Aliens did it. The internet’s favourite answer may, in the case of a metal monolith discovered in Utah’s backcountry, be almost plausible.
The object was spotted from a helicopter last week by the Utah Department of Public Safety. They were conducting a count of big horn sheep in the remote red-rock canyons of southeastern Utah. The agency did not reveal the exact location, but they warned: “It is in a very remote area” and there is “a significant possibility [that visitors] may become stranded and require rescue”.
Online sleuthing has revealed its apparent location on Google Earth, though. Identified by its telltale shadow, it stands isolated among tangled whorls of rosy sandstone. But how long has it been there? And who put it there?
The crew landed and made their way down to the object to investigate further. In a video they filmed of the incident, one jokes: “OK, the intrepid explorers go down to investigate the alien life form.”
The pilot, Bret Hutchings, told the local news station KSL-TV that as they approached: “We were kind of joking around that if one of us suddenly disappears, then I guess the rest of us make a run for it.”
The crew, though, remained unteleported - and released pictures of them clambouring on the object and standing on each others’ shoulders to demonstrate its impressive height.
But that didn’t stop the internet lighting up when the agency released news of their find on Tuesday. Many noted the object’s resemblance to the matte-black monoliths of Stanley Kubrick’s landmark sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that film, these alien artefacts accelerate mankind’s development from murderous ape-men to omniscient intergalactic star children.
No such evolution has been detected among the helicopter crew. So far.
Rumours the object was a leftover film prop have been quashed, too. Despite the otherworldly landscape of Utah’s Red Rock Country forming the backdrop to many films, such as Indiana Jones, Star Trek and Mission Impossible, a spokesperson from Utah’s Film Commission told The New York Times: “To our knowledge, the monolith that was found in Utah this week is not from a film production.”
To date, the most plausible theory is that the monolith is an artwork. It bears close resemblance to the work of Californian sculptor John McCracken who lived in nearby New Mexico and died in 2011.
The David Zwirner Gallery, who represent his work, lent weight to the idea: “While this is not a work by the late American artist John McCracken, we suspect it is a work by a fellow artist paying homage to McCracken.”
McCracken trained at the California College of Arts in the late 1950s and early 60s. And he began exhibiting soon after graduating. He started experimenting with three-dimensional canvases and, by 1966, had settled on his signature sculptural form - Minimalist freestanding plank sculptures, often made with industrial materials like plywood, metal and reflective resins. He also frequently exhibited outdoors: the sharp, austere lines of his sculptures contrasting with softer natural backdrops; their uncanny mirrored surfaces reflecting and blending into the world around.
A big shiny monolith in the desert, then, wouldn’t be out of character.
The trouble, as one Reddit user pointed out, is that there are few signs of weathering on the object. By back-dating Google Earth footage, they posited it was likely the monolith arrived around five years ago - half a decade after McCracken’s death.
It would also be “hard to carry, in a practical way”. And they suggested it was likely made of hollow high-grade steel and “assembled on site”.
But the mystery remains of how it got there. There are no roads nearby, and no signs of drag marks or tyre tracks visible in the photos or video footage. The Reddit commentator argued that a vehicle must have been involved, given the weight of the object: “Unless this person is physically endowed or had tremendous time, patience and resources to drag such a thing on its own, through a desert.”
The wilds of southwest United States hum with artistic ley lines. The Land Art movement, in particular, took to this unearthly landscape. Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty can be found on the Great Salt Lake, and Michael Heizer’s 1969 Double Negative is near the Utah border in Nevada.
But the area is also famous for the site of the annual Burning Man festival, which has long been associated with the wacky and countercultural. It was cancelled this year because of Covid-19. “Artists/burners/pranksters got plenty of time on their hands,” noted another Reddit sleuth.
Cosmic gateway. Elaborate prank. Homage to a renegade sculptor. Whatever the monolith means, and however it arrived, it has certainly confirmed one thing. There are few words more likely to tantalise the internet than: aliens did it.