In Arts + Entertainment

Land Art Meets Pop Art In Seven Magic Mountains

Twenty minutes out from the Las Vegas Strip and down a dusty, desert highway, colourful, stacked stones loom in the distance. Against Nevada’s brown plains and the mountain range beyond, they pop out from the landscape – exactly as the artist intended them to.

This is the Seven Magic Mountains, an art installation created by Swiss-born, New York-based artist Ugo Rondinone and the Nevada Museum of Art. Five years in the making, the piece was unveiled in May 2016 and was only set to be in place for two years. It was so well received though, the museum is currently working on a long-term extension for it.

“When we first began, people weren’t sure what it was going to be, and they didn’t really see the vision,” says Amanda Horn, the Museum’s Director of Communications.

“It was unprecedented in Nevada, and the federal authorities that we had to work with, they were just a little bit hesitant to green light something longer than a two-year period. And we weren’t sure either. I mean no one was really sure. Anywho, that has all changed.”

Today, Seven Magic Mountains has been drawing a large chunk of Vegas’ 4.3 million visitors a year away from the high-rises and into the Nevada desert. For those who never considered venturing beyond the Strip, it finally gave them reason to. Rondinone’s vision for the piece was realised.

“Seven Magic Mountains stays in stark contrast to its surrounding,” he says in a video about the work. “It’s a given that when you put something in contrast, it elevates the other part. So I hope that people who look at this piece will extend their view to the surrounding and will appreciate the landscape of Las Vegas.”

The exact site for the piece was a very deliberate decision. It’s within eyeshot of Jean Dry Lake, the place where contemporary Western land art first began in the 1960s. Rondinone says the piece builds on the DNA of land art, but is also informed by the pop art movement.

His aim for it is to evoke continuity and solidarity between the artificial and natural, and between the human and nature. The colour palette he used for the painted boulders – only fluorescent rainbow colours, along with black, white and silver – played a role in this. According to Rondinone, day-glo is as artificial as colours go.

Once the concept was decided on and the permits were set up, the creation of Seven Magic Mountains took about a year to complete. The rocks were sourced from a quarry 40 minutes away, and all their shaping and painting took place there too. The Art Production Fund was brought in to help, and Rondonine oversaw the project from New York.

“It’s a very involved process,” says Horn. “There are 13 coats of paint on the rocks so it was a lot of dialogue with the studio in New York and going back and forth with the fabricators who would send daily pictures, and would go ‘this happened today, this orientation’ and Ugo would be like ‘no, that needs to shift this way’ or ‘that rocks needs to be cut a little bit more’. It was a constant conversation.”

Once at the site, engineers were enlisted to lift and stack the stones with specially-designed equipment. Foundations for the towers were made made, and then the structures were earthquake- and wind-proofed.

Rondonine says their shapes were inspired by hoodoos, columns or pinnacles of weathered rock found all over the world, but predominantly in Utah, Nevada’s bordering state. He considers his piece a direct reaction to the hoodoos, and also to the universal, and often meditative, act of stacking and balancing stones.

His main motivation for creating the public sculpture on public ground was so that everybody can share it. “[I wanted] to go out into the world and present art in a way where everybody can relate,” he says. “Every person can relate to colours and towers.

“The work is not an intellectual work. It’s something you have to feel with your body as you approach. Because in a desert landscape, scale has no real meaning unless you approach it then you feel the scale. But from far away, everything looks small.”

Horn says the piece has been monumental in helping the people of Nevada consider what visual arts could mean for the state. She says the success of Seven Magic Mountains has now turned the tide, and made officials realise the need for art in serving a community. Plans for an art museum in Las Vegas are finally underway.

Before Seven Magic Mountains opened to the public, Rondonine spent time with it in solitude. “He couldn’t be more pleased,” Horn says. “It’s a testament to his wanting it to stay there.

“For him, it felt like it did for all of us – ‘oh, this is meant to be here’. It just is supposed to be there. There’s really no way else to say it. This makes sense here. If you removed it from there, it wouldn’t make sense anymore.”

(Lead and all images: Ugo Rondinone: Seven Magic Mountains, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2016. Photo: Gianfranco Gorgoni/Art Production Fund and Nevada Museum of Art) 

Published 19 December, 2018