Into the fiery, plague-ridden nightmare-scape of 2020, like a gift from some benevolent higher being, has come a source of true wonder and delight: the wandering monoliths of Utah, Romania, California, and New Mexico.
The monoliths are long vertical slabs of metal, each 10 to 12 feet tall. They appear with no warning and disappear just as quickly: First, one in the Utah desert, which emerged on November 18 and vanished on November 27. Second, one outside the Romanian city of Piatra Neamt, which appeared on November 27 and disappeared on December 2. Third, one at the top of Pine Mountain in Atascadero, California, which appeared on December 2, was taken down on December 3, and reappeared on December 4. And fourth, one in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which appeared on December 7 and was taken down the same day.
They look like alien artifacts. In part, that’s because they are heavily reminiscent of the monoliths of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, where vast black monoliths are deposited by aliens to guide human beings from one stage of evolution to the next.
Kubrick or no Kubrick, all four of these real-life monoliths are eerie, solitary objects. No one knows whether another will suddenly appear, or whether it, too, will vanish into the night.
We know very little about these monoliths at all, in fact, and that seems to be part of their point. They are a beautifully inexplicable phenomenon, and proof that the world still contains marvels.
Here’s what we do know about the monoliths — and why we keep talking about them.
A monolith timeline
The first monolith was discovered in November in a remote desert canyon in Utah’s Red Rock Country. A helicopter crew counting bighorn sheep noticed a flash of metal looming up from the ground and flew down to investigate, and there it was: deeply embedded in the red rock of the canyon floor, an enormous smooth metal triangular prism, just standing there.
“What the heck is that?” one of the workers mutters in a video released by the Utah Department of Public Safety. “Okay, the intrepid explorers go down to investigate the alien life form,” another cracks.
The canyon is remote and inaccessible without a helicopter, Utah’s Division of Wildlife Services told the New York Times. “It’s a tough place to get to on vehicle and on foot,” a spokesperson said. Officials for the Department of Public Safety added that they had no idea how long the monolith had been there, although Reddit sleuths used Google Maps Earth View to work out that it was installed sometime between August 2015 and October 2016.
The Utah Department of Public Safety announced the “unusual find” on Facebook, with a cheeky alien emoji appended, and the story took off inexorably from there. A mysterious artifact that is an art project but also maybe from aliens, discovered out of nowhere in the middle of the desert, here in the grinding misery of a plague year — what’s not to love about that?
Plenty, argued BASE jumper Andy Lewis and adventure guide Sylvan Christensen, who filmed themselves removing the monolith from the desert on November 27. They say they did so for environmental reasons. “This land wasn’t physically prepared for the population shift,” they declared in a joint statement. The statement goes on to say that the rapid descent of masses of monolith-gawkers into the pristine desert landscape, with no infrastructure set up to support them, caused permanent damage to the delicate ecosystem.
“Let’s be clear: The dismantling of the Utah Monolith is tragic — and if you think we’re proud— we’re not,” they wrote. “We’re disappointed. Furthermore, we were too late.”
But the very day the Utah monolith would disappear, a new monolith surfaced. On November 27, Romanian newspapers reported finding another monolith outside the city of Piatra Neamt, on the plateau of Bâtca Doamnei, near an archaeological site.
Like the Utah monolith, the Romanian monolith is a vast triangular prism, 10 to 12 feet tall. But where the Utah monolith had a flat, reflective surface, the Romanian monolith is covered in looping lines, and there’s a welded seam near its base.
In a statement published to Facebook, Piatra Neamt Mayor Andrei Carabelea quipped, “My guess is that some alien, cheeky and terrible teenagers left home with their parents’ UFO and started planting metal monoliths around the world. First in Utah and then at Piatra Neamt. I am honored that they chose our city.” (The English translation is courtesy of the Independent.)
But unlike Lewis and Christensen, Carabelea did not seem to harbor any worries about what monolith-based tourism would do to the natural landscape of the area. On the contrary; he said he hopes the monolith will attract more tourists.
But four days after it arrived, the Romanian monolith vanished overnight. Its disappearance so far remains a mystery.
And on the same day the Romanian monolith vanished, a new monolith appeared in California, at the top of a mountain off a hiking path. According to local news reports, the California monolith is another triangular prism, 10 feet tall and about 18 inches wide: around the same height as the Utah and Romanian monoliths, but a little narrower. Like the Utah monolith, it has a smooth surface. It appears to be made out of stainless steel. Unlike the Utah monolith, it hasn’t been embedded into the ground. A hard push could topple it over.
