Does ‘Seven Magic Mountains’ live up to the hype? (Spoiler alert: yes.)
Clark Griswold would have killed for this moment. By day six of a week-long camping trip with my husband and the teenagers, we’d braved long drives in close quarters, rain-soaked sleeping bags and four-way playlist negotiations. Maybe once or twice, I had channeled Griswold, the embattled dad from National Lampoon’s Vacation, but we were pretty much all still speaking to each other. And that, you may know, if you’ve ever been on a family camping trip, is a win.
We were standing on the Hoover Dam on a warm, clear day in January. No one was snarky, snappy or surly—and no one was disagreeing about the playlist, or, for that matter, anything.
Great, harmonious family moments like this are to be cherished, dragged out for as long as possible. The kids and husband deserved to linger in the sunshine, ogle at this marvel of engineering, stump the tour guide with policy questions, text more selfies, and make as many dad jokes with the words “dam” and “damn” as their hearts desired.
But that’s not what happened.
“Sorry guys, we gotta go,” I said abruptly. (Remember the scene where Griswold enjoys the view of the Grand Canyon—for about three seconds? That was me right then.)
My apology was genuine, but by insistence was militant. Journalists, even when we’re pretending to be on vacation, are never really all the way off duty. On family vacations, I confess, I do research and keep appointments. Actually, this entire trip was a week-long excuse to keep an appointment. We had to get to Seven Magic Mountains before sundown.
At the south end of Las Vegas, right where an ocean of big strip malls abruptly gives way to the desert, we pulled into a mini-mart on St. Rose Parkway. I bought one teen a 12-ounce can of Red Bull and the other a pre-dinner ice cream sandwich, hoping in return for about two more hours of stellar attitude and some modicum of receptiveness to the big stacks of painted rocks—even if they thought it was the most boring thing they’d ever seen.
Seven Magic Mountains is a piece of land art made up of massive, day-glo cairns. It was commissioned by the Nevada Museum of Art, along with Art Production Fund, a New York-based group that helps fund and produce particularly ambitious projects. (If you’re into art, this group is worth any time spent in a Google hole checking them out.)
The piece is located south of Las Vegas, north of Jean and a little to the west of Sloan Canyon National Conservation Area. Reno friends and readers had been asking what I thought of it since it was installed in April 2016.
I knew from media reports that it was big and bright and cost $3.5 million to install. I knew from art school that big and bright and expensive may or may not work for aesthetic or cerebral satisfaction. And I knew from experience that trying to get a sense of land art through pictures was a fool’s errand. So was assuming that it would even necessarily make sense to discuss a piece of land art in terms of aesthetic or cerebral satisfaction when, often, part of its job is more along the lines of overwhelming you in just the right way.
In 2005, I’d walked along the sharp rocks of Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” then partially submerged in the Great Salt Lake. Strong whiffs of ocean and decaying brine shrimp eclipsed the reams of scholarship I’d read about the piece. The feeling of salty water soaking my hiking boots and scratching my skin replaced the image that had long been lodged in my memory—that of a neat, graphically sound, iconic little swirl—with a weird and inspiring combination of gut reactions. I felt an intense humility from walking on something so remote, huge and difficult to make—and an equally strong sense of power, which came from the fact that mere humans had managed to move mountains in the name of artistic assertion. Those two forces together amounted to a sense of being connected to all people from all time periods, struggling against various forces to survive, to be relevant, to grapple with whatever we each may grapple with.
As for “Seven Magic Mountains,” it was easier to reach than land art pieces traditionally have been, and it was developing a reputation all over Instagram as a fun place for photo shoots with models, free family outings, and the occasional celebrity sighting. Recent NMA social media stats place is as “one of the Top 10 most Instagrammed artworks in the world.”
But would that be a reasonable framework in which to consider it as a piece of artwork? Sculpture as gathering place does have a point. But I held off on really thinking about that until I saw it.
The piece has earned a few playfully dismissive nicknames. People asked, “You’re going to see the Bristle Blocks?” “The giant chunks of Play-Doh?” Those critiquing the childlike simplicity of the design have a point, too. Sometimes that works in sculpture. Sometimes it doesn’t. There’s always a danger of a very large, playful piece coming off as misplaced majesty or as some awkward gimmick. And, seriously, those colors are hard to pull off.
