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In which John discusses a metal obelisk that stood for years unnoticed in the Utah desert before being discovered by some wildlife biologists, whereupon the monolith quickly disappeared. Also discussed: contemporary art in deserts, Gertrude Stein's essay What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them, and John's ongoing obsession with that one line from The Great Gatsby. SOURCES AND CREDITS:

The footage of Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels (completed in 1976) and Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) are from The Art Assignment's Spiral Jetty, Sun Tunnels, and Salt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZLi-yPzNIA

Unless otherwise noted, footage of the obelisk is from the Bureau of Land Management or the Utah Department of Natural Resources.

The photograph of Elmgreen and Dragset's Prada Marfa (2005) is by Nan Palmero. The photograph of the obelisk at 2:45 of this video is by Patrick A. Mackey.

The New York Times story about John McCracken's work and the monolith: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/27/arts/design/john-mccracken-utah-monolith.html

And the Salt Lake Tribune's article: https://www.sltrib.com/news/2020/11/27/utahs-mystery-desert/

You can also see some phenomenal photographs of the obelisk here: https://durangoherald.com/articles/355535

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Good morning, Hank, it's Tuesday.  Two weeks ago, biologists working for the Utah Department of Natural Resources were in a helicopter surveying the local bighorn sheep population when they noticed something weird.  It was a three-sided, ten-foot high sculpture installed in the middle of the desert, a location so remote that even though the sculpture had been there for years, no one had ever reported seeing it.

On social media, of course, the overwhelming response was ALIENS, which would be one, very interesting, and two, very 2020, and three, very good for sales of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, which basically predicted this entire affair, and it really does sound like a parable.  I mean, scientists are literally counting sheep, the cliche for how to fall asleep when they are roused into a dramatic and new kind of consciousness by anotherworldly artwork.  Soon afterwards, despite attempts to keep its location secret, people figure out where the sculpture is and begin to make pilgrimages, leaving all kinds of human detritus behind from tire tracks to toilet paper and the sculpture mysteriously disappears.

Oh, right, that's the other thing.  The sculpture mysteriously disappeared.  The metal structure has been removed, Utah officials said on Saturday, adding that they had not taken it down.  Wait, what?  As dependent clauses go, adding that they had not taken it down is doing a lot of work, but anyway, it wasn't aliens...probably.

American deserts are actually home to a lot of artworks that respond to or involve stark landscapes.  Like, there's the famous spiral jetty on the shore of the Great Salt Lake.  Near Marfa, Texas, there's the fake Prada store that has become a popular tourist destination, and outside of Wendover, Utah, you can find Nancy Holt's "Sun Tunnels" which, like a lot of my favorite art, cannot really be described or photographed effectively.

"Sun Tunnels" frames the landscape and shapes sunlight in so many weird and astonishing ways that, at least when I visited, I felt something of what Rudolph Otto called "the mysterium tremendum, that feeling of awe and fear and fascination one experiences when encountering an overwhelming mystery."  

Like, it's one thing for art to be merely masterful, to depict a scene or an experience so realistically that it's really impressive.  Gertrude Stein wrote that when people encounter that kind of art, "it excites them a little but it doesn't really thrill them," and what I'm after is that feeling of thrill, those transitory, enchanted moments when humans experience something commensurate to their capacity for wonder, to borrow a phrase from The Great Gatsby.  

So who made the Utah monolith? Well, initial speculation focused on John McCracken, who did make very similar sculptures and whose famous New York gallerist did say, "I believe this is definitely by John," but there's a big problem to that theory, which is that satellite photographs tell us the obelisk was installed some time in 2016 and McCracken died in 2011, but whoever installed the work didn't just, like, prop up a three-sided mirror in the desert.  They cleared brush around the site and used a concrete saw to cut into the stone to serve as a foundation for the sculpture.  This was profoundly intentional.

For me, though, the big question isn't who made it, but why I find it so interesting and why other people did, too.  There's something about the machine-ness of the obelisk in that landscape that's fascinating.  The contrast between the straight lines and right angles of human work and the curves and jagged edges of Earth-work, but honestly, I don't think the monolith itself is that extraordinary.  What gets me is that it was waiting for us all that time and we didn't know about it, and then once we did know about it, it disappeared almost immediately.

There are things in life that aren't there until you notice them, and there are things in life that are there until you notice them.  So why did it disappear?  Maybe the creators of the monolith were concerned about the legal and ethical ramifications of creating art without permission on public land.  Maybe they just made it for themselves.  Maybe the little grey aliens got what they needed.  The maybes are essential to what makes art feel visceral and thrilling to me, and I know it's human nature to seek answers and I hope we find them, but in the meantime, let's revel in the mystery.  Hank, I'll see you on Friday.