of the obelisk.

“As sturdy as the thing is, I would guess that it would have to have at least a foot and a half, if not more, of the monolith down inside of it,” Street said. “The other thing is it’s perfectly plumbed. It’s exactly 90 degrees to the surface and perfectly level on top.”

These indicators are more in line with art than a mere stunt, according to Limerick.

“It’s not just something thrown together, accidental, or done in a distracted moment. The way it’s embedded in the rock is the furthest thing away from that,” she said. “There is really an enormously powerful dialogue between a person looking at it and thinking, ‘Which one of my fellow human beings did this and what is it the person was thinking, feeling, dreaming, aspiring, and what message are we receiving from this?’ That is a pretty exciting trip to go on if you buy the ticket for that.”

One theory gaining traction is that the obelisk is the work of the sculptor John McCracken or one of his students, who may have installed it after the artist’s death in 2011. David Zwirner, a prominent New York City art dealer who represents McCracken, suspects the object is connected to the artist who lived in Santa Fe, N.M., at the end of his life.

“The gallery is divided on this. I believe this is definitely by John,” Zwirner said in a statement. “Who would have known that 2020 had yet another surprise for us? Just when we thought we had seen it all. Let’s go see it.”

The California-born McCracken was famous for minimalist sculptures of geometrical precision. After the release of Kubrick’s famous film, it was widely though incorrectly assumed that McCracken designed the monolith worshipped by apelike pre-humans in the opening scene, according to his obituary.

(Although the Utah sculpture has been most commonly called a “monolith” in news coverage, Utah’s former state archaeologist Kevin Jones has pointed out that’s a misnomer; monoliths are cut from a single piece of stone.)

If the object’s discovery accomplishes anything, Limerick observed, at least it provides a diversion from the Trump presidency, the pandemic and the faltering economy. During times of global trouble, the obelisk is a reminder the world is still full of wonder.

“Whoever the artist is, we are in that person’s debt for saying, ‘Think about something else, folks. Why don’t you think about something else?’” she said. “This is really great that I turn a page [of the newspaper] and I’m asked to think about something that has nothing to do with the usual stuff we are going around in circles on.”

‘Bring Windex’

If it was harder to imagine the object beamed down by a UFO while standing beside it, several visitors noted the care that went into its placement and construction: the precise alignment with the watercourse, the aesthetically pleasing contrast of metal and rock, and its hidden location that brings the piece into the realm of performance art.

“It’s surreal to see it,” said JP Baker, Zercoe’s friend. “I’m glad I got here before the T-shirt stand was installed.”

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) JP Baker of Gainesville, Fla., takes a picture of this friend above the obelisk sculpture in San Juan County that has garnered international attention.

In just a few days, visitors had already left more than a few marks on the sculpture. The top two rivets on one side were snapped off in an apparent attempt to peer inside. Its surface was marked with fingerprint smears and a streak of blood, possibly left by someone who cut themselves on the sharp metal edges while trying to climb on top.

“Bring Windex if you want to get a great photo,” advised Mark Trunzo, a guide from a nearby town who approached the site Wednesday by ATV.

Aside from who put the object in the desert, the big question is what will the BLM decide to do with the sculpture, which was embedded illegally into publicly owned land. The law and policies point toward its eventual removal.

Yet it can be seen standing in that remote alcove in a satellite image dated to October 2016, causing no known harm before it became an internet fixation, so what would be the point of extracting it?

While officials ponder how to proceed, they are cautioning people against visiting the object out of concern they could get stranded in a remote spot while searching for it or could damage the land if they come in large numbers. A tow truck was already in the area Wednesday.

“This is not an improved site. There’s no restrooms, there’s no trail signs. It has the potential for people to get into trouble,” Finch said. “You have a situation where something’s gone internationally viral and then you have a large impact of people going out on a site that is not prepared for that kind of visitation.”

Limerick hopes the BLM allows it to remain to continue challenging the public’s imagination.

“This is refreshing in ways that art is supposed to be,” she said. “It’s not shouting, it’s not saying, ‘Look at me.’ It doesn’t seem to be bragging. What I’m liking about it more and more and more is, this is historic. It is not just an event, a thing you take a picture and move on. It’s a dynamic story in which we are all invited to participate.”

Limerick said it reminds her of the rock towers stacked by anonymous artists in the desert, a practice federal land managers frown upon. But unlike the rock stacks that can be scattered back on the ground, the obelisk is drilled into the landscape; removing it will leave a hole, both physically and metaphorically.