BONNEVILLE SALT FLATS, Utah -- For centuries, the white barren expanse known as the Bonneville Salt Flats stretched like the top of a long table that no one would ever set.
Swedish artist Karl Momem has changed that with an 80-foot-high sculpture that has brought him praise -- and some criticism -- from people who say he has spoiled the western Utah desert.
Unveiling has been set for Jan. 18 for the abstract tree sculpture that Momen calls his 'hymn to the universe.'
The tree, which Momen says is visible for 17 miles on a clear day, holds six brightly colored concrete balls high above the white salt of the desert flats, more famous for world speed records than as an inspiration for art.
It took the artist four years and more than $1 million of his money to complete the work, located about 100 miles west of Salt Lake City.
'The concept is totally new -- the shape, the size and the colors and materials are a totally new concept,' Momen said. 'I am absolutely sure this shape has never been any place before. It's a totally new perspective of art.'
The statue, containing 150 tons of steel, 200 tons of concrete and 100 tons of crushed Utah rocks, is 'concrete art, constructive art with some tendency of the abstract -- abstract constructive art,' Momen said.
A former hospital architect in his 60s, Momen conceived the project while driving along Interstate 80 west of Salt Lake City on a coast-to-coast trip during a hot August day in 1981.
To Momen, the salt flats looked like 'the largest canvas I have ever seen ... It was very bright. It was very hard and white, really snow white. I was thinking if I could paint here or do something.'
Momen then secured the necessary permits and found a contractor willing to take on the project.
The brown trunk sticks more than 80 feet into the air. The balls, the biggest 13-feet in diameter, are covered with brightly colored crushed rock and are hung on branches.
A plaque on the trunk will contain the poem 'Ode to Joy' and Momen's words: 'A hymn to our universe whose glory and dimension is beyond all myth and imagination.'
The artist, known in Europe for his paintings and smaller sculptures, said the design for the work grows from his fascination with the vastness of space and his artistic love of trees.
'Two things have always fascinated me,' he said. 'One is the sky, the other is the tree. The tree is one of the most important elements in nature and one of the most beautiful shapes. Have you ever seen an ugly tree? It doesn't exist.'
Momen said his work is not intended to convey a message.
'I make something first for the eyes, then for the brain,' he said. 'I don't want to have everybody sit and think about it. I have no such demand.'
He acknowledges the tree has its critics but says Interstate 80 already has ruined the pureness of the area and other man-made objects sprinkle the landscape.
'The highway has already destroyed the desert anyhow,' he said. 'But it needs a little bit of color, a little scenery (to) make it like an opera scene.'
Momen said he expects that of the 2 million people a year who drive the route, at least 70 percent will like what he has done.
He said he can expect some criticism because he is not a well-known sculptor and added that if the work had been by English artist Henry Moore, acceptance would have been automatic.
'I'm not Henry Moore yet,' Momen said. 'If it was Henry Moore and he did something 300 feet high and half a mile wide, it would be called the best piece in the world.'
Momen said he will copyright the design and sell lithograph prints and small bronze copies to repay his costs.
He said he has had offers of sponsorship from several companies, including a Nevada casino that offered to pay the entire cost if it could put a sign on one of the balls.
But Momen said he has 'too much respect for my art and art in general' to accept any of the offers.