October 3, 2022

Rock world: On the road, in the desert with Rondinone


Ugo Rondinone’s colossal rock sculptures, well, rock. The Swiss-born, Manhattan-based artist often combines natural elements and social constructs to tell a story about deep time in real time. His stone installations have appeared in a multitude of environments, from New York City to the Nevada Desert, Liverpool to Laguna Gloria.

On a recent road trip, I visited Rondinone’s large-scale installation “Seven Magic Mountains,” just outside of Las Vegas. It was a pilgrimage to a strange Holy Land, an unlikely collection of massive neon columns set against the desert’s pale veil. A bit like Stonehenge minus the circle, this garish pagan offering is just 30 minutes from the godless seduction of the Strip.

Seven Magic Mountains
Each of the 33 locally sourced limestone boulder used to make “Seven Magic Mountains” weighs 10 to 25 tons. They are stacked into seven cairns at a height of over 30 feet. Photo by Barbara Purcell

It is a fitting metaphor for Vegas itself. Bright, shiny, and a bit dangerous. Signs warn visitors to watch out for venomous snakes. (A law known as Seven Magic Mountains, NRS 41.517, the only of its kind for a public art project, reduces the artist’s risk of liability should someone get hurt.)

By 9 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, the place was packed with an assortment of pilgrims: young families, art enthusiasts, road trippers, and one dude still drunk from the night before. All there, in search of beauty. Or a selfie.

“Seven Magic Mountains” opened to the public in May 2016, thanks to its co-producers, the Nevada Museum of Art and Art Production Fund. Originally slated to run until 2018, the federal Bureau of Land Management, its landlord, extended the project through the end of 2021. (Possibly longer.)

This $3.5 million rock fest was almost five years in the making, so what’s the rush? Each locally sourced limestone boulder (there are 33 in total) weighs 10 to 25 tons; cut and cored on site, stacked into seven cairns at a height of over 30 feet. From Interstate 15, they stick out on the horizon like candy-colored mirages.

Why seven so-called mountains? It’s not completely clear to me, but I get a biblical vibe. The Seven Deadly Sins come to mind, as does the significance of the number 33, but the plaque makes no mention of this. Instead, a one-liner by the artist reads:

“‘Seven Magic Mountains’ is an artwork of thresholds and crossings, of balanced marvels and excessive colors, of casting and gathering and the contrary air between the desert and the city lights.”

Seven Magic Mountains
Installed in 2016, “Seven Magic Mountains” will be on view through 2021. Photo by Barbara Purcell.

Las Vegas translates as “The Meadows,” which poetically taps into the Anthropecene theme (basically, the dueling banjos between man and nature) in Rondinone’s work. Grassy fields are the last thing on anyone’s mind while doing shots at the blackjack table in a clock-less casino. “What happens in Meadows, stays in Meadows,” just doesn’t have quite the same ring.

But like these bold boulders set against an austere landscape, the dichotomy of the region’s natural beauty, and the city’s dark impulses, coexist without too much fuss. Rondinone seems to embrace that.

The locale of “Seven Magic Mountains” is also a nod to earlier art installations once situated nearby at Jean Lake. In 1962, artist Jean Tinguely created an artwork (“Study for the End of the World No. 2”) that blew itself up on the dry lakebed as an ode to Nevada’s atomic test site, 65 miles north of Vegas. In 1968, Michael Heizer dug “Rift #1,” the first in his ephemeral earthwork series, “Nine Nevada Depressions.” (By 1972, Heizer’s jagged gash, carved intently into that bone-dry surface, had completely deteriorated.)

“Seven Magic Mountains” has staying power though. Unlike these earlier examples of land art, Rondinone’s installation isn’t meant to simply recede into the Mojave — it’s meant to make you pull off at the exit. The proximity to Jean Lake, like the distance from Las Vegas, is a cultural critique of geologic proportions. Jaunty commentary on capitalism and naturalism, with a touch of magical surrealism.

the true Rondinone
Ugo Rondinone, “the true,” 2013. Blue stone and stainless steel. 90 x 38 x 22 inches. Installation view at the Contemporary Austin-Laguna Gloria. Photo by Barbara Purcell

It is a far cry from the other Rondinone installation I recently visited, at the Contemporary Austin’s Laguna Gloria. “The true” (2013) is a more demure example of the artist’s rock sculptures. For one, it is not painted in fluorescent colors. More than that though, this single work, made of bluestone and stainless steel, is figurative rather than abstract, with its seven stones stacked into a male form. He seems content to simply blend into his surroundings.

But not unlike, “Seven Magic Mountains,” “the true” is sort of this sweet reminder that primitive rock stackings make for sublime experiences. As I watched families and friends photograph each other against those bursts of color in the desert’s morning light, I tried to come up with a clever phrase for what I was witnessing. A five-year-old boy, chasing his older sister between the columns while his father snapped shots, did me the honor:

It’s rock world! We’re in rock world! 

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Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell is an arts and culture writer based in Austin. She is the author of Black Ice: Poems (Fly by Night Press, 2006). In addition to Sightlines, her work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Canadian Art, Glasstire, and Tribes Magazine. She is a graduate of Skidmore College.

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