DRY LAKES HAVE ATTRACTED creative projects and art for decades. There is something about an empty slate that lures people to draw on it with big chalk. This subject has been covered well by writers, most thoroughly by Kim Stringfellow’s ongoing online Mojave Project and William L. Fox, whose book Playa Works examines this history (guided in part by CLUI director Matthew Coolidge).
A few years ago Fox, now the director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, began working on the idea of a new artwork at Jean Dry Lake in southern Nevada, site of Jean Tinguely’s 1962 Study for the End of the World, Part 2, arguably the first contemporary artwork on a dry lake, and a few years later, the site of the first of Michael Heizer’s Nine Nevada Depressions.
What the project evolved into is now on view, and will be until May 2018. It is called Seven Magic Mountains, and is a work by Ugo Rondinone. It consists of large limestone rocks, painted bright fluorescent colors, arranged into seven stacks, each around 30 feet tall, evoking hoodoos and rock mounds of ancient cultures, coated in the contemporary surficial sheen of the shimmering city twenty miles north, Las Vegas.
It’s on a two lane highway that parallels Interstate 15, the main road between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The piece is visible from the interstate, so passers-by heading in either direction, wondering what on earth it could be, can opt to get off at the next exit, and drive back to it within a few minutes. At the site they will find a parking lot and explanatory text, and a short walking trail to the site. On most days, there are several cars there, and families and individuals posing and taking selfies in front of this curious, extreme, and playful attraction.
Located in relation primarily to the road, and not to the dry lake bed miles away, the piece seems less like old school land art and more like roadside sculpture. Its serial outlandishness is like Cadillac Ranch, in Amarillo, Texas, made by the Ant Farm group in the 1970s, and adored critically and publically. Or even more like the Tree of Utah, Karl Momen’s less universally adored sculptural tower along the interstate crossing the Bonneville Salt Flats, built in the 1980s to counter the superlatively dead white flatness of the landscape with a colorful vertical symbol of fertility and life.
Tree of Utah is better than nothing because its context is empty. It is nowhere, so, by being there, it makes us think about nothing. Seven Magic Mountains is not about nothing, because it is somewhere: as the plaques remind us, it is intentionally sited near this art-historically significant dry lake, and reflects, starkly, Las Vegas, down the road. It’s most ardent fans and critical critics might agree on one point: that nothing is better than Seven Magic Mountains, and most of its many visitors would not stop at nothing. ♦