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This Earth Day, we look back on the cultural significance of the monolith: from age-old monuments to new-age movie moments.

A sheep researcher is one of the less likely candidates to stumble across a soon-to-be globally renowned piece of public art, but, hey, these are the times we’re living in. Gliding over southeastern Utah last November, the aforementioned biologist told pilot Bret Hutchings to slam on the brakes. ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, turn around, turn around!’ he’s reported as saying. ‘There’s this thing back there!’

This thing, no less, was a monolith. Monoliths – literally, huge ‘single stones’ – have always had an enduring magic for mere mortals. Whether naturally formed, like Californian backpacker-magnet El Capitan, or manmade, like Stonehenge, there’s something supernatural about them that takes them beyond just a lump of old rock. Just take a look at the man-bun, mandala-clad mob that heads to the latter every year for the summer solstice, looking to, quite literally, get stoned (we’ve all been there, no shade).

Since the dawn of human civilization, we’ve always had a thing for setting things in stone. From engraved engagement rings to carved gravestones, neanderthal cave paintings to inscribed commandments, there’s something definite about it that makes its message feel equally imperishable. Stone, in its gravelly voice, speaks to us.

What made this monolith a little more intriguing, though, was it wasn’t stone at all. Rather, it was surrounded by it (red sandstone rock). As the researchers discovered when descending, it was three metres of metal sheets riveted together: and like the structure, the artist had bolted, leaving no clues as to its origin. Following a photo of it being shared on the Utah Department of Public Safety’s Instagram (again, one of the less likely accounts to go viral), Google Earth keyboard explorers quickly identified it had been standing unnoticed for half a decade, gathering the pink-wafer dust of the acrid Lockhart Basin.

For those with a disposition for all things Sci-Fi, it looked all too familiar. Stanley Kubrick’s iconic cosmic opera 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on Arthur C. Clarke’s The Sentinel, featured similarly futuristic metallic structures, known as TMA-1 and TMA-2 Monoliths, also sitting atop barren rock. These, however, weren’t made for herding sheep experts: they were built by extraterrestrials seeking to initiate evolution on Earth. In the film’s opening, the great apes cluster around it, causing the structure to empower them with new knowledge of how to use tools and progress as a species.

The mob that descended upon Utah’s monolith, shortly after it went viral, seemingly weren’t imbued with such groundbreaking energy. Something strange, though, did happen. In the following weeks, monoliths kept appearing. Everywhere.

From a golf course in Austria, to a hill in Romania; a wildlife park in India to a construction site in Morocco; a waterfall in Bolivia to a school in Scotland, similar structures were secretly installed at breakneck speed. Many disappeared as quickly as they appeared; others, have stayed firmly put, still standing. All were linked by an attempt to replicate the aura at the heart of the original, to elicit the same ‘Whoa’ uttered thousands of feet up in the air in Utah.

In many ways, these formations are pieces of art, with many literally part of the art world. A Glastonbury monolith found in early December was printed with ‘Not Banksy’, while another UK structure, found in the Isle of Wight, was designed and then auctioned by sculptor Tom Dunford. This monumental movement follows a recent interest in making the Sculpture, once thought to be definitive and unmovable, into something malleable. Earlier in the year, sculptures of racist figures across the UK, most prominently Edward Colston, were gloriously toppled, replaced on occasions with new sculptures overnight. In London, too, artist Fiona Banner and Greenpeace dumped a huge stone boulder to protest against illegal fishing in the UK.

It’s clear why this spontaneous approach to sculpture has caught on. From Kubrick’s gorilla sculptures to the guerilla sculpture movement of late, monoliths tap into our shared desire for the immediate, the urgent and the spiritual. While recent decades have seen this via rigs being set-up in fields in hours for raves, or street art appearing overnight, we’ve turned to something rockier. It says absolutely nothing and yet everything at once, a solid object that somehow tethers people across the world together, via some sort of buzzy inner shared language.   

It’s fair to say that it may be something of a craze, another internet-built hype that dies down as soon as it gets going. While many are still popping up, they are less and less structurally impressive, and more suited now to mid-lunch tabloid material and local news fodder. It does feel, though, that unlike killer clowns or the blue whale challenge, this has more staying power than a cheap gimmick. Nothing represents our times better than a monolith: it symbolises the continuing evolution of humankind, its simultaneous permanence and impermanence representing truths previously thought to be set in stone breaking down, crumbling in place of new formations.

Well, either that, or it really is just a lump of old rock.

Words by Kyle MacNeill / main image by Patrick A. Mackie

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