Unearthing a monolith, a man and our own meaning

Photo of Utah Monolith
Patrick A. Mackie/Creative Commons
(Photo by Patrick A. Mackie under CC BY-SA 4.0 .)

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Southeastern Utah is a remote landscape, characterized by mazes of bizarre red rock formations and rugged plateaus. Those who find themselves here might as well be on Mars. It was here that Utah state employees, flying overhead to count bighorn sheep in the region, spotted something that stood out against the vast expanse of red rock: a silver, 10-foot monolith drilled into the ground.

If you’ve been worried that 2020 will end with an alien invasion, the recent discovery and subsequent disappearance of the science fiction-esque monolith probably did little to ease your mind. But fret not: It’s likely that the monolith was not the work of extraterrestrial life but that of the late John McCracken, a renowned minimalist artist who was born in Berkeley in 1934. He honed his skills as a sculptor at an art school in Oakland in the ’50s and ’60s, and it was here that he found his trademark West Coast, minimalist style.

For those familiar with McCracken’s art, it’s strikingly obvious why the deceased artist has become a focal point of the monolith mystery: Throughout his career, McCracken produced a variety of steel sculptures that look nearly identical to the monolith placed in Utah. His work is predominantly composed of free-standing, metallic and triangular structures. Besides the striking resemblance between McCracken’s art and the monolith, reports from his son, Patrick McCracken, make it plausible that John McCracken is the man behind the monolith.

The most compelling evidence is a conversation the father-and-son pair had in the spring of 2002, when John McCracken lived in a small adobe house in New Mexico.

“We were standing outside looking at the stars, and he said something to the effect of that he would like to leave his artwork in remote places to be discovered later,” Patrick McCracken told The New York Times. “He wasn’t your average sort of dad. He believed in advance alien races that were able to visit Earth. To his mind, these aliens had been visiting Earth for a very long time, and they were not malevolent. They wanted to help humanity to get past this time of our evolution where all we do is fight each other.”

John McCracken died of a brain tumor in 2011 at the age of 76. The monolith was forged from stainless steel, a material that would not have degraded due to the elements, even over the course of a decade. Between when John McCracken learned of his terminal illness and when he succumbed to it, he could have placed the monolith in Utah to be discovered a decade later. If that is the case, John McCracken pulled off the prank of a lifetime, even though he wasn’t here for the punchline.

This story leaves us wondering: Could he have placed other pieces in the Mars-like landscapes of Utah, New Mexico, Nevada or Arizona? Could there be more desert treasures hidden in the red rocks by John McCracken, simply waiting to be discovered? I sure hope so.

It’s easy to feel small and meaningless, especially now that the majority of our life takes place online and our planet seems to be plagued by insurmountable problems. To me, the monolith serves as a gentle reminder that what we leave behind on Earth matters and will continue to matter long after we are gone. Even if it isn’t John McCracken’s monolith, I’d like to believe that it is. There is something indescribably poetic about a dying artist hiding futuristic sculptures in the desert as a small ode to an alien race that could one day land on Earth and save humanity. 

And while the monolith has now vanished as quickly as it appeared, it still lives vividly in my imagination. The alienlike monolith, unearthed in the final few months of 2020 — a year pulled directly from a dystopian novel playbook — may have surpassed even John McCracken’s wildest extraterrestrial dreams.

Sarah Siegel is a deputy blog editor. Contact Sarah Siegel at [email protected].