Wherever Ugo, There You Are

by Barbara Purcell September 11, 2023
Colorful rocks stacked into towers in the desert

Ugo Rondinone, “Seven Magic Mountains.” Photo: Barbara Purcell

Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains is a strange Holy Land set against the pale veil of the Nevada Desert. If you’re driving along Interstate 15 at some point, do make the pilgrimage to these colossal cairns in Henderson, just 30 minutes from the godless seduction of the Vegas Strip: its candy-colored pillars appear out of nowhere like some hyped-up highway mirage. But unlike a mirage, Rondinone’s outdoor installation doesn’t simply recede into the Mojave — its boulders grow bolder upon the approach. 

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,” reads the plaque at the entrance.

Image of colorful rocks stacked into towers in the desert

Ugo Rondinone, “Seven Magic Mountains.” Photo: Barbara Purcell

When I made my own pilgrimage on a Tuesday morning two Junes ago, the early a.m. sun was already uncomfortably strong. Posted signs warned visitors of venomous snakes — but that didn’t stop the flip-flopped tourists who, like myself, were intent on a selfie with the American West’s answer to Stonehenge.

The stacked stones, however, are less about prehistoric earthworks and more akin to other nearby Land Art endeavors from not so long ago. Just down the road, in 1962, Jean Tinguely’s Study for the End of the World No. 2 blew itself up on a dry lakebed as an homage to Nevada’s atomic test site north of Las Vegas. And in 1968, Michael Heizer’s Rift #1 kicked off an ephemeral series of earth etchings known as the Nine Nevada Depressions, which gradually deteriorated over time. Unlike these previous site-specific projects, Rondinone’s environmental display seems to have staying power. 

Seven Magic Mountains first opened in May 2016 and was originally set to run through 2018, and then, 2021. But the Bureau of Land Management (the installation sits on three acres of federally owned land) once again extended its life, this time to 2027. Aside from a handful of online signatures petitioning its removal, the neon colors have been a welcome addition to the muted landscape. And with each massive chunk of locally sourced limestone weighing 10 to 25 tons — there are 33 in total — maybe it’s easier to stay put.

Swiss-born New York-based Rondinone seems to enjoy indulging visitors in the garish dichotomy of desert beauty and dark impulses. His installation is a fitting metaphor for Vegas itself: bright, shiny, a bit hazardous. A law known as Seven Magic Mountains, NRS 41.517, the only of its kind in the country for a public art project, reduces the artist’s risk of liability should someone get hurt. But things are bound to happen — it’s free to enter and the park never closes.

Photo of colorful rocks stacked in towers in the desert

Ugo Rondinone, “Seven Magic Mountains.” Photo: Barbara Purcell

Though a quick internet search turns up nary a news story about snake bites or rock-related accidents, there’s been some drama in the desert. An uptick of unwanted stone scribbling ensued soon after RM, the lead singer of South Korean boyband BTS, posted pictures of himself in front of the fluorescent towers. As a result, the family in charge of the installation’s monthly cleaning now maintains the site on a weekly basis. (RM does own several works by Rondinone, if it’s any consolation.) 

I can’t recall seeing so much as a Sharpie heart when I visited. Instead, the pristine splendor piercing the desert backdrop was something of a roadside revelation: deep time dipped in Day-Glo. An artifice of its own authentic merit — like a replica of Paris, or Venice, in the middle of Vegas. 

Would the annoyingness of strangers’ scrawls have detracted from my own pilgrimage once upon a time? Probably. Still, a trip to Seven Magic Mountains is a bucket-list-out-West item — for no other reason than to experience such glorious sore thumbs in the middle of nowhere. Nowhere is still somewhere. And wherever you go, there you are.


A previous version of this article appeared in the now-defunct Austin-based publication Sightlines. For more information, visit https://sevenmagicmountains.com.

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Leon September 15, 2023 - 11:45

Hey! I actually visited the Seven Magic Mountains a few years back after noticing them just off the highway into Las Vegas. It seems like such a simple concept, but I agree that it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area.

I didn’t see any graffiti when I visited, but that was back in 2017, I believe. Bummer that people feel the need to deface anything they find.


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