How Will I Ever Get Out of This Monolith?

“I want you to imagine a desert, stretching out as far as your eyes can see. In this desert is a cube.”

by Eileen Cartter
Nov 27 2020, 3:06pm

Image via the Utah Department of Public Safety

Update: As of December 4, in the week since this piece was published (when will singular weeks stop feeling like entire months again?), there have been a suspicious number of Monolith Happenings. First, the original disappeared from the Utah desert; a new monolith showed up (and vanished) in Romania and then another in California; racists live-streamed themselves quite literally blasphemously destroying the California monolith; we reached “monolith fatigue.” To a shrewd skeptic, this whole thing may reek of “marketing ploy” (either premeditated or ex post facto). Either way, let’s face it—the memes are good. And sometimes that’s all we have.

A few years back, I started working at an ice cream shop in an especially cold month of January. We, reasonably, didn’t have many customers coming in then, and on one of those quiet days, as we stood behind the line mindlessly eating sample spoons of each flavor, my new coworker suggested we play “the cube game.” The game goes as follows:

The narrator tells the player to imagine they are standing in a desert, and that there is a cube in this desert scene—what does the cube look like? Once the player describes their cube aloud, the narrator asks the player to describe a ladder that is also in the scene. This process continues with flowers, a horse, and finally, a storm.

The cube game, or the cube personality test, is apparently an exercise in the Japanese psychology of Kokology, a late-’90s phenomenon centered on answering hypothetical questions to reveal one’s deep psyche, designed to provoke self-knowledge and deep conversation. The player’s descriptions of the cube, the ladder, the horse, and so on can then be interpreted as metaphors for their self-image, friends, ideal lover, et al. At the very least, it’s a fine way to kill an hour working at an empty ice cream store in January.

This week, the Utah Department of Public Safety dispatched that a wildlife team, which was counting bighorn sheep via helicopter, spotted something strange among the red rocks. It was a three-sided metal monolith, 10 to 12 feet tall, its existence offering no explanation as to its origins or purpose. Sheep, nowhere to be found.

Almost like… an imagined cube in the desert. Just vibing.

What can we glean from this mystery monolith—this smooth metal mass, startlingly beautiful against the burnt sienna sandstone? Maybe the universe bestowed this cube upon us for the sheer purpose of killing time at the tail-end of this limbo-hellscape year. But if the monolith is how we see ourselves, why do we feel so…clinical? Are the absent sheep the horse/“lover,” and if that’s the case, where can we find them? (Ha ha!) And, while we’re at it, where does this fit in the cube-in-a-desert spectrum between 2001: A Space Odyssey’s matte black slab and the Prada Marfa store? (If a Prada store exists in the desert, does it make a sale?)

Are they the ladder? Image: Utah Department of Public Safety

One could argue that the Kokology exercise is missing a crucial inquiry, which this real-life mystery monolith in Utah only emphasizes: why is there a cube in the desert, and how did it get there in the first place? (Of course, the game relies on a degree of cognitive dissonance, but then again, so does… life.) Was this monolith put in Utah’s Red Rock Country by extraterrestrials, perhaps from one of the estimated 36 contactable alien civilizations? The inexplicability is as vital as the analysis. 

Of course, this is, very likely, actually just art. Found deep off the road about 17 miles from Moab, comparisons have been made to the work of the Minimalist sculptor John McCracken. A spokesperson for David Zwirner gallery, which represented the artist, told The Art Newspaper, “While this is not a work by the late American artist John McCracken, we suspect it is a work by a fellow artist paying homage to McCracken.” In a statement printed in the New York Times, Zwirner himself said, “The gallery is divided on this,” adding, “I believe this is definitely by John.”

But is it also, very likely, definitely aliens.

the internet
mysterious mysteries
David Zwirner