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O Magazine


Chapter 2:
About Salvation Mountain

Maite Muñoz

Joan! It’s been a long time since my last letter to you. Three furtive trips to Barcelona, as many to Mexico, and among ones and the others I’m trying to settle in the city that is now taking me in. I spend my days in airports and planes, always with two or three books, my computer, eye drops and a comfortable dark blue tracksuit that has sparkled many funny situations (the last one yesterday, when a woman asked me if I had come to Mexico to compete, convinced by my outfit and the vegetarian food I was served in the plane).

Among all these comings and goings there have been many wonderful encounters, inspiring people and projects I’d like to write to you about.

But let’s go step by step. Today I want to tell you about Salvation Mountain. Does it ring a bell? My approach won’t be a weepy one, and I won’t take advantage of the situation to praise or defend love. It’s more an attempt to share the discovery of an unusual story, that of a man and a mountain, of the aesthetic fascination it produced on me and the reflections on artistic creation that this caravan trip to a place 190 miles away from the house I live in Los Angeles invited me to do.

After more than three hours riding on never-ending straight roads and a brief stop at Salton Sea (a Martian place that was very well portrayed by Alma Har’el’s documentary Bombay Beach), we get to Salvation Mountain. The vision of the colourful mount, of a lysergic nature, in the midst of the south Californian desert, under a roaring sun, left me speechless. Around it there’s nothing except desert and a few old cars that people have abandoned and started decorating in the same colours of the mountain, and that now seem the product of a natural mimesis: surrealist, technicolor, psychedelic, kitsch, folk, insane and wonderful at the same time.

Love seems to be its central theme, with a ‘God Is Love’ message crowning the mountain. Hearts, vegetal ornamentation, flowers, birds, organic dots and lines: Biblical quotes are mixed with the hippie imaginary in this artificial mountain made up of clay adobe and bales of hay and thousands of kilos of white, blue, pink, yellow, red and green plastic paint shining under the sun.

A few tourists come with us to visit the mountain. We surround it, and climb the steps up to its peak, crowned with a white cross. We visit its interior galleries, take some pictures and get ready to cook in the caravan and eat under the canopy, looking at the mountain, mouths agape. This tourist attraction, ignored by the government and any entertainment companies, is ruled by common sense and no norm prevents us from setting up camp there, a few metres away from the mountain, for a few hours.

The origin of this mountain is a story of passion, uselessness and determination. Leonard Knight, an American army veteran who fought in the Korean War, lives a mystical experience that makes him approach the Christian god. From then on he will devote the rest of his existence to communicating his message of universal love. After a not very successful attempt of elevating to the sky, for everybody to see, a helium balloon showing his message, he decides to create a mountain in the midst of the Californian desert. In 1986 he initiates his first monument, a mountain made of concrete, sand, tree branches and scrap metal, most of them elements found in the desert. In 1989, after almost four years of intense work, the mountain falls down due to the lack of a stable structure, since it’s built following organic accumulation. In another instance of the tenacity and push of his faith, he undertakes the adventure of raising a second mountain taking as a base the remnants of the first. Having learned from his failure, he improves his technique and decides using adobe, covering it up with a thick layer of paint. Ten years later, the mountain becomes known in the surrounding areas. The US government starts feeling uneasy about this activity being carried out on its territory without its permission, overview and benefit. So it declares the area toxic and orders the demolition of the mountain, claiming the land is being polluted by the metallic components of the paint. Despite all the pressures, Leonard won’t be stopped: he gets thousands of support signatures as well as an analysis by an independent lab that proves that the negative impact of the materials used in the building of the mountain isn’t relevant for the environment. He wins the battle, goes on with his project thanks to donations and the work of volunteers, attracted by his enthusiasm.

In 2001, Salvation Mountain is declared National Folk Art Site by the Folk Art Society of America; a year later it’s declared a national treasure of the USA: a radical change of status.

During all this time and until 2011, three years before his death, Leonard lived in his truck, at the foot of the mountain, where he relentlessly worked under the desert’s scorching sun.

