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Photography by Anthony Mair

Seven Magic Mountains

Desert Companion

Stacks of joy in a heavily used landscape

 

Hold on. Hear me out. Yes, Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains has been ad nauseam’d to death in your social feeds, its novelty and glamour dissipated in hella selfies. I can see why, after four years, you might be over it. But I’m not, so here we go.

On a heat-sealed August morning, I leave my pandemic hidey-hole to visit 7MM for the first time since quarantine. What I’ve loved on every visit to these seven stacks of garishly painted boulders is their bright panache — even impudence — in the face of so much desert austerity. Their insistence on visual pleasure amid so many wavelengths of brown. Something about that dissonance gives me a little serotonin fizz every time. And maybe this time that’ll help chillax the mood centers of my brain, currently plotzing overtime thanks to the daily doomscroll of pandemic life.

Riding shotgun on the 25-mile drive out there are the recollected voices of two friends with whom I’ve talked about 7MM quite a bit: William L. Fox, director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, primary sponsor of the installation; and Joshua Abbey, head of the Jewish Film Festival, son of desert contrarian Edward Abbey, and fierce critic of the Mountains.

Support comes from

Fox poses a question: “What are the secular monuments of America going to be?” The answer suggested by Seven Magic Mountains is large-scale works that remind the overmechanized 21st century of our species’ deepest impulses of way-finding and place-marking. “Human beings stack rocks,” he says. “We’ve been doing it since before we were human.”

Abbey sees it instead as a “Day-Glo monstrosity.” “I just think so-called environmental art, land art, is a very inappropriate intrusion in natural spaces,” he says. Artists, of all people, should know better.

They’re still carrying on in my head as I arrive, each idealizing in the opposite direction. Fox: As commercial development consumes more land, it’s vital that we reserve that same prerogative for purposes higher than another suburban Walmart. “Why can’t I be allowed to displace as much dirt as a strip mall in order to create some art?” Abbey: “It sends a signal that it’s okay to alter nature for human aesthetic expression.” Which sounds to him a lot like something a miner might say.

The stacks are as ebullient as I remember, so gaudy in the summer sun that they might be a lithic iteration of Electric Daisy Carnival — land art you can dance to. Hugging the shade of the first stack, I keep trying to consider how these boulders engage, contend, or otherwise get jiggy with art history, but the insistent buzz of nearby I-15 brings me right back to Fox and Abbey.

They’re both right, of course. The piece is an intrusion into the natural world. One of many. I go back to something Fox said: “It’s in a disrupted landscape.” No kidding. Humans are indisputably here. In addition to I-15, heavily trafficked when it’s not outright gridlocked, there’s a rail line. A few miles back, at a junk-encrusted shooting range, boisterous fans of that secular monument, the Second Amendment, plug the hills with lead. Beyond that, a cement factory. Clusters of billboards. Trash. Dirt roads. Fencing. On Google Maps you can see the epic scar of a quarry not far away.

Amid all this remorseless human impact, Seven Magic Mountains is the only thing that wants to redeem our presence. That gamely tries to mitigate the ugliness we’ve imposed. That represents more than a grimly utilitarian or, in the case of the shooters, recreationally destructive stance toward the land. By using the ancient technologies of rocks and joy to remediate this bruised landscape, Rondinone has built a monument I find inexhaustibly appealing. Does that somehow make it a metaphor for Las Vegas? It can be if you want it to.

As Fox and Abbey take their conversation to a quieter part of my brain, I watch a family of four, in masks, wander up, phones rising. Nearby, a model tries not to fall out of her low-cut dress as she straps jewelry to a thigh, her photographer sweating patiently.

Surprisingly, a third voice intrudes in my head, that of long-dead Swiss-German painter Paul Klee, who’s here with his famous quote, “One eye sees, the other eye feels.”

I think he’s suggesting I take a selfie, so I do.

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