The hidden meaning in the mysterious monoliths appearing and disappearing around the world

The hidden meaning in the mysterious monoliths appearing and disappearing around the world
The monoliths that have recently appeared in Utah (L), Romania (C), and California (R).The Utah highway patrol/Facebook/Ziar Piatra Neamt/Courtesy of Nic Mattson/Atascadero News
  • On November 18, during a routine wildlife survey, state biologists discovered a strange metal monolith in a remote part of Utah.
  • Almost immediately, the monolith became a global sensation, spawning countless memes and even inspiring the creation of copycat monoliths in Romania and California.
  • In the quest to find out exactly what the monolith is, the most common explanation wasn't aliens or conspiracy, but instead that it was a work of art.
  • Though the monolith has commonly been described as a work of Land Art, the best way to understand it is through the lens of Net Art, a way of making art specifically on and for the internet.

For nearly 10 days, the world's hottest art wasn't in New York, Paris, or Los Angeles, but in the desolate Utah desert.

On November 18, a group of scientists was carrying out what they expected to be a completely routine survey of bighorn sheep in the area, when they encountered a strange, metal monolith. Almost instantly, their discovery took the world by storm, launching numerous investigations into its origins, countless memes, and even copycat monoliths in Romania and California, before the structure was dismantled under the cover of night on November 27.

Strangely enough, the mysterious object wasn't taken as the work of aliens, or evidence of a vast conspiracy, but instead was most commonly seen to be a work of art, which was seemingly validated when a prankster art collective took credit for the structure without providing many details.

Despite its largely mysterious origins, the monolith has largely been fit into the context of Land Art, an art movement dating back to the 1960s and '70s, where artists expanded the nature of sculpture to create artworks that were intimately tied to their environments and sometimes located in remote landscapes. At first glance, this seems to be an excellent explanation. After all, some of the most well-known works of Land Art, such as Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty" (1970) and Nancy Holt's "Sun Tunnels" (1976) are located in Utah.

Dig a bit deeper, however, and this quickly gives way.


Though some people made the trek to the desert to see the monolith in person, most of the attention paid to the monolith has taken place online, with individuals reacting to it on the internet and social media. The ideas behind Land Art cannot account for the frenzy of attention, but turning to the history and techniques of Net Art can help to illustrate just what it is about the monolith that has enticed so many.

Why the monoliths defy Land Art

Essential to Land Art was the notion of "site-specificity," meaning that the artwork was necessarily tied to its particular location - sort of an art version of saying "well, you had to be there."

Land Art might have spread through images and documentation, but the art itself was focused on creating interventions in the landscape that generated particular experiences in the viewer. However, as the monolith has spread so quickly not only through the internet - acting as a backdrop for photos and the inspiration for memes from people and corporations alike - but also through the copycat versions in very different environments, it becomes clear that there's nothing "site-specific" about the monolith that draws our interest. In fact, it's hard to really pinpoint anything specific about the monolith at all: it's nothing more than a plain, metal box plopped in the middle of a desert.

The vagueness of the monolith mirrors the mystery surrounding it.

Until we know for certain who made it and why, an endless number of theories and ideas can circulate, allowing it to tap into anyone and everyone's interests. Here, the monolith seems to resemble not so much Land Art as it does a much more recent form of artmaking: Net Art.


MTAA's now-iconic work "Simple Net Art Diagram" (1997) illustrates how art functions online

The hidden meaning in the mysterious monoliths appearing and disappearing around the world
A popular net art diagram.MTAA, 1997, digital image

The monoliths look more like Net Art

Born alongside the rise of the internet in the 1990s, Net Art was a new kind of art that was made in and distributed through the internet. Without the contextualization of the "white cube" - the standardized space of museums and galleries that separates art from the rest of the world - Net Art tended to create a kind of "accidental audience" that might not know that what they were seeing was art.

After all, encountering a work of Net Art was often no different than visiting any other web page, and in many cases they were indistinguishable. Far from limiting the potential of these kinds of works, the lack of contextualization was often seen as a benefit and was explicitly explored by artists, who retained a certain sense of indifference as to whether a viewer regarded their work as art or not.

The hidden meaning in the mysterious monoliths appearing and disappearing around the world
This image was part of net artist David Horvitz's "Mood Disorder" project and was uploaded to Wikipedia.Tellmeimok/Wikimedia

The work of artist David Horvitz, for example, has surely been seen by viewers around the world who will never know they are looking at an artwork. In his work "Mood Disorder," for example, Horvitz created an image that was intentionally meant to look like a stock image of depression, and uploaded it to Wikipedia where it became the photo for the page "Mood Disorder," and then went on to circulate through numerous other websites who sourced it as a royalty-free image.

In the realm of social media, the collective Tumblr blog "the Jogging," similarly explored the ways in which art could captivate people's attention by creating images intended to travel through the internet divorced from their original understandings and context. No image could be fully understood in and of itself - a macbook in a bath, a baguette beer koozie - but they were strange and fascinating. As they spread through social media, they became increasingly divorced from their original context, and as meaning moved ever further out of reach, their lure and appeal only increased.


A post shared by virtu (@virtucontemporaryart)

The monolith works in exactly the same way. A bizarre object stripped from any understandable knowable context, it offers no objective truth to discover, only an open-ended mystery. Far from being a flaw, the monolith's unknowability is the very source of its power, allowing it to act as a sort of lightning rod attracting any and all beliefs and interests. It's no mistake that these formerly underground tactics have since become a kind of "viral" marketing, which in turn explains why so many people have reacted with wariness to the monolith, worrying that it might just be a lead up to a big ad campaign.

As is so often the case with a mystery, reaching a conclusion can only lead to disenchantment. Without its sense of possibility, the monolith is just another strange thing that happened. In a recent New York Times article investigating the Utah monolith's disappearance, the authors stopped to wonder, "would it lose its aura and power if we knew who had created it?"

The answer, of course, is yes