Play-Doh jokes aside, there are a few different lenses through which an armchair art-historian could contemplate this piece—namely the rest of the artist’s oeuvre and the reasons that the NMA got itself into the business of getting a piece of giant art made outside of Las Vegas.
But let’s start with the rocks. Seven Magic Mountains consists of 33 limestone boulders, each up to 25 tons, stacked into cairns as high as 35 feet. Cairns have been used just about everywhere, for as long as anyone can remember, to transform an easily available material into an easy-to-read message. They’ve been used universally to mark trails, graves or goods buried in the ground. (And, by the time we visited the artwork, one enterprising visitor had stacked a small cairn to use as a camera tripod.)
The artist behind this piece, Ugo Rondinone, a Swiss-born New Yorker, has his own connection to stone, and that dates back to ancient history, too. It’s one of the many materials that he’s used as part of a career-long interplay of natural and synthetic materials. He applies a perfectionist’s touch and uses playful games of tromp l’oeil that make it fun to think about what’s real and what’s not. He’s made, for example, candle stubs out of painted cast bronze, so realistic they could easily be taken as the real thing. Works for which he’s used stone include day-glo cairns sized to fit on gallery pedestals and towering, primitive human figures for the 2013 installation “Human Nature” in Rockefeller Center.
Those figures bring to mind prehistoric works such as Stonehenge or the heads on Easter Island. “Human Nature” was nicknamed “Ugohenge” by New Yorkers. But these ancient references aren’t the artist’s only link between stone and the distant past. He has a more personal one.
Rondinone has often been seen wearing a flat, rounded chunk of limestone as a pendant. According to a New York Times article from 2013, his father, who’d immigrated to Switzerland from Italy, gave him the stone, a memento of generations spent living in poverty and working in stone quarries under conditions that reportedly weren’t much better than slavery. For years, Rondinone was embarrassed by his family’s history but later began to wear the stone proudly.
While Rondinone is not at all new to masonry or to ambitious public projects, he is new to Western land art installations. But Central Casting could not have found a more apt artist for the job. He has a killer resume. He’s been in countless exhibitions, including the 2017 Venice Biennale. And he has two super powers as an artist that make him the right guy for this strange job. One: he uses things that would be garish—rainbows, lifelike sculptures of clowns—in ways that can be taken at face value, without kitsch or irony. He can make them purposefully disarming, but not in a way that’s mocking or sardonic, more in a way that makes you want to let down your guard. Two: Rondinone gets how to make a series of things function as a place. He once told an Australian film crew about an indoor piece he’d made involving colored mirrors, “The work itself is passive, and what activates it is the public, who stands in front—or moves in front—of it.” It’s true. In static photographs that piece is colorful and pretty. In videos of people interacting with it, it’s more like a theatrical set, something to play in, and people do just that, even in a museum.
Another way to frame “Seven Magic Mountains” is in terms of what it means for the NMA, an institution that started in 1931 but transitioned into being a contemporary art venue far too late to compete with major museums—at least when it comes to amassing an art collection—but still aims to stake a claim on the international scene.
Its strategy is to try to be the foremost center for land art studies. It has a broad collection of landscape photography, both old and new. It’s home to the Center for Art + Environment, started in 2008, which is among the largest archives anywhere of documents on landscape artists and land-based artworks, and it hosts an annual Art and Environment conference, which drew about 500 people in 2017.
Now that the NMA is an established center for land art studies, the next phase of its reputation-building effort is to actually bring pieces of land art to fruition. “Seven Magic Mountains” is the first large-scale outdoor project that the NMA has produced. There are two more in the works, Trevor Paglen’s “Orbital Reflector,” a room-sized Mylar sculpture that will be launched into space this year, and Jonathon Keats’ 5,000-year calendar (“Long view,” Art of the State, Oct. 12, 2017), which does not yet have an opening date.
“I feel like if this is the next chapter of land art, we’re going to give it our best shot to make it happen,” said NMA curator JoAnne Northrup.
The road to becoming custodians of a land art piece—one that’s much easier to visit than “Spiral Jetty,” Michael Heizer’s “The City,” or others in the region—was full of surprises.
There were the countless negotiations with the Bureau of Land Management, which did not have among its protocols one for considering the placing of a massive artwork. Getting one in place took three years.