The mountain has also an annex, a house with a vaulted roof of Native American inspiration that Knight built but where he decided not to live. It also holds a museum, an ambitious work in progress consisting of a series of galleries with vaults held by pillars made out of tyres, in a structure of trees and adobe. Leonard wanted to show inside these galleries the documentation of the mountain’s creation process, its history.

I found the mountain aesthetically wonderful, but what often comes to my mind since I visited it is its history: Leonard, like Sisyphus, constantly building with his own hands a mountain that keeps on destroying itself, insistently applying layers and layers of paint that keep on being absorbed by clay until they disappear. He said that he had painted it more than twenty times, and it has been painted again and again after his death. I think of Sisyphus, but I don’t see here a component of punishment, of condemnation, as in the Greek tragedy. It has more to do with the absurd, with heroism, with uselessness and joy, topics we should ask Albert Camus about in relation to his reflections on the Greek myth.

Leonard claimed he was happy building his mountain. His conviction and his faith gave a reason to his perseverance, and his project gave meaning to his life.

At Yelp there are more than 750 photographs of people who have visited the mountain; it was featured in Sean Penn’s 2007 film Into the Wild, also in the music video for Coldplay’s Birds, and in a million fashion editorials (or that’s what it seems after a quick Pinterest search): a history of faith, and a monument to love, turned into a pop icon.

This fantasy world created by Knight also appears quoted in many outsider art references, inside that difficult to define category that many refer to as well as art brut (according to Dubuffet) or ignorant style (for graffiti experts). I found out about this by chance, with the precaution of someone that has only half-read Foucault’s History of Madness and knows how to doubt anything of what all through history has been qualified as mental disorder.

This art is opposed to high art, an opposition being already quite complicated and erratic. From the analysis I read on the theme I extract but one idea: that of liberated art. The artist doesn’t feel the constant pressure to innovate, the need to be recognised, and completely ignores the history of art and the context of contemporary art. Those artists labelled as ‘outsiders’ are self-taught, amateurs, have no artistic studies, no PhDs, no Master’s degrees, no residencies, but are compelled by a need to create non-stop. Sometimes they don’t even have paint or materials and so they scratch walls with stones or embroider with threads they take out of their own sheets. In many cases, their activity is initiated after a trauma, a mystical experience or a vision. In their work, ornaments grow organically and the lack of previous planning is quite obvious. Spontaneously, shapes end up building a whole, in a constant improvisation that is the sum of its parts. A horror vacui takes them to fill the space with vegetable forms, organic and rounded, conquering the whole space without knowing when to stop. Writing appears quite often as well in works classified as ‘outsider art’, writings with a great plastic and visual component, close to graffiti, of an almost sculptural nature, like Leonard’s mountain. The fact they recycle, using materials at hand, and their sculptural and labyrinthine constructions remind me of Kurt Switchers’s Merzbau, a 3D collage. The difficulty to distinguish between structural and decorative elements, with a prominence of ornamentation, are common elements in Leonard’s project as well as those of other artists classified as ‘outsiders’.

The common elements of what has been labelled as outsider art and those of Salvation Mountain are evident, but be it that kind of artwork or just a mere wonderful insanity, behind that mountain there’s the story of a tireless creative work, a life project of great devotion, of a joyful and vitalist nature, far removed from any notions of social and economical success, and with the only mission of transmitting to the world the idea of universal love. Coming from the city of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, kale salads, cold press juices, never-ending networking and red lipstick and expensive champagne inaugurations, finding this mountain is a bit like a hallucination.

The fact that the 2013 Biennale di Venezia, in its 55th edition, included an exhibition of Carlo Zinelli’s work, an artist classified inside this category; that the MoMA has acquired some of his works, and that the market has set its eyes on these artists looking for a new commercial boom, not only gives us something to ponder about the context of contemporary art, but also about the creating condition when seeing these indefatigable artists work non-stop to later abandon their work once accomplished, with no more pretension than the creation act itself, of living the process, with no beginning and no end. Long live Salvation Mountain! To you, Captain! You’ve won the battle!*

A big hug,


*(Footnote): Words written by Moreno Villa when talking about the adventures and misfortunes of the extraordinary Dr. Atl and his stubborn study of the Paricutín volcano.