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The stainless steel monolith that was discovered in the red canyons of Utah's desert Credit: Image via Wikimedia Commons

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The frenzy about the Utah obelisk strikes a nerve with me as an artist born and raised in the region, who does research-based work in and about landscape, and now lives in Miami — a place where I find myself having to constantly translate the complicated issues of land use and management in the western states to audiences who are largely unfamiliar. As part of a Utah-based cohort who for years has been struggling to distill and communicate critical issues about contemporary art in Utah to the larger art world, this whole whodunnit internet sensation is silly and eye-rolly, but also frustrating.

I won’t waste time parsing the artistic merits of the Utah obelisk illegally installed on public land (for me there are none). Plenty of others have offered utterly baffling praises and desperate accreditation that perpetuate the religion of minimalism and the auteur in the desert when there are many more apposite issues embedded in the land of the western United States.

In the region, BLM — shorthand for the Bureau of Land Management — is a common topic and source of contention. This federal entity and largest landholder in the US has a complex history that is inextricably tied to land acquisition (violent dispossession) for the purpose of securing resources, building the railroad, grazing cattle, and homesteading the westward-expanding nation. BLM land is what folks are usually referring to when discussing “public lands.” These are theoretically owned by the US public and free to use by all, but are still maintained, managed, and leased to commercial entities such as extraction companies and cattle ranchers by the federal government. The BLM also owns and manages thousands of archeological sites and vast acreages of Indigenous ancestral lands.

A map of federally managed land in the US via the US Geological Survey

The gawking fascination with the obelisk taps into larger, fundamental behavioral problems that are holdovers from colonizing the frontier. Be it rancher militias, outdoor adventure and lifestyle industries, fossil fuel companies, billionaire land barons, off-road vehicle lovers or tourists, there is lot of self-interest and myopia in the public’s regard of the iconic American west. This baked-in entitlement supersedes and threatens the erasure of Indigenous tribes who consider the area their ancestral homeland, sacred beyond the borders that attempt to hem it in.

What to investigate here is emphatically not whether it was a damn John McCracken; also it doesn’t matter whether it was a famous artist or a sci-fi nerd who made the thing. Centering this  symbol while treating the site like a green screen is boring, but also negligent. The question is what belies these gestures and why we qualify them under an art pretext. This polished metal imposition plants a flag in a place with existing culture and objects. The art world and insta-tourists alike would do well to be more discerning when it comes to interpreting and making pilgrimages to sites like this.  

In the case of the obelisk, a year’s worth of disrespectful visitation was condensed into a week, leaving nasty byproducts such as human waste, trash, and busted cryptobiotic crust behind. The installation of the work itself, on what is currently public land, but that was formerly part of the Bears Ears National Monument before it was reduced by President Trump in 2017, is also a grave act of entitlement. The establishment of the monument represented years of coordinated effort by a coalition of five tribes — Hopi, Diné, Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Zuni — and rallied much of the public to support additional environmental protections. Boundary aside, it remains in the vicinity of thousands of archaeological sites with ties to dozens of tribes that for years have been vandalized and looted, even resulting a few times in federal raids of a nearby town that uncovered tens of thousands of extracted and hoarded artifacts. Incautious, uneducated, internet-induced visitation cannot be taken lightly. The obelisk spectacle further eclipses the deep history of the site. “We have done so much work on reclaiming the narrative of the Bears Ears landscape,” says Ahjani Yepa (Pueblo), Pueblo Community Outreach Coordinator for Utah Diné Bikéyah,“so much work to remind people that this is Indigenous land.”

The Utah Monolith was located near the Lockhart Basin in the former boundary of the Bears Ears National Monument (image courtesy Stephanie Smith, Grand Canyon Trust).

To continue idolizing formalist, site-appropriating landscape art, and its 21st century viral successor that the Utah obelisk exemplifies, is to uphold many of the same conquest behaviors that settled the region, and to feed the meme machine at this moment in time is to actively be harmful in a way I worry people don’t understand. Even though the heralded land artists of the1960s went through the proper channels, scaling mountains of bureaucracy to make land acquisitions, many of the works still operate wittingly or not on the notion of wastelanding and manifest destiny. Though we may covet these works, assuming that large swaths of land in the remote desert are uninhabited blank slates available for our personal monuments is extremely problematic. It is also essentially the same conjectural pathway that enabled the military-industrial complex to devastate much of the region. Trying to use this same rubric now to frame a comparatively much smaller homage being placed illegally in a vulnerable area that has been steeped in complex land politics for years — and that several extant indigenous tribes consider their homeland — is deficient. We are remiss if we don’t update our notions and deepen our read on land art. Privileging the individual and their achievement in marking/claiming the land over the existing histories and fragile environments is the same old bullshit, is it not?

It’s no exaggeration that geotagging, and social media and internet tourism are the updated version of photography as propaganda to settle the West. As commonplace and innocuous as they may seem, these activities serve as insidious invitations to come and take and claim — be it a daring selfie standing atop something or a photo for your sponsored Instagram account. They are also updated versions of effacing Indigenous history, and are part of a continuing cascade of extraction and exploitation.

Now that the obelisk has been dismantled, and the site used up, the credit-claiming mania is setting in, and *spolier alert* it’s rife with white bros — from the Reddit user who spilled the coordinates, to the first blogger to climb on top of it and further the FOMO, to the slackline and base-jumping adventurers who revealed it was they who removed it. (Why not remain anonymous?) The latest and grossest turn was made by a collective known for stunts like this, leveraging the dubious speculation that they were responsible for the original and offering editions of the “Utah Monolith” for $45,000. I’m not interested in mentioning any of them by name. But the frustration and rage I feel about this, as I was aptly reminded by Alastair Lee Bitsóí (Diné), freelance journalist and writer, is the norm for Indigenous communities. Yepa observes “There was a real missed opportunity, along with the removal of the obelisk, for restorative justice.” I suppose all this, in addition to the debased marketing grabs by companies like McDonald’s, Jeep, and Zwirner Gallery — who has an upcoming John McCracken show in spring — offer a troublingly accurate depiction of who we (still) are: opportunists trying to turn a buck off a glinting spectacle in stolen land.

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Cara Despain

Cara Despain is an artist who through writing, research, and field work addresses issues of land use and ownership, climate change, the challenge of visualizing the Anthropocene, and frontierism. She was...