Utah monolith: the collective investigation that led the first explorers to...

  • Kevin Ponniah and Ashitha Nagesh
  • BBC News

3 hours ago

Credit, David Surber

Photo caption,

After a Reddit user posted the alleged location of the monolith, David Surber took the car at dawn and drove into the middle of the desert

When Utah State authorities in the United States confirmed that they had located a mysterious metal monolith in the middle of the Red Rock desert, they decided not to say exactly where – otherwise, the information would attract adventurous amateurs who might get lost along the way and be exposed to risks.

It took only 48 hours for the first curious to get there.

This Thursday (11/26), there were already several photos posted on Instagram of people posing proudly with the object – whose author and motivation remain unanswered.

Environmental protection officer standing next to the monolith, looking down

Credit, Utah Department of Public Safety

Photo caption,

Environmental protection officer next to the monolith; authorities did not want to reveal the location of the object, but netizens managed to carry out a parallel investigation

After all the online furor around the object, people who arrived on it offline were assisted by a collective internet investigation that combined searches on Google Earth and geographic coordinates.

“I decided to go first because of the fact that this object had been there for five years, hidden in nature,” explained David Surber, 33, a former US Army infantry officer.

After reading a post on the Reddit network claiming to have located the exact spot where the monolith was, Surber took the car and drove for six hours during the night.

State officials initially spotted the object on Nov. 18, while flying overhead by helicopter to account for a flock of sheep.

The Reddit user who posted the coordinates, Tim Slane, said he tracked the helicopter’s route until the moment it left the radar – a sign that it had landed.

At this point, Slane analyzed the map of the area in search of features similar to those seen in official photos and videos. Until he located a gorge that seemed to fit the profile. It was possible to see a different shadow, long and narrow, in the middle.

“I knew that as soon as the location became public knowledge, people would visit the place,” said Slane. “I received some angry messages for revealing the location. If I hadn’t found it, someone else would probably have found it soon.”

Early morning trip

David, who lives in Utah, soon got ready and told the Reddit community that he was going there. On the way, he was bombarded with hundreds of messages and requests such as: “Take a magnet if there is a secret door!”

He arrived at dawn, when it was still very dark. At first, he was alone, marveling not only at the monolith, but at the shooting stars. Then, other people started to appear, also guided by the coordinates shared online. He was thrilled to report his adventure on Reddit.

“It was a good escape from all the negativity we experienced in 2020.”

But two questions remain: who put the structure there and why?

Work of art or… aliens?

Black and white photo of John McCracken posing next to a sculpture, hands on hips, inside museum room

Credit, Getty Images

Photo caption,

Initially, the name of John McCracken, who died in 2011, was considered as a possible author of the object found in Utah – which was later denied by those responsible for his work

Although many have suggested – some sincerely, most for fun – that the monolith was installed by extraterrestrials, the most consensual hypothesis is that it is an unclaimed work of art.

Initially, it was suggested that it could be an unknown work by John McCracken, who died in 2011, known for his plank-shaped sculptures. Its gallery owner David Zwirner initially confirmed this, but the gallery responsible later denied the statement, saying it believed it was another artist paying homage.

In online forums, some people pointed to another artist, Petecia Le Fawnhawk. She is known for installing totemic sculptures in secret locations in the desert and, even more intriguing, lived and worked for a while in Utah.

But she told Artnet magazine that although “she had thought of placing secret monuments in the desert”, she “cannot claim that one”.

It is not uncommon for works of art to be installed in remote locations – either as sculptures or as land art, which integrates art with its natural surroundings. For many of these works, the journey to its placement is as important as the piece itself.

One of the most famous examples of this is The Lightning Field, by the American Walter de Maria, whose exact location is a well-kept secret. All that is known is that it is in the desert west of the state of New Mexico.

Andy Merritt, a British artist who creates outdoor sculptures as part of the duo Something and Son, said that when he saw news about the Utah monolith, he thought the author was “either an artist or a rich person who has fantasies about (the movie) 2001: A Space Odyssey“.

Adapted from the work of Arthur C. Clarke, the film directed by Stanley Kubrick shows large black monoliths inserted by aliens.

“There are so many artists who do things in unusual places, especially in the United States,” says Merritt, who plans to “fossilize” a house in London’s suburb.

“In my own work, we always want to do things in unusual places.”

“If you took what was done in Utah – assuming it’s an artist’s work – and put it somewhere else, like a public square, it would be a lot less interesting. It’s the landscape itself that gets the message across.”

‘The genie came out of the bottle’

Desert-looking monolith between rocks

Credit, David Surber

Photo caption,

Photo of the monolith taken by Surber, one of the first people to meet the mysterious object in person

Videos from dozens – perhaps even hundreds of people – who have visited the site suggest professional work. Three large sheets of what appears to be stainless steel have been riveted, while the interior has been left hollow.

Whoever put the object there used heavy tools to cut the material and insert it into the ground.

“From the beginning, I wanted it to be something out of this world … who wouldn’t? However, deep down, I think we know that he was probably just a very patient artist or a fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey“, says David Surber, after his visit to the monolith.

In an interview on Thursday, a communications representative from the Utah Department of Public Security told the BBC that while authorities do not encourage anyone to visit the monolith because the route can be dangerous, they cannot stop people either, because the area is public.

“The genie came out of the bottle,” said Corporal Andrew Battenfield, when he was told that people had arrived at the scene and were already posting photos on social media. “We are a free country.”

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