The black obelisk in director Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: a Odyssey” has nothing on the red rock monument at the edge of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
We can argue over the meaning of author Arthur C Clarke‘s obelisk (my sense is that it symbolizes the unknowable mysteries that have sparked the imaginations of humans since they first turned their gaze upwards) but for Kubrick I believe it served more as a kind of Hitchcockian ‘McGuffin:’ a device meant, above all, to maintain dramatic suspense.
The McGuffin here is accidental. Since it was dedicated in 1995 this monument has apparently been obscured by development along Milton Street (The boulevard that many visitors coming off Interstates 17 and 40 use to access the historic downtown, Arizona snowbowl and other attractions), overshadowed by the ever-escalating growth of the university itself.
This monument literally has its back turned to Milton Street. Was that intentional?
If you are headed for one of the endless fast food offerings that stretch down Milton as far as the eye can see you are not likely to notice the monument at all. But if by chance you do catch a glimpse of it as you stride purposefully ahead all you can see from the sidewalk is the tall rectangular stone base and, on top, the back of a bronze bust of indeterminate sex.
It may be the season but the landscaping around the monument appears dry, unkempt and overgrown: that last adverb however may be due to the design.
Overgrown by design? Intentionally unkempt?
You have time on your hands so coming back from Smash Burger or Habit Burger or any one of a dozen other burger joints you walk on to the grass and up to the monument and move between the shrubbery and attempt to decipher the faded brass plaque on the western face of the stone base and, with effort, can make out that it was “In Commemoration” in 1995, “The Year of the Native American.”
That’s only part though, a very small part of the story, but it is as if the others were not enough to justify its erection? But those other parts, the other faces of the stone and their faded inscriptions are far more significant than the apologetic notion of a year dedicated – whatever that might mean – to any oppressed people and as you perambulate the monument and see the busts’ profiles the drama grows.
On what I took to be the southern face there is another plaque which lists the names of the original thirty-two, ”Navajo Code Talkers.”
In World War Two over 400 Native Americans utilized their native, unwritten languages to send coded messages that the Japanese found impossible to decipher.
Look up now and the masculine outline of the model is readily apparent.
You are more intimate with the setting now so it is also apparent that the plantings around the monument are almost impossible not to brush up against as you circle the uneven obelisk.
On the eastern face a new stone and plaque have been planted outside the compass-like walkway but you don’t notice that at first so intent you are now upon the third plaque and on the strong, noble Native visage looking over you toward the birthplace of the sun.
This plaque reveals the sculptor to be perhaps the most famous Native American artist of the last century, R.C. Gorman, and his model, also a renowned artist and his father Carl Gorman, whose name you may have noticed is on the southern facing plaque as he was one of the original code talkers.
Remarkable men of imagination and accomplishment and yet this monument to all of the Code Talkers appears neglected, overgrown?
Now you begin to take the monument into your mind in its entirety and like the unblemished black obsidian obelisk in 2001 a piercing note…
No, there is no sound, no eardrum-splitting tone, but there is a question, a cloudburst of questions suddenly thundering in your ears.
How could such an important piece, commemorating the bravery of a people that we tried so hard to wipe from the face of the earth be so blithely neglected? And why, among many other questions that hover above this tooth of desert, do the five faces of this monument not align with its stone walkway.
You instinctively noticed this: symmetry is intrinsic to our human design so the tilted frame or the sunken landscape is palpable to our senses.
Is this intentional? I scanned the internet and located a Navajo compass of sorts but apart from the symbols and significance of its traditional colors saw no purposeful distortion: east was east and west was west.
Is this itself a code to be deciphered? Is this a sly aside between Navajos in their own language, a message hidden in plain sight?
There may be a simple or simpler explanation. It may be that at this time of year the plantings appear uncared for, or that the artist wanted the inscriptions to fade into the eternal rock, or that he deliberately turned his back, and his father’s face, away from commerce and toward the east and his Alma Mater… the university.