A few thoughts on Seven Magic Mountains, the spazzy new installation by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, sponsored in part by the Nevada Museum of Art, on extreme south Las Vegas Boulevard, between Sloan and Jean. They’re those tall, garishly painted boulder stacks you’ve been seeing on social media, TV and, for a few of you, on the front page of the RJ.
Should you go see them?
Yes. For one thing, scale matters. Seeing them in pictures, even cool snaps like ours, is no substitute for grasping, firsthand, your relation to them size-wise. Also, site details matter — wind, traffic noises from I-15, sunlight, the chug of an occasional passing train, the different backdrops depending on your angle, the sky vaulting overhead. The unseen but gravitational presence of Las Vegas matters.
What should you look for?
Keeping in mind that I’m not an art critic, not even close — that I am not, in fact, overburdened with the kind of art-history knowledge that might instructively place Seven Magic Mountains in a proper land-art context — here’s what this art-curious fella looked for.
— They’re quite tall, 25-30 feet apiece, clearly meant to evoke a sense of monumentality; walking among them you feel like an explorer discovering a pantone Stonehenge. Yet they look rather precarious, too, as if haphazardly stacked; could one topple the first time a drunken yahoo tries to summit it? There's a slight shiver of danger to their visual unsteadiness. (One trusts that in reality they're securely anchored. Don't tell the yahoos.)
— Their ’toon-town paint job imparts a garish now-ness and spectacle-driven theatricality that's at odds with the stony authenticity and geological time-sense usually embodied by large rocks. Are they of Vegas or are they of the desert? Like the paradoxical city itself, Rondinone's mountains don't belong to the desert yet wouldn't look the same without it.
A random observation:
— Rondinone’s towers remind me of those “zen”-like rock stacks left by vortex-seeking tourists on every surface of the desert around Sedona. Except his feel too immodestly sized and hued to be genuinely spiritual, so I've decided to read them as parodies of those Sedona rocks — which themselves seem like spiritually vacant gestures, memes in stacked stone, crafted by tourists seeking a facsimile of a “sacred experience.”
Yes, this interpretation may say more about me than about Rondinone’s artwork.
What’s up with those crazy colors?
Everything! First, notice that they’re wholly, garishly unnatural. The greens are not plant-green, the oranges not sunset-orange, the blues not sky-blue. This has some interesting effects:
— The colors dare you to think of this installation as roadside kitsch — especially being so close to the road (much land art is hard to access) and to Las Vegas. That’s one of the ideas Seven Magic Mountains seems to be playing with. Can something that appears so giddy about its own audacity and artifice really be art? Here in the culturescape of Trump's 21st America, just over the hill from Las Vegas, it's a question worth thinking through. If Seven Magic Mountains offers any commentary on the Strip, this may be it.
— One thing that became apparent (to me) up close, that I didn't get from the photos, is how fake they can look. This, too, is very Vegas: Thanks to the retina-goggling color scheme, it's easy to imagine them as bits of Vegas stagecraft, Styrofoam props from an old Cirque production. (They’re not. “The average weight of each is about 40,000 pounds,” a Nevada Art Museum spokeswoman told me.) This isn't exactly a new dynamic relative to Vegas; culture theorists and other turtleneck-wearers have talked about the city in terms of "simulacra" for years.
— The color scheme gives Seven Magic Mountains a sociability you don’t usually associate with land art, which is often remote and usually quite serious. This may be serious, too, but it's also that rare thing in blue-chip, non-Burning Man public art: a real hoot.