The origins of the now-famous “monolith” sculpture in San Juan County are still unclear, but its disappearance Friday night is becoming less of a mystery.
Andy Lewis, a 34-year-old BASE jumping guide and slackliner in Moab who goes by “Sketchy Andy,” posted a video to his “Mr. Slackline” YouTube account on Tuesday morning alleging he was part of a four-person group that knocked down the sculpture.
“We REMOVED the Utah Monolith,” reads the title of the 23-second video, which includes clips of the sculpture being dismantled in the moonlight on Friday night.
Contacted by text message Tuesday, Lewis confirmed he had posted the video, which includes photos that were taken by a bystander and original video footage of the men transporting the remnants of the structure out of the canyon. Blurring effects are used to hide the men’s faces in the clip. When asked to share unedited video to prove he was involved with the sculpture’s removal, Lewis declined, saying, “There is no evidence.”
The so-called monolith, which is technically a misnomer since it’s not made out of a single block of stone, became an international media sensation last week after photos of the stainless steel object were posted online by the Utah Department of Public Safety.
The coordinates of the 10-foot-tall structure were soon published as well and, within a few days, hundreds of people made the trip to the remote and secluded part of northern San Juan County in Lockhart Basin, an area with no restrooms, trail signs or other facilities. The sudden surge in visitation caused widespread damage to the landscape, according the the Bureau of Land Management, including tire tracks, litter, toilet paper and hundreds of new trails.
Colorado-based adventure photographer Ross Bernards posted a report to social media Monday, explaining that he and his friends had been photographing the monolith after dark Friday night when a group of four men approached the structure with a wheelbarrow.
“They walked up and pushed it a little bit with their hands,” Bernards told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Then they gave it a couple real good pushes that shifted it and tilted it over to one side.”
“I hope you got your photos,” Bernards recalls one of the men telling him.
Michael James Newlands, Bernards’ friend who snapped a few quick photos on his phone, said his group had just been standing on top of the sculpture. “I was thinking, ‘It’s solid. It’s not going anywhere,’” he said.
But when all four men started pushing it back and fourth with more force, it was clear it was going to topple over.
“It popped out of the ground and landed with a very, very loud thud,” Bernards said. “One of the panels popped off as it landed.” The men dismantled the structure and loaded its pieces into the wheelbarrow, leaving only the triangular steel top of the prism.
Bernards and his friends returned to the site Saturday and watched visitors who were unaware of its removal continue to stream into the area, including a Cessna that landed in the sagebrush.
“We saw 70 to 100 cars come in and out of there,” he said. “It was nuts. And just people walking every which way; no one was trying to find anything that resembled a trail.”
Lewis, who claimed credit for the removal, garnered fame for his slacklining skills at the 2012 Super Bowl, where he performed during the halftime show with Madonna. He has since gained a reputation, at least among critics, for pushing the limits of both safety and legality in his extreme sports exploits in southern Utah. Lewis was fined after making a series of illegal BASE jumps in Arches National Park in 2014. A stunt in 2016 that involved temporarily decorating rock formations outside of Moab with Christmas lights drew criticism from some local rock climbers.
Both Bernards and Newlands said they were glad the sculpture was gone, adding the people who removed it got in touch Tuesday.
“I told them, ‘Thank you for removing it because it needed to be done,” Bernards said. “It was cool, but it was destroying the land over there.”
Bernards added that based on his conversation with one or several of the men, whom he declined to name, he’s convinced the group was attempting to protect the environment from overuse by removing the sculpture.
“I know that’s what [their motivation was],” he said. “I asked them specifically, and they said that’s exactly why they did it.”
“The dismantling of the Utah monolith is tragic — and if you think we’re proud — we’re not,” Lewis said in a text message statement. “We’re disappointed. Furthermore, we were too late.” He went on to cite damage caused to the area by the crowds, noting that the 2-foot-deep hole cut into the bedrock by the artist was only a small part of the sculpture’s overall impact.
“We encourage artists to create, land management to [manage] and the community to take responsibility for their actions and property,” Lewis continued, calling for a massive educational movement regarding the “use and management of our lands — not a distraction from it.”
A BLM official said removing the monolith didn’t violate its policies, so the sculpture’s disappearance isn’t being investigated. The agency is, however, continuing to investigate how it got there, which did violate the law.
A second, more crudely made metal prism appeared briefly in Romania this week, indicating the discovery of the Utah monolith may have started a trend. The Romanian sculpture, too, was illegally installed and is under investigation by authorities there.
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.