The shiny, steel structure, that was 10-12 feet tall, was installed firmly in the canyon’s rock floor.
Authorities were at a loss for words to explain when and how such a structure was transported to the canyon. A few days later the structure vanished into thin air, after which monoliths were seen in Romania and California, only to go missing without a trace.
Some observers were quick to point out the monolith shared similarities with a structure first seen in American director Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that film, a black monolith of alien origin is spotted by a group of hominids and goes on to change the course of human evolution. Others placed the onus on the resurgence of the Land Art Movement of the 1960s which focussed on creating works of art devoid of modern day consumerist trappings, made of earthy materials, and located in inaccessible regions. The enigma surrounding these mysterious sightings made for a welcome diversion during a week filled with news of extreme weather and COVID paranoia. But it also is a reminder of the curious lengths that artistes go to, when it comes to exhibiting works of a subversive kind.
At the turn of the millennium, a yet-to be-identified British graffiti artiste who only goes by the moniker Banksy made his presence felt in the London art scene when he painted a wall mural titled The Mild Mild West.
It was in response to riot police attacking partygoers who had occupied abandoned warehouses in Bristol to hold rave parties during the 90s. The mural featured a teddy bear flinging a Molotov cocktail at a group of soldiers. While Banksy grew as an artiste, so did the popularity of his anti-war, anti-capitalist manifesto. In 2005, he travelled to Palestinian territories and created nine images on the Israeli West Bank Wall. One of his famous works includes a mural of a masked rioter lobbing a bouquet of flowers at an invisible army.
While the works of artistes like him incite strong political reactions, there are also creators who have been unwittingly branded as agent provocateurs. Like the Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, who is known more popularly as the creator of the Rubber Duck, a series of giant floating sculptures of yellow rubber ducks.
These ducks have appeared in several international cities since 2007 including Hong Kong, Toronto, Sydney and Pittsburgh. Although Hofman confessed the ducks were inspired by a yogurt ad in the Netherlands, the Chinese government got word of the dissident duckling.
On June 4, 2013, China’s equivalent of Twitter - Sina Weibo, placed a blanket ban on the term big yellow duck as Chinese activists had begun morphing images of the Rubber Duck into the photograph of Tank Man, a lone student who had stood up to a column of battle tanks and became the enduring icon of the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests, held on June 4, 1989.
A ripple effect was witnessed in India as well. At the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a free for all art exhibition held every two years, global artistes exhibit works spanning a gamut of subjects, exploring the intersection of society and politics, warts and all. A few years ago, a collective of local artistes put together murals that channelled the cheekiness of Banksy, and social commentary thrown in for good measure. One mural featured the likeness of Colonel Sanders, the brains behind a billion dollar fried chicken empire, draped in a lungi and preparing a one-meter chai, at a roadside tea stall. A dig at the leftist government, the mural contextualised the takeover of traditional businesses by MNCs. It’s essential artistes are offered the liberty to do what they do best - to provoke, and inspire change through art.
Running behind them for supposed acts of subversion or defunding liberal arts education will only weaken society’s inbuilt threshold for criticism, and in turn give rise to a generation of automatons.