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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jonathan Jones

Mystery of the monoliths: if only it were aliens

Time to stop standing for it? A monolith on a hill outside Piatra Neamt, northern Romania.
Time to stop standing for it? A monolith on a hill outside Piatra Neamt, northern Romania. Photograph: Robert Iosub/AP

Someone had to spoil it. That could be the motto of the social media age when things that begin as wonders become mere memes. Now our inability to let well alone is turning the most mysterious art happening of 2020 into another tedious prank.

Strange metal monoliths are materialising everywhere, in California, Romania, the Isle of Wight and, according to the latest reports, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain. Their rate of appearance is quickening: barely 24 hours separate photos of the lone sentinel on the Isle of Wight’s Compton Beach and the new European manifestations. As these silent messengers follow those seen at wider intervals in Utah, California and Romania it seems that their message is becoming more urgent, the time of their revelation imminent.

People inspect a metal monolith in a field in Baasrode, Belgium, this week.
Getting the point ... visitors inspect a metal monolith in a field in Baasrode, Belgium, this week. Photograph: Stéphanie Lecocq/EPA

Except no one believes that. They are certainly a great global diversion at the end of a wretched year. But as with a brilliant stunt by Banksy, we are all in on the joke. There’s even speculation Banksy is behind them, naturellement. And he might as well be, for all the apocalyptic terror the monoliths arouse. The social media chat is about “aliens”, not aliens.

It would be ironic if these structures really are the work of highly intelligent extraterrestrials trying to make first contact – but we’re so jaded by art pranks and sci-fi cliches that we’re taking it for an elaborate stunt. “Earthlings, we wished to impart the secret of the universe, but you are too cynical,” they’ll lament as they obliterate us.

A Utah state worker next to the red rock country monolith.
Where it all began ... a Utah state worker next to the red rock country monolith. Photograph: AP

Everyone recognises the monuments’ similarity to the Sentinels in Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke’s 2001. If they really were like those slender black plinths that change the course of human history, they might be our much-needed salvation.

The similarity between the new “sentinels” and the ones from 2001 is sadly the most damning evidence that these are made by mere human artists. As they crop up all over the place, it’s also becoming clear their construction is all too earthly – no unrecognised metals or inexplicable manufacture. The National Trust said the object on its land on the Isle of Wight seemed “secure on a wooden plinth” and that it was made from “mirrored sections of plastic or Perspex material”. That’s a bit ordinary. And to add another banal twist an organisation called The Most Famous Artist claims authorship of the columns in Utah and California, offering replicas for $45,000 (£34,000) .

It’s a shame to see a magic trick exposed, in a year when we could all do with believing in miracles. For the discovery of the first monolith on 18 November was truly uncanny. Biologists surveying sheep in the red rock country of Utah spotted a shiny object from their helicopter and went in for a closer look. The monolith was far from human habitation or hiking trails and is thought to have gone unnoticed in the wilderness since being erected in summer 2016. So a very patient artist must have been content to let this monument go unseen for years, until it finally happened to be found. That does create mystery and awe. It even makes you question common-sense explanations.

Richard Serra’s Fulcrum outside Liverpool Street Station, London, in 1995.
Walls of steel ... Richard Serra’s Fulcrum outside Liverpool Street Station, London, in 1995. Photograph: Tom Stoddart Archive/Getty Images

But the people who removed it by night on 27 November were perhaps art critics making an aesthetic judgment. For this and all the monoliths have a big weakness as art. They look good, with their smooth, reflective surfaces coolly mirroring nature: the red landscape caught in the glossy shine of the Utah pillar and the Isle of White sculpture’s reflections of beach and sea are alluring in photographs. Yet there’s something tacky about placing a synthetic metal or plastic object in a wild location. It’s not an alien mystery, just human pollution.

Since the 1960s, land artists have tried to make monuments that are ecologically sensitive and more truly poetic. In Utah itself, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is a giant arrangement of stones that disappears and reappears depending on how much water is in the Great Salt Lake. If you are ever hiking and come across a small cairn or just an arrangement of sticks, it may mean the artist Richard Long has walked that way. Even Wiltshire’s crop circles, a hoax that has gone on since the 1970s, are sensitive to their location: they get ploughed again and won’t leave a trace to confuse future archaeologists.

Compared with these modern masterpieces of land art, the shiny monoliths are unmysterious and becoming less so by the day. Their global proliferation is ingenious but as art they are derivative, even kitsch parodies of modernist sculpture. They echo, but in a cheap and shallow way, Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk or the steel walls of Richard Serra.

We’ve never needed mystery more. And for a moment there, for all their faults when you scrutinise them as art, the sentinels were sublime. Please, whoever is responsible, stop now while there’s still a shred of the marvellous in this diversion from our mundane apocalypse.

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