European Adventurers Discover Seven Magic Mountains, Las Vegas, Nevada

Sunset only added to the stones’ fluorescence. I had not expected this. Usually, dimming light can be relied upon to fade any colors within reach, but Seven Magic Mountains challenged the rule.

Two Magic Mountains, with the sunset over the Mojave in the background. Photo by Jasper.

I had only heard of Seven Magic Mountains a few days before, when Hannelore and Jasper arrived in Las Vegas on their 1988 Honda Africa Twins. I’d excitedly asked them what they wanted to do while in Sin City, and Hanne mentioned the art installation by name.

Hanne is a dear friend from my high school years in Bangkok, Thailand. We’ve kept in touch, but I haven’t seen her since 2005—she’d gone on to study in England and I’d gone to Utah, and in the years since she’s established herself as a boutique bridal designer and costume designer in her native Belgium. She’s incredibly talented.

I cherish any opportunity to see my fellow third-culture kids. So when I heard Hanne and her boyfriend, Jasper were planning an epic 11-month motorcycle adventure from Alaska to Argentina (follow their amazing journey here), I immediately offered our place in Vegas as a potential pit stop.

And their visit had finally arrived! Three whole days of glee! Of calculating Fahrenheit to Celcius and miles to kilometers! Of catching up on life and feeling as though hardly any time had passed!

It seemed only fitting for us to visit an art installation together. Hanne and I bonded in high school over a shared love of art, and a shared frustration with certain adults who didn’t understand our approaches to our art. Yes, yes—all very high school. What can I say? We were teenagers, we were artists, and both of us craved experimentation in ways not everyone will appreciate. A rite of passage.

So on Hanne and Jasper’s final day in Las Vegas, we planned an excursion for the cooler late-afternoon hours just before sundown. Because Seven Magic Mountains is ten miles south of Las Vegas, smack in the wide-open Mojave, baking forever beneath the harsh desert sun, and we really preferred not to burn.

All seven.jpg
All seven cairns (one hiding in the back, behind the center rainbow), with people for scale and the Mojave all around. Photo by Andrew.

Seven Magic Mountains is a large-scale public artwork by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone. And the installation couldn’t have been a better match for Hanne and me. Our biggest artistic “sins” in school had been pairing bright, saturated colors with starker, natural ones. Unsophisticated was a word I heard quite a bit in response to my experiments.

Validation! These 30-foot-tall stacks of fluorescent boulders were anything but unsophisticated. Rondinone’s piece expresses the contradictions of human life in the desert, of the crossings “between the natural and the artificial”, of the simulacra Las Vegas cultivates and champions. The fact that Seven Magic Mountains has found such popularity as a destination in its own right (it was originally meant to last only two years, from May 2016 to May 2018, but has been granted an extension through the end of 2021) dances it into the realm it critiques. Unnatural in the center of the natural, it draws human attention and curiosity because it toys with boundaries—and resists them. But even still, it’s the unnaturalness, the artifice that draws human beings away from the city.

Even the dimming sun can’t seem to dim the vibrant paint. Just like Las Vegas itself.

Crystal, Andrew, Hanne, and Jasper (in order of height, apparently). Photo by Jasper, who managed to nail the “run quickly to pose before the timer is through!” challenge.

I enjoyed the excursion tremendously. This was a very different Las Vegas experience—neither unadulterated Sin City nor pure Mojave. And the art was a blend of themes that resonate with me: questions of reality, of simulacra, of what is natural and what is not. Bright colors set unapologetically against unaffected landscapes, each throwing the other into sharp relief. The marvelous company, fabulous artwork, and gorgeous desert sunset filled the evening with special wonder.

Near the stacked boulders, we watched models posing, photographers carefully framing their shots, even a young couple in full tux and wedding gown who had chosen this as a site worthy of their bridal scrapbook. With any luck, their wedding pictures will outlast Seven Magic Mountains itself.

Between the parking area and the installation itself, visitors have built their own small cairns in tribute. All bunched together this way, the stones resembled a to-scale model of ancient ruins. Even without the neon colors, the stacked stones spoke of human interference, intention, and imagination. Together—with one pile contributed here, one there, by sundry visitors as they came and went—the grouping of tributes expands like a city, becoming more than the sum of its parts.

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Tribute cairns near the Seven Magic Mountains. Photo by Crystal. Generally speaking, it’s a dangerous idea to make cairns in the desert just for decoration, fun, or even meditation. Because stacked stones are a type of trail marker, a cairn somebody created for Instagram can actually lead hikers away from the path, which can be deadly in the Mojave. But here, they’re clearly artistic responses to the gigantic colorful stones nearby, and won’t do any harm.

I wonder what each visitor thought as they stacked these stones. Did they consider the nature of reality and escapism? Did they ponder ephemerality and permanence? Did they agonize over scale and visual weight?

Who made the first tribute? The second? Who will build the last?

Andrew, Hanne, Jasper, and I headed back to the car when the sun vanished below the horizon. Even as we stepped away, the fluorescent stones seemed to glow against the impassive landscape. It defied logic—and that was only half the magic.

Have you been to Seven Magic Mountains? Or have you been to another large-scale, site-specific art installation? Or had a wonderful visit from friends that led you to discover something new about your own town? Tell us about your experiences in the comments!

Hanne and Jasper’s blog!
Hanne and Jasper’s Instagram!
Seven Magic Mountains!

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Happy witnessing!

3 thoughts on “European Adventurers Discover Seven Magic Mountains, Las Vegas, Nevada

  1. I am fascinated by deserts and would love to visit the Mojave and experience how the extreme environment tests all the senses and the body. And that amazing installation just makes my eyes pop! Thank goodness for the artistic imagination that makes us ponder the wonder of our world in such surprising ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree! I would definitely recommend visiting the desert during a milder month than August, though – WOO! Hanne and Jasper had to soak their shirts with water every time they stopped in a gas station in order to keep cool on their motorcycles! The heat is definitely something else.

      But the environment is certainly well worth visiting – and then the art that happens within those environments​ is a step beyond.

      Liked by 1 person

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