On November 18th, an airborne survey of bighorn sheep* in the Utah desert turned up something completely unexpected: a silver monolith, buried in the desert. This is not the sort of thing one tends to find in the middle of nowhere (or the middle of anywhere, for that matter), and after word got out, the monolith rapidly entrenched itself in the public imagination. Where was it? What was it? How was it? Why was it?
The first answer arrived quickly. Despite attempts by the Utah Department of Public Safety to keep the location quiet, intrepid internet sleuthing nailed down the monolith in Google Earth. Subsequent visits shed light on the other questions: it was a hollow triangular prism almost 10′ high, made of metal sheets (aluminum or, more likely, stainless steel) riveted together and embedded in the rock. A few days later, the whole edifice had been dismantled and spirited away. Mysterious!
The overall look is impressive, and, of course, enormously reminiscent of the monoliths found in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But if neither the implausibility of extraterrestrial travel nor sheer parsimony are convincing enough to point to a human origin, the actual construction must.
It is, frankly, impossible to imagine having the ability to sprout a set of metal sheets in the middle of the desert and then having to rivet them together once they’ve grown. Riveting is a sign of partial command of metallurgy, of a civilization (incidentally, the first known rivets date from the Bronze Age) capable of creating building blocks and binding them together but without the elemental prowess to conjure up shapes entire. Besides, if you have access to space you’d probably cold-weld the damn thing. Cold-welding is too badass not to do if you have the chance.
The sensible conclusion here is that this was a piece of extremely good performance art, installed years ago in the hope of discovery and taken down once the artists had achieved their desired effect. This might have annoyed the state of Utah, whose Department of Heritage and Arts not-unfairly described the stunt as vandalism, but the public response shows that whoever planted and then removed the thing (the State of Utah says the removal had nothing to do with them) was tapping into a fertile vein of our collective psyche.
That vein is, I think, vastly more interesting than the monolith itself. In the final accounting, the monolith was a slightly re-arranged set of standard-issue metal sheets with some glue on the bottom, and therefore not, strictly speaking, a ‘monolith’ at all (the etymological clue there is in the ‘lith’). What gave it life was our response.
I don’t want to overstate the world’s inability to surprise us. We live in a surprising year. Twelve months ago, for instance, few would have believed how thoroughly a novel coronavirus might have dominated our lives; the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic is evidence that despite our apparent mastery of our domain, it still has plenty of surprises for us. But it’s worth, I think, drawing a line between surprising developments and surprising things.
We love surprises. There’s a joy in them. I recently found out that platypuses and wombats glow under ultraviolet light, which is an absolute delight. But we’re also starved of them. There’s a certain decadence about our understanding of the universe right now — it’s both deep and thorough, an age of scientific consolidation, and also obviously, frustratingly incomplete. In comparison to, say, the first half of the 20th century, the potential for surprise at the cultural level seems* somewhat limited.
*Going to emphasize ‘seems’ here — I’m not fool enough to discount interesting things happening in the immediate future.
I don’t think many folks seriously bought an extraterrestrial explanation for the Utah monolith’s origin. But I do think that it hinted at something we’re subconsciously hoping for, a deus ex astra that would resolve the weirdness of living in an over-engineered world by opening up whole new horizons. This is particularly relevant in 2020, where lockdowns across the world have badly limited the scope of our lives. The Utah monolith was, briefly, a mystery that managed to hint at an entire universe of other mysteries. As far as a temporary art installation goes, that’s not bad work.
Now leave the desert alone.