It must have been a slow week of news, or maybe it needed reporters dumped by the virus and the elections just needed a little holiday cheer, because on November 23rd, when some sheep counters in Utah made their discovery of the strange steel shaft in a Red Rock Gorge announced near Moab the media went crazy. The so-called Utah Monolith has been covered by CNN, Fox and USA Today. To date, the New York Times has published four stories about it, with international art actors speculating about the sculptor’s identity, who remains unknown. Stephen Colbert dedicated his “Mono-Logue” to the object.
By the morning of November 24th, photographers, Instagram self-promoters and other Yahoo! found the unknown location and descended in droves to post the coordinates and directions online. A crew of reality TV guys with beards and muscles landed in a helicopter, filmed themselves measuring the thing, recorded phones using latitude and compass direction, produced a fiber optic stepladder, and took selfies on the top. The Bureau of Land Management posted pictures of dozens of cars and RVs roaming the zone, fresh tire marks on fragile floors and toilet paper flapping in the wind. The Insta-famous steel plate was intended to replace the void left by the removal of the Into the Wild school bus in Alaska and take over the mantle of the world’s dumbest backcountry shrine.
It was a short time. After dark on Friday evening, November 27th, four men with powerful headlights and a wobbly wheelbarrow unceremoniously pushed the tower into the dirt, tore it from the foundation and pulled it away to warn the audience: “That happens when They let rubbish in the desert. “Two Moab slackliners, Andy Lewis and Sylvan Christiansen, paid tribute to the distance on Facebook.
While reporters were largely preoccupied with the funny questions of who did it and who undone it, the internet basements seething with scolding. While many loved the elegant work of art made all the more sublime by the artist’s invisibility, others condemned the intrusion of man-made objects into the pristine desert. When some attacked Lewis and Christiansen for undemocratic art removal, others praised them for taking decisive action to close a circus.
So who is right? The artist or the art destroyer? Or both?
First, I think we can state that this steel plate is not “junk”. It is a beautiful piece carefully composed in accordance with a dry waterfall in a shallow amphitheater. But what makes it great is less the structure than the process. The artist probably installed it in secret years ago. They did not take credit, hosted a gala opening, or posted anything online. It feels like the purest artistic vision: a perfectly executed work without the recognition, ego, or money that drives the rare gallery world. The play makes me think of coyotes and ravens (well, it got my wife to think first, and then she suggested I think about it), to examine their reflections. It makes me think about the awe of loneliness and later, after discovering it, how easily that awe is corrupted.
One of the media obsessions was determining the artist’s identity. Several prominent sculptors have been named. Which begs the question, if this were the work of a famous artist, would it make that “important”? Would that make the removal more or less likely? I tend to believe that an artist able to make and install the piece in such a remote location could also understand that his power lies in his anonymous secret.
Rather than view it as vandalism or a prank, let’s put it under the Land Art category, whose rich history to the west includes Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah, James Turrell’s Roden Crater in Arizona, and Michael Heizer’s town in Nevada. The footbridge was legally installed in 1970 and has become a popular destination, but I wonder if it would have been lambasted in the age of social media. The latter two are on private land, are not open to the public, and therefore have escaped environmental reasons. The monolith also belongs to a second category: guerrilla art, that is, prohibited public art that serves a higher purpose; it makes us think, laugh, admire and, last but not least, question the purpose of art. I am thinking of the Land Use Interpretation Center, Loudspeakers were installed in a forest here, playing the sound of a falling tree and Earth First opening a “crack” in the front of Glen Canyon Dam.
If we can establish that it is art and fine art (which I don’t think we can ever agree on), we can address the issue of country ethics. After all, it might be okay for one of us to head out into the desert, gather the rundown old juniper, and make a blazing campfire. But when dozens or hundreds do, the desert loses its soul and becomes a hearth with tire tracks. I agree that if everyone decided to build a metal masterpiece on inaccessible public spaces, we would have a problem. And while copycat versions have already been found in Romania and California, the cost and logistics alone seem to be preventing a major outbreak. If we want to be purists of pristine nature, we’d better focus our anger on things like roads, mines, and national parks that change the landscape much more dramatically than this monolith. As for intent to condemn art placed on public land, Mount Rushmore is the largest fish carved into sacred Lakota lands that were contracted to the tribe and then stolen by the United States.
Now what about the ethics of removing the monolith? The San Juan County sheriff declined to investigate. The sculpture was initially there illegally, and who was the victim after it was captured? The artist? The country? The public? One could argue that the removers had no right to remove the object. Who appointed them environmental ethics suppliers? And there is something unsettling about the deed when we remember how members of the Taliban dynamized old Buddhist towers and took it upon themselves to determine what is decent.
But I don’t see the distance as a judgment on art itself, its merits, or even its right to exist. As Christiansen wrote in a Facebook comment on one of his own posts, this was a means of stopping the Lookie Loos caravan: “The artist’s ethical failure for the 24th [inch] The equilateral furrow in the sandstone from the construction of the Utah Monolith was nowhere near as great as the damage caused by internet sensationalism and the world’s subsequent reaction. “
You have taken the kind of quick and determined action that the BLM cannot (for good reason) do. I may not want these bastards (I mean that with the utmost respect) to be elected to Congress or to work as dog catchers, but this specific action seems ethical.
So are there any ethical mistakes in the weeklong life of the Silver Tower? The actions of the internet experts and YouTubers were funny to look at, but selfish and irresponsible. The purpose of posting the videos, of course, is to earn clicks and advertising money. While the artist did all the work and didn’t get recognition, these brothers are trying to use the art without doing the work. I see no ethical defense for taking the place and instructions to a place that is sure to be overrun. The man who claimed to be the first to find the site wrote on Instagram: “I had it to myself for about 10 minutes in the morning before people showed up, but overall not too crowded for you to all make the trip That statement distills the toxic effects of social media on the wilderness: I got my minutes of fame, then it was trampled, but you should go too and don’t forget to hit the subscribe button.
The beauty of the silver tower was its loneliness. To be sublime, it had to be alone. And as soon as people “found” it, it lost its magic. Isn’t that the path of all arches, waterfalls, and ravines? So perfect in its anonymity, so destroyed by a race that can’t stand to leave beauty alone. The desolate canyon will be just as beautiful without the obelisk, and now those who want to get off the beaten path can enjoy it, and thousands just like it without fighting the lightning of the #Explorers. The rapid flash of metal is outlasted by the timeless erosion of the earth, the trickle of red sand finds its way to the river, to the sea.