The Tree of Utah
by Hikmet Sidney Loe
The Tree of Utah, our (in)famous sculpture on the side of highway I80, marks its 22nd anniversary today. Standing at Milepost 26 near Wendover, it serves as a visual marker in this flat stretch of The Great Basin. If you know it’s there, when you see it you know that Wendover is just minutes away. If you’ve never driven west on I80 (The Tree sits on the north side of the highway) you’ll see a speck on the horizon seventeen miles before you actually arrive at the sculpture. The closer you get, the more questions you’ll have. And although there are signs warning travelers they can’t stop on the side of the highway (it’s actually a violation of the law), what better way is there to fully appreciate The Tree of Utah?
The Tree was given to the State of Utah in 1986 by its creator, Karel Momem. It stretches 87 feet to the sky, a ramrod of pre-cast concrete sporting over 30 different colors on the tree’s six concrete spheres. Each sphere is covered with rocks, quarried in Utah, adhered to the surface. Ceramic tiles imported from Italy complement the blue and green crystalline rock. Momen, an internationally known artist inspired by the art of the Russian Constructivists, realized the entire project from concept to concrete, paying over $1 million through loans and his own assets to complete it. Much more information is available in Herman Du Toit’s 2000 book, Vision in the Desert: The Tree of Utah – A Sculpture by Momen.
As with many works of public art, The Tree of Utah has garnered its share of praise and criticism. While it is a sculpture on the land, The Tree is not a work of Land Art, nor is it an earthwork, as some would claim. Its artistic sensibilities are derived from references outside the site itself, having much more to do with abstraction and Russian Constructivism than an artistic and/or environmental dialogue with the land.
The Tree is managed by the State’s Division of Facilities and Construction Management (not the Utah Arts Council), who saw fit to install a fence around the base of the sculpture last year. The fence shimmers like a silver necklace adorning the base of the work as it rises from the desert’s floor. More than ornamental, though, the fence keeps Tree’s falling tiles and features from damaging those who stop by to view the work or snap a souvenir photo. Conversely, fences are so often raised to keep people out, so the work is rightly protected from vandalism, such as the graffiti that has been seen there in the past.
For now, the fence is the closest The Tree of Utah will come to having any repair work done. An endowment was to be established for the work’s upkeep, but has never materialized. With no resources at hand and natural erosion working away at its surface, The Tree turns oddly into more than the Metaphor Momen originally intended to call the work. The Tree sheds its leaves, its foliage, its bark and, as fitting in this barren land of little sustenance, for the time being won’t grow any of it back.
Photographs by Phyllis Baldino, taken May 2007.