On December 3, it got that push. A group of young men who apparently drove five hours to San Luis Obispo County livestreamed themselves destroying the monolith on the blockchain site DLive. Dressed in camo gear, night-vision goggles, and Trump paraphernalia, the group chanted “America First” and “Christ is king” as they rocked the monolith back and forth.
“Christ is king in this country. We don’t want illegal aliens from Mexico or outer space,” a man in the video says. “So let’s tear this bitch down.”
Once they’d brought the monolith to the ground, they put up a wooden cross in its place, and then dragged the monolith down the mountain. “It was fine, because it was funny,” a man says toward the end of the stream.
On December 4, the California monolith returned.
Unlike the Utah and Romania monoliths, we do actually know who is responsible for the California monolith. It was built by Atascadero residents Travis Kenney, his father Randall Kenney, Wade McKenzie, and Jared Riddle. They’re local metal artists, and they were inspired by the appearance of the two other monoliths. Figuring that there are three monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey, they decided to complete the trilogy themselves. And after it was torn down, they decided to bring it back.
“It was meant to be something fun, a change of pace from the kind of conversations 2020 has been plagued with — so much negativity and separation among the people in our country,” Travis Kenney said in a statement.
On December 7, a fourth monolith appeared in Albuquerque, New Mexico, this time in the parking lot of an REI. And on the same day, it, too, was torn down. In videos circulating social media, a group of people can be seen bearing it to the ground, and witnesses say that before that, they were beating it with sledgehammers.
There are a lot of theories about the monoliths. Here are the big ones.
So where are all these monoliths coming from?
They don’t seem to be coming from the same source. It now seems apparent that the Utah monolith was the work of one person, and the monoliths that have followed are copycats from people like Travis Kenney, following in its example.
Are they some sort of cynical guerrilla ad campaign? Considering that the Utah monolith dates back to 2015, that seems unlikely: It would be a hell of a slow burn of a marketing push.
One popular theory notes that the Utah monolith site is close to some of the 2015 shooting locations for the HBO drama Westworld, and suggests that it might be a leftover prop, or a prank by a member of the Westworld crew.
Another theory suggests that the monoliths are an anonymous art installation, with the Utah monolith created by one original artist and then a series of copycats following.
And in that case, the most pressing question becomes: Who is the artist?
The prankster art collective The Most Famous Artist has taken credit for both the Utah and California monoliths on social media. The group is even offering an “authentic alien monolith” for sale on its website for $45,000. But shortly after the Most Famous Artist made its claim, Travis Kenney and his group took credit for the California monolith, posting images of them constructing the monolith to social media to prove it was them. It’s still possible The Most Famous Artist was behind the Utah monolith, but this development casts severe doubt on its claim over the California one. (There’s still a monolith for sale on its website, though.)
A strong early contender for the original artist behind the Utah monolith was the minimalist sculptor John McCracken, who died in 2011. McCracken’s signature works were his “planks”: freestanding slabs of metal he would lean against a wall. McCracken himself used to say he believed his planks influenced the designer of the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey. He believed in aliens, and he wanted his work to resemble alien artifacts. “Even before I did concerted studies of U.F.O.s,” he once said, “it helped me maintain my focus to think I was trying to do the kind of work that could have been brought here by a U.F.O.”
Art Newspaper noted shortly after the Utah monolith appeared that it bore a striking resemblance to one of McCracken’s planks. And McCracken’s son Patrick McCracken told the New York Times that his father had once envisioned setting up art installations in remote places for viewers to stumble upon in the wild.
“He was inspired by the idea of alien visitors leaving objects that resembled his work, or that his work resembled,” Patrick said. “This discovery of a monolith piece — that’s very much in line with his artistic vision.”
Finally, David Zwirner, owner of the David Zwirner Gallery, which represents McCracken’s estate, told the New York Times he believed the Utah monolith to be a genuine McCracken. Everything seemed to be lining up to indicate that John McCracken sculpted the Utah monolith, at the very least, and maybe the Romanian monolith, too, and left secret instructions to a team to reveal them after his death.
But the tide has turned against the McCracken theory. Upon reviewing photos of the Utah monolith more closely, Zwirner has retracted his original statement to the Times and concluded that McCracken, who preferred to make his sculptures by hand, would not have built the machine-made Utah monolith.
