Axis mundi

Artificial Mountains in the Desert of the Real

8 July 2021

Seven Magic Mountains, Ugo Rondinone Marketing Image
Seven Magic Mountains, Ugo Rondinone

“Here, you can find it all,” my Uber driver mumbled behind his facemask. “You want girls? You got it. You want drugs? You got it. You want to visit Paris? You got it. Whatever you want”—he locked eyes with me in the rearview mirror—“you can find it in Vegas.”

He wasn’t offering, I don’t think. He was merely stating the facts. Built in the middle of nowhere, Vegas is a spectacle of stimulation and simulation where one can find anything. But amid all the artifice—the phony pyramids, counterfeit castles, and invented Venetian lagoons—one can also find manufactured mountains, two works of art that invite visitors to reflect on the nature of artificiality itself and the openly fraudulent world that is Las Vegas.

Our trip to Las Vegas came at the last minute. Cheap airfare and accommodations sealed the deal. After a year and two months of being trapped at home, we arrived in Las Vegas vaccinated and interested to see what Sin City had to offer. I had visited the area a few years earlier, but I stuck to the campgrounds and climbing routes of Red Rock Canyon skeptical that the city had anything that would interest me. This time, still with skepticism in situ, I decided to “give it a chance.”

Monument to the Simulacrum

We hit the ground boozing and casino hopping, somehow making our way to the tourist-free no-man’s-land between Fremont Street and the Las Vegas Strip. Lured deeper and deeper into the area by kitschy antique shops selling mid-century mementos, and blinded by the booze, we lost our way. But suddenly, like Dante when he emerged from his dark wood, we came upon a mountain. This one, in the middle of the city, about 12 feet high, and made of stainless steel, stood alone and hidden in Centennial Plaza.

Beginning in 2005 and as part of its centennial celebrations, the city of Las Vegas began funding local initiatives, organizations, and artists to engage the public and commemorate the occasion. One such commission was to design the centennial time capsule. Local artist Stephen Hendee entered the competition and won with his Monument to the Simulacrum.

Hendee reportedly designed the mountainous Monument, which sits atop a concrete cylinder and protects the time capsule, in the image of nearby Sunrise Mountain. But he walked those reports back, suggesting the bond between the two isn’t so tight. “It vaguely resembles Sunrise,” he told me when I asked him if the remarks were true. “As much as it can with the scale.”

But the Monument to the Simulacrum1 looks more like he modeled it on the sharp geometry of Cézanne’s later paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire than anything else. And while this is not true, perhaps it is fitting; the sculpture was dedicated to Jean Baudrillard, the late French philosopher who criticized places like Las Vegas as being a “simulacrum” and a “desert of the real” in his 1986 philosophical travelogue America. Of course, Baudrillard had more pointed words for Las Vegas, calling the city “that great whore on the other side of the desert,” an “abject cultural phenomenon,” and “the acme of prostitution and theatricality,” but it was his insistence on notions of simulation, simulacrum, and “hyperreality” that resonate most.

Monument to the Simulacrum, Stephen Hendee

Hendee didn’t intend to dedicate Monument to Baudrillard from the outset, but news of Baudrillard’s death broke as Hendee was finishing the sculpture and the artist pushed that Monument be dedicated to the philosopher. “The concept of making a representation of a mountain effectively demonstrates the procession of the image as outlined by Baudrillard,” Hendee said.

“But why a mountain?” I asked.

“The mountain form can also be seen as a diagram, of a rise, an apex, and then decent,” he said. A boom and bust then—a stimulant and a depressant, a hit of dopamine and then a crash—feelings that, say, prospectors, gamblers, and pleasure-seekers would know well.

Perhaps the cycle of life and death is something Hendee understood too, as his website ominously marks “2007-2105” as the dates of Monument to the Simulacrum. I asked Hendee if 2105 was the death date of Monument — if the sculpture would be destroyed when opening the time capsule in 2105. “It’s not necessary for the sculpture covering the capsule to be destroyed,” he told me. “Hopefully they’ll just lift it off?”

“Lifting off” is also a euphemism for a sudden and forceful ascent. Choice words. Vegas was, after all, built ex nihilo and in a bone-dry basin of the Mojave Desert. Nevermind that it took a marvel of engineering—the Hoover Dam—to supply the city with its water and its population, both a boon and boom. But, with reports of drought and Lake Mead’s lowest level of water since the reservoir was filled in the 1930s, one wonders how long the experiment will all last. Let’s not forget that Baudrillard also called Vegas “sublime,” perhaps in acknowledgement of the miracle of its existence. Apart from the mountains, the desert, and the creosote trees, everything else here probably shouldn’t be.

