A photographer said four men dismantled the mysterious shiny object that has captivated the country. Two Utah residents said they took part in the removal.
Ross Bernards took moonlit photographs of his friend Peter Jans atop the monolith in southeastern Utah on Nov. 27. Moments later they witnessed its removal.Credit…Ross Bernards
- Published Dec. 1, 2020Updated Dec. 4, 2020
It was, by most standards, a short stay. The pop-up metal monolith that became the focus of international attention after it was spotted in a remote section of the Utah desert on Nov. 18 was dismantled just 10 days later. On Tuesday a local outdoorsman with a penchant for stunts claimed credit on social media for the sculpture’s removal.
The office of the San Juan County Sheriff at first announced that it was declining to investigate the case in the absence of complaints about missing property. To underscore that point, it uploaded a “Most Wanted” poster on its website, or rather a jokey version of one in which the faces of suspects were replaced by nine big-eyed aliens. But by the end of Monday, the sheriff’s office had reversed its position and announced that it was planning a joint investigation with the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency.
It was left to an adventure photographer, Ross Bernards, to disclose evidence on Instagram. Mr. Bernards, 34, of Edwards, Colo., was visiting the monolith on Friday night when, he said, four men arrived as if out of nowhere to dismantle the sculpture. Mr. Bernards had driven six hours for the chance to ogle the sculpture and to take dramatic photographs of it. Using upscale Lume Cube lights attached to a drone, he produced a series of glowy, moonlit pictures in which the monolith glistens against the red cliffs and the deep blue of the night sky.
Suddenly, around 8:40 p.m., he said, the men arrived, their voices echoing in the canyon. Working in twosomes, with an unmistakable sense of purpose, they gave the monolith hard shoves, and it started to tilt toward the ground. Then they pushed it in the opposite direction, trying to uproot it.
“This is why you don’t leave trash in the desert,” one of them said, suggesting that he viewed the monolith as an eyesore, a pollutant to the landscape, according to Mr. Bernards.
The sculpture popped out and landed on the ground with a bang. Then the men broke it apart and ferried it off in a wheelbarrow.
“As they walked off with the pieces, one of them said, ‘Leave no trace,’” Mr. Bernards recalled in a telephone interview.
Michael James Newlands said he took these cellphone photos of four men dismantling the monolith in Utah on Friday night. “They just came in there to execute and they were, like, ‘This is our mission,’” he said.Credit…Michael James Newlands “It must have been 10 or 15 minutes at most for them to knock over the monolith and pull it out,” Mr. Newlands said.Credit…Michael James Newlands
He did not photograph the men who took down the sculpture, saying he “didn’t want to start a confrontation by bringing out my camera and putting it in their face — especially since I agreed with what they were doing.”
But a friend who accompanied him on the trip, Michael James Newlands, 38, of Denver, took a few quick photographs with his cellphone.
“It must have been 10 or 15 minutes at most for them to knock over the monolith and pull it out,” he told The New York Times. “We didn’t know who they were, and we were not going to do anything to stop them.” He added, “They just came in there to execute and they were like, ‘This is our mission.’”
The photos are blurry, but they fascinate, nonetheless. Here are images of several men working beneath the cover of darkness, wearing gloves but not face masks, standing above the fallen monolith. We can see its exposed insides. It turns out to be a hollow structure with an armature made from plywood.
The photographs are the only known images of the culprits who removed the sculpture; they may not have been the same people who installed it in the first place.
On Tuesday, Andy L. Lewis, a professional sportsman in nearby Moab, Utah, took credit for the sculpture’s removal with his group, posting a video on his Facebook page. Mr. Lewis is a 34-year-old slackline performer who specializes in high-altitude stunts and brought his sport to Madonna’s 2012 Super Bowl halftime show.
His video consists of a short, shadowy clip, barely half a minute long, that shows the monolith lying in a wheelbarrow, as someone quickly rolls it out of the park. “The safe word is run,” one man says, as his headlamp illuminates the fallen sculpture.
His friend, Sylvan Christensen, who said he had taken part in the dismantling of the sculpture, sent a statement to The New York Times on Tuesday evening explaining that the group took it upon themselves to destroy the sculpture to protect the area — not only from the incursion of a silvery sculpture but also from the gawkers who had begun descending to see it. “This land wasn’t physically prepared for the population shift,” they wrote, adding that the public needs to be educated about proper land use and management.
But Mr. Lewis has not always been so supportive of the challenges faced by the Bureau of Land Management. He pleaded guilty in federal court in Utah in 2014 to lying to rangers at Arches National Park. He was accused of hindering their investigation into BASE jumping, a sport that Mr. Lewis practices. At the time, the Bureau of Land Management was trying to prohibit such aerial sports, which can damage the home of owls, bighorn sheep and other animals that inhabit the desert. Mr. Lewis was fined $965 and was put on 18-months probation, during which time he was prohibited from entering a national park.
Asked if they were focusing on any suspects, Alan Freestone, chief deputy with the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, said on Tuesday, “I know they have some leads, and that’s all we are saying right now.”
Artists had been casually speculating that whoever put the sculpture up probably had taken it down once it was discovered, as if aspiring to be anonymous artist-activists, the Banksy of the desert.
But art-world speculation had not yielded too many facts. Initially, the monolith was linked to John McCracken, a California-born artist who died in 2011 and harbored a taste for science fiction. David Zwirner, the New York art dealer who represents the artist’s estate and first identified the monolith as an authentic McCracken, stepped forward on Monday to tell The Times that he had studied photographs of it and no longer had any idea who had made it.
Almine Rech, who represents the artist at her galleries in Paris and Brussels, also contacted a reporter to deny that the desert monolith was a McCracken.
All of this leaves us not an iota closer to solving the mystery of who created the Utah sculpture.
On the plus side, the monolith that captivated the country over the past week, then disappeared as quickly as it entered public consciousness, continues to provide a pleasant sensation of uncertainty. Would it lose its aura and power if we knew who had created it?
Susan Beachy contributed research.