“I love the idea of this being John’s work, but when you look closely at the photos of the Utah monolith, you will see rivets and screws that are not consistent with how John wanted his work to be constructed. He was a perfectionist,” Zwirner said in an emailed statement to Vox. “While I know that this is not John’s work, I also know that he would have enjoyed the Utah location and would have greatly appreciated the mystery surrounding this work. We all think it is a wonderful homage.”
Evidence seems to be mounting now that the monoliths are the work of one or more artists heavily inspired by the work of John McCracken. But who could the mystery artist(s) be?
The monoliths might be the work of an art wizard. If not, it is still fun to think about art wizardry.
The performance artist Zardulu describes herself as a wizard, and her work as modern mythmaking. Zardulu likes to stage stunts and happenings that seem to exist right at the edge of our sense of what is plausible, and that then take off as viral news stories: a three-eyed fish in the Gowanus Canal; a raccoon riding an alligator in Florida. She’s also claimed credit for New York’s iconic Pizza Rat. She has a savvy sense of what a watching news audience is likely to find overwhelmingly delightful, and her goal is to weave unexpected pockets of wonder and delight into the fabric of everyday life.
“I take my fantasy and present it as reality to an unknowing audience,” she told me when I interviewed her in 2017. “Thus creating a true surreality.”
I DMed Zardulu on Twitter to get her take on the monoliths, because she seemed likely to have thoughts on how they function as modern myths.
“I think they’ll find that the Utah one was installed at the height of my productivity, in late 2015,” she wrote back immediately. She added, “If you look back, you’ll notice we talked a lot about my work in Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia.”
I asked her if she was taking credit for the monoliths.
“No,” she said. Shortly afterward, she elaborated, “Most of my projects aren’t intended to have an immediate effect. I often leave things as objects to be found. Sometimes it’s faux documentation in the research section of a library, sometimes it’s an installation waiting for an unknowing audience. Sometimes that takes days, sometimes it takes five years.”
It is in a sense Zardulu’s life’s work to plant false stories in the press, so I would take the suggestion that she is responsible for the monoliths with a hefty heaping of salt. Nonetheless, it remains true that Zardulu was extremely active in 2015 (that was the Pizza Rat year), and that Reddit sleuths seem to have dated the monolith’s arrival in Utah to sometime between April 2015 and October 2016.
It is also true that in 2017, Zardulu sent me a link to a story about the discovery of a werewolf-like skull in Macedonia with the note, “Was just reminiscing about my trip to Eastern Europe ;)” (The skull was a coyote, she says.)
The monoliths might not be intentional art. They still matter.
Regardless of who created and installed the monoliths and why, they matter now. They’ve reiterated themselves across our landscape like a living meme. They are all over the internet. They are a myth. They are maybe, no matter who made them, art.
“The phenomenon of public interest in the object is more important to me than whether we call it art or not,” said Pedro Lasch, an artist, Duke professor, and creator of the public art course ART of the MOOC: Public Art & Pedagogy. “People can end up going down a rabbit hole in these discussions of whether something is art or not, but ultimately I think they can distract us from a conversation about why we find something so fascinating.”
Lasch notes that the monoliths reiterate many existing tropes in both minimalism and land art, especially the work of Robert Smithson, who incorporated natural landscapes into works like “Spiral Jetty” and who was fascinated by aliens and science fiction. The design and characteristics of the monoliths aren’t particularly new, he says — but the way they have traveled across social media suggests they speak to this moment.
“Part of me wonders whether it’s related to how desperately we need social media and news that have nothing to do with the drastic state of our political affairs,” he says. “And minimalism and a shiny metal surface is as far as it gets.”
The monoliths may or may not be genuine Zardulu works, but they strike me as Zardulist in spirit as much as they are clearly inspired by both McCracken and Smithson: a piece of something otherworldly and strange, dropped into this exhausting and mundane world. Something to take us out of our day-to-day lives in a year defined by quarantine and strife, and into a realm where eerie and uncanny things can happen without explanation. Something we can use to think through our largest preoccupations — what we’re doing to the environment, how we welcome immigrants, or whether we are alone in the universe.
The monoliths are works of art doing the purest thing that art can do, which is to push us beyond the boundaries of our selves.
Or maybe it was aliens!
Update: This article was originally published on December 4. It has been updated to include the appearance of the Albuquerque monolith, the reappearance of the California monolith, and the competing credit claims from The Most Famous Artist and Travis Kenney.