Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains is waiting for you. The eye-popping art installation, five years in the making, is now open for public viewing, and you should go see it. This limited-time art installation (it comes down in two years) is a solid wow. It’s more than piles of colorful rocks, an extra-fun Stonehenge; it’s a new kind of lens for looking at the desert around those boulders. In a way, Seven Magic Mountains is Las Vegas built anew—an alien object, deposited in the last place you’d think to look for it.
Here are seven things we really like about Seven Magic Mountains, which is located about 20 minutes south of town near the Jean-Roach Dry Lake Bed. (Just take Interstate 15 south to Sloan Road and follow the signs. You couldn’t miss these stones if you tried.)
It’s an audacious work, yet it’s rooted in a regional artistic tradition. Rondinone intended for Seven Magic Mountains to pay homage to the works of such land art pioneers as James Turrell, Jean Tinguely and Michael Heizer. Land art, a 1960s-era art form that employs natural materials and, oftentimes, entire landscapes, has a strong history in Nevada thanks to Heizer, who’s carved several incredible pieces from our deserts. Among them are Double Negative, a 1,500-foot-long, 50-foot-deep gouge in a solid rock face near Overton; City, an unfinished piece inspired by civic monuments; and Rift 1, a zigzag piece he cut into the Jean-Roach Dry Lake Bed in 1968. It’s since been re-absorbed by the lake bed, which is fine by Heizer; he wants nature to reclaim his works.
Seven Magic Mountains builds upon Heizer’s artistic foundations, Rondinone says, “but where his land art kept the natural material natural, I turned the natural material artificial.” He made sure that no one could even begin to mistake his rock towers for a natural formation by utilizing a color palette he calls “aggressive day-glo.” It’s land art by way of Las Vegas Boulevard—breathtaking, yes, but also a little gaudy—and like Vegas, it’s so absurd that you can’t help but be awestruck by it.
Seven Magic Mountains has a lineage that’s strongly Nevadan. Though the Swiss-born New York resident Rondinone obviously isn’t from around here, it took a village to help him to raise those rocks. The local partnership behind this $3.5 million project includes the American Alliance of Museums-accredited Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, law firm McDonald Carano, Aria, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and too many others to name—including the 258 backers of a Kickstarter campaign.
“Kickstarter really opened the door for anyone to become a patron of the arts,” says Doreen Remen, co-founder of Art Production Fund, a New York-based nonprofit that curates and facilitates the funding of projects like this one. (Before partnering with Nevada Museum of Art on Seven Magic Mountains, APF assisted in curating the artist-in-residence program at the Cosmopolitan’s P3 Studio.) “A lot of people giving $25 apiece make for an amazing result.”
And perhaps one of the biggest heroes of the day is one whose name you wouldn’t expect to find on a piece of art: Las Vegas Paving Corp. provided invaluable help in sourcing the boulders, and then shaping them to Rondinone’s specifications using diamond saws.
“The process really was about the whole community coming together, both Northern and Southern Nevada,” says JoAnne Northrup, curatorial director and curator of contemporary art for the Nevada Museum of Art. “Hopefully, this will lead the way for a series of art projects.”
Needless to say, we’re partial to the name. But why is it seven mountains, not seven towers? The answer lies just over state lines: “The project changed over five years,” Rondinone says. “Two years in, I was driving in Utah and I saw these hoodoo formations—a natural phenomena where you have these different stumps of stone. I wanted to do something similar.”
It’s thoroughly photogenic, but photos don’t tell the whole story. Those towers are 30-35 feet tall. You have to actually stand among these vibrant monoliths to fully appreciate the piece. “It’s insane tenacity,” Northrup says, adding that she was “near tears” when she and her colleagues finally saw the finished piece. “Compared to, say, projects by Christo, this probably seems moderate, but to us, it’s been a huge undertaking.”
By the way, Seven Magic Mountains is visible to cars driving by on I-15, which means the drive to and from Las Vegas now has a second “what the hell is that?” roadside attraction to complement the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility. Maybe the hotels of Primm Valley should invest in big rocks.
Two years means two years. “Just as flowers in the desert bloom for one day and then go away, this art will be up for two years and then disappear, and the land will be restored to its previous state,” Northrup says. (One of the towers will be relocated to The Park, adjacent to T-Mobile Arena.) Steps have already been taken in that regard: The desert flora was replanted around the art after heavy machinery needed to hoist the boulders left the site.
(More proof of the team’s commitment to preserving the site: When I noticed some rusted cans on the ground, about 40 yards away from the art, Amanda Horn, Nevada Museum of Art’s director of communications, told me, “Those have to stay exactly where they are. The Bureau of Land Management says that once something’s been here longer than 50 years, it’s declared a cultural artifact under the Federal Antiquities Act.”)
Seven Magic Mountains gives you the feels. “Because Rondinone’s work is so fundamental—he works with very basic tools, a very basic language that everybody can relate to—it speaks to very deep emotions and allows people to connect to it intuitively,” Remen says. “The feelings and emotions that the work brings up are common to everybody. It’s an art that welcomes everybody to the conversation.”
Seriously, it’s not just about the damn rocks. Rondinone wants you to look past the stones and see the desert for the desert. “People come to Las Vegas to gamble and to have fun, but many don’t know that just 15 minutes from Las Vegas, there’s this setting—this surrounding of untouched nature. And public art can help activate that notion,” he says. “I hope that people will come here and enjoy the surroundings.”