After a week of boozing, slot-machine noise, and contact highs in the manufactured oases otherwise known as casinos, we felt as if we shouldn’t be here either. Even the indoors couldn’t prevent the low humidity from reminding us we didn’t belong by chapping our lips, drying out our sinuses, and causing nosebleeds. Against all good sense, we sought reprieve in the least welcoming place: the arid Nevada landscape. We drove down Interstate 15 and through the Mojave basin to Goodsprings, a “ghost town” one online advertisement promised, and crept around the village like lost souls. There was nothing to see but the Pioneer Saloon, with its imitation brick facade stamped in tin. We pulled over and walked in.

The Pioneer Saloon has a dark lore. Being advertised as “the oldest bar” in Sin City, one would expect sleazy and spectacular tales. Bullet holes puncture its walls. It was also the place Clark Gable waited to hear that his wife Carole Lombard had died in a plane crash on nearby Mt. Potosi, I’m told. But nothing was more frightening than the legend of Pioneer Saloon’s good food. Deceived in Vegas again, I thought as we left the saloon in search of something more substantial.

Seven Magic Mountains

We left the Pioneer Saloon and drove north on Old Las Vegas Boulevard, unsatisfied and hungry, until something caught our attention; seven fluorescent cairn-like towers of boulders stood out against the drab and khaki landscape. It was Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone’s Seven Magic Mountains. I pulled over.

The Nevada Museum of Art commissioned Seven Magic Mountains, which opened to fanfare in 2016. Each year, thousands of visitors drive some 10-miles south of Las Vegas to see the 30-foot-tall towers in a dried lake bed. On land maintained by the Bureau of Land Management, the totems have permission to stand until the end of 2021. That is, unless another extension is given (at the moment, one hasn’t).

Seven Magic Mountains2 is made of huge, locally sourced limestone boulders stacked on top of one another and painted with environmentally friendly pigments: a fluorescent excess of dayglo yellow, hot pink, rocket red, safety orange, and glowing green next to a pure white, a tar black, and a shimmering silver. In the distance, real mountains surround the installation. Further still, Las Vegas.

Works like Seven Magic Mountains are meant to be immersive experiences, ones in which the viewer can interact with art. And amid these neon towers, far from the neon lights of Las Vegas, the artist wanted visitors to reflect on deep questions like artificiality, the environment, and Las Vegas’s precarious position in the desert. According to the work of art’s official website, Seven Magic Mountains “offers a creative critique of the simulacra of destinations like Las Vegas.”

But it is unclear if visitors actually get the point.

Perhaps a casualty of its own success, the work has receded into the background. Visitors posed for selfies in front of the towers, taking photos undoubtedly destined for social media sites like Instagram. But I wonder if the work of art has come to aid and abet superficiality instead of questioning it.

I saw ironic inversions and twists everywhere: snapshots of artificial lives captured in front of what was meant to be a critique of artificiality; the towers’ bright paint fading under the Nevada sun; bright orange construction barriers blocking off the seven pillars, and a crew of two men maneuvering boom lifts around the towers to apply a fresh layer of paint. What would Baudrillard say about it all?

As we were about to leave, a dust devil formed by Seven Magic Mountains and cut along the length of the site. A young boy started after it. “Wait for me,” a much younger girl said in Spanish as she chased after him. Without notice, the dust devil changed direction and plowed into the children, sending them onto the sandy ground screaming and covering their heads. When the whirlwind cleared, the boy carried the girl back to her parents. She had lost a shoe in the dust-up, left behind somewhere in the desert. There probably is a metaphor here, I thought.

Swallowing the blue pill

Though the two works invite visitors to reflect on the artificial, it seems like the invitation is often declined. The Monument is no monument anyone really visits. It is fenced off in the Historic Fifth Street School’s Centennial Plaza and in a secluded space relatively few tourists go. You won’t find the Monument on any “top-10 things to see in Vegas” list. You won’t even find it on TripAdvisor.

And visitors to the Seven Magic Mountains seemed to be more focused on posting selfies on Instagram than they were on contemplating art, artificiality, or irony, for that matter. If the actions of tourists at Seven Magic Mountains is any indicator of broader trends, visitors to Vegas would rather deliberately take part in the simulacrum than take the red pill.

I’m not sure we should lose sleep over it; after all, I suppose the point of Las Vegas is to stay up all night, to turn the brain off, and become slaves to our more animalistic instincts.

Yet as any departure from the artificial is a welcomed escape, if not to contemplate on the nature of artifice, however contrived or momentary, then into nature itself, it is telling that even the real mountains surrounding Las Vegas get neglected. Parks like Red Rock Canyon receive some 5% of the amount of visitors as Las Vegas does on normal years, a lamentable number considering the mountains that surround Red Rock Canyon are far more colorful and compelling than the Seven Magic Mountains or any Las Vegas attraction could ever hope to be.

  1. Photo of Monument to the Simulacrum via – Retrieved 22 June 2021 ↩︎

  2. Cover photo of Seven Magic Mountains via – Retrieved 22 June 2021 ↩︎