by Andrew Jepsen
The Tree of Utah (Metaphor) is the actual bombastic title of the gigantic 87-foot tall, 225-ton sculpture 25 miles east of Wendover ... because, you know, we need to be told it's not literally a "tree of life."
I know you've seen it. It's an 87-foot concrete tree. You've probably never gotten out of your car to look at it closely, but at the very least you've suddenly noticed the brilliantly colored spheres atop the tree sprouting from the Salt Flats, like bubbles on soap.
When the tree appears (it's visible for 30 miles in all directions), most people simply say "what the fuck is that," (without a question mark) and keep driving, praying that Money Tornado in the Rainbow Casino will make sense after the fourth White Russian.
If, however, you decide "what the hell, a giant concrete tree might transcend me," and decide to stop, you'll notice that your presence is not exactly encouraged. There's no parking lot, no booth, no brochures, no pop machines and sure as hell no toilets, which has given the tree a distinct urinary taint from SoBe-saturated college students. All you can see is the tree and three bits of offal on the ground, which are said to represent the shedding of leaves in the fall. Should you read the little plaque on the base of the tree, you'll notice it says "The Tree of Utah (Metaphor) by Karl Momen – Completed January 1986 'A hymn to our universe, whose glory and dimension is beyond all myth and imagination.' – Karl Momen." This plaque replaced the original plaque that was stolen. No one knows why.
So, what the fuck? Avoiding the obvious pun on Momen and Mormon, why is this behemoth sculpture here? Well, first off, let's talk about Karl Momen. He was born in 1934 in Iran near the Russian border and started painting when he was seven. He also used to get commissioned to paint six-foot tall portraits of Stalin and once did a twelve-foot tall portrait of the Shah of Iran, so that's pretty cool I guess. Later, he began to study under Max Ernst, who helped father surrealism and abstract expressionism. Joan Miró also worked with Max Ernst, which would explain why Metaphor looks like it somehow tumbled out of a Miró painting and landing in the middle of the desert.
So one day Momen is traveling to Reno (no, I don't know why. Why does anyone go to Reno? Hookers? Poorly lit buffets? He's a surrealist, I don't know) and gets a vision: "There I saw off in the distance this image of a gigantic tree with big round spheres resembling planets."
So there's intentionalism.
Within four years, Momen had built the giant tropical tree at a cost of more than one million dollars from his own pocket. Momen unveiled the sculpture before Governor Bangerter and the Swedish Minister of Labor. It's like a damn sitcom.
Utahns immediately investigated the mouth of their gift horse and weren't thrown into an orgy of appreciation. The piece was just as ridiculed then as it is now. Not that this is really surprising. Everyone who drives past it for the first time wonders what the hell they've just seen. Now imagine that happening to all of Salt Lake City at once. We're so mean to art. Momen then donated his million-dollar construction to the state of Utah and moved back to Sweden.
But here we have it. No doubt a piece of Utah landscape that is irrevocable a part of the Salt Flats. It's likely that the absence of any landscape nearby is what inspired Momen. What better representation of the blank canvas than white salt in all directions, unbroken? What artist wouldn't want to seize a 90-mile canvas? It's an artist's wet dream.
But there's more than vanity at work here. Momen did sign his name twice, for Christ's sake, and no doubt he figured that his empty landscape would be empty for longer than he'd be alive. As one tourist remarked, "As dumb as it is, Metaphor is the only thing for hours worth photographing." I doubt Momen though the sight would be inundated with tourists (although I don't know who could have guessed that hordes of Germans would visit the tree every year. I don't know why this is; Momen was Iranian and a Swedish citizen).
When seen in conjunction with the two other large land art pieces near Salt Lake City, Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty and Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels, things get a little clearer, since all the colors seen on the tree are formed by coating the concrete with naturally occurring rocks and minerals found in Utah. Utah artists apparently love Momen for Metaphor. Both BYU and the U of U are listed among major collectors of his art.
One way Metaphor differs from both Spiral Jetty and Sun Tunnels is that you simply can't avoid the tree. There's no way you won't see it driving to Wendover. It is easily accessible, but no one ever actually wants to go see it.. There are constant pilgrimages to both Spiral Jetty and Sun Tunnels, but I've never heard of anyone (except me, so I could write this with a vague idea of fidelity) driving out just to see the tree. Some people, I'm guessing, would argue that it doesn't incorporate the actual landscape as much as the other two, but that's idiotic. There's no damn way this tree would be nearly as impressive if it were in the middle of The Gallivan Center. The land may take a back seat to the art, but you can't remove the tree from its context - the entire Salt Flats. If anything, the tree expresses the sheer enormity of the Bonneville Salt Flats better than anything else.
Momen created something that's absolutely ridiculous and magnificent at the same time. Hell, I've heard it described as "an experiment in environmental comedy," but there's never been a laugh that wasn't mixed with awe. Momen created a sense of scale on the Salt Flats, where we (that is, the Germans) can compare ourselves to the tree, and then compare the tree to the flats. Maybe calling the spheres planets isn't so ridiculous after all.
You can see why no one appreciates it at this link: Tree of Life