There was the slow process of trying to win over the neighbors. Citizens of nearby Goodsprings, population around 200, voiced concerns about traffic and safety. At least one resident feared an increase in serious auto accidents. (None have occurred so far.)
There was the left-hand turn lane that had to be installed on Las Vegas Boulevard. That cost a third of a million, said Northrup.
There’s been some “policing.” Early on, the piece was tagged with obscenities. More recently, NMA reps have admonished a taco truck operator for hosting an event at the site—which does not have trash receptacles, restroom facilities or any other amenities.
Then there have been the unusual phone calls museum communications director Amanda Horn said she’s fielded, like the ones about the lost keys, the lost jackets, the lost dog, and the one from E! News wanting a comment about a possible sighting of Beyoncé and Jay-Z.
Despite the additional job duties, Northrup and Horn both said their conclusion is that expanding into the land art production business is going well.
“When we finally succeeded in mounting ’Seven Magic Mountains,’ we were in love with the project,” said Northrup. “We wanted to see if everyone else was in the same frame of mind.”
Las Vegas, as you might already know, is bigger and brighter than Reno. Las Vegas puts bursts of light and strokes of dazzle in places where no other city would think to. Even miles away from the Strip, my family saw things that struck our Northern Nevada sensibilities as wonderfully surreal: a giant, hunting-lodge-type chandelier inside a convenience store, the light of the Luxor visible from our campsite in Red Rock Canyon, yellow Corvettes—yes, Corvettes, plural—weaving through freeway traffic.
The brightness and blinkiness of things started to seem normal very quickly.
So, when we passed the sign that said “Seven Magic Mountains” and saw a block-shaped haze of color in the distance, it did not seem incongruous or abrupt in the least.
“Seven Magic Mountains” is on a wide, low basin between hazy mountain ranges that were washed in light gray and periwinkle by the sinking sun. The ground is thick with creosote bushes and dotted with yucca and stumpy Joshua trees.
We parked in a dirt lot. From there, the cairns looked a lot like they do in pictures. We entered a gateway that interrupts a barbed-wire fence and scattered.
The mood was celebratory, a little electric even. Several dozen people, speaking in at least half a dozen accents and languages, were moving continuously—to the sculpture, from the sculpture, over to the side a ways to see the sculpture from a different angle—and it seemed like an event. Apparently, this steady stream of visitors is the norm. The NMA reports about 1,000 per day.
Closer to the boulders, the mental image I’d formed of this piece from pictures completely disappeared. The experience of strolling among them was, at first, all about the sheer weight of their presence, then about the process—the BLM permits, the graffiti-proof coating, the feats of engineering that the crew from Las Vegas Paving had executed to stack them there.
And the colors! I’d been asking myself how and why the gaudiness might work. But here, in what already seemed like the sculpture’s natural habitat, the colors were not garish in the least, not even extreme, really. Nothing less bright could have held its own against the wide Southern Nevada sky. Electric pink and chrome-like silver looked as comfortable in this environment as the yellow Corvettes had on the city freeways.
All my notions about Rondinone’s ongoing interplay between artifice and history melted into one big “yes.”
Small groups and families—including mine—laughed and gawked. People found whatever ways they could to be playful. A few folks scaled the lower boulders to pose for photos. Others posed for romantic couple shots. Families with kids and grandmas crammed into smartphone screens. The entire place was a big, huge selfie magnet.
Between the three of my family members carrying cameras, I’m sure we shot hundreds of photos.
Both kids and both grownups found “Seven Magic Mountains” an extremely inviting and successful piece, whether you want to think of it as a universalizing gesture that goes back to prehistoric Italy, a culmination of Rondinone’s already smart and appealing work, or a selfie stage with just the right orange to go with your white dress.
It’s marvelous. And you had to be there. None of this can be translated in pictures or words. My advice: get there.
The piece was originally slated to be installed through April, but the museum is trying to extend the exhibition window, perhaps even indefinitely.
Last week, when I sorted through my photos to decide which to publish, I asked my son, “Which ones best convey the experience of having been there?”
He gave me his best what-are-you-even-talking-about look and said, “I hope you’re not insulted, but your pictures are boring.”
“You’re right,” I said. “They are boring.”