courtesy of Peter Hassen.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Hassen.

You’re so deep in the Colorado wilderness that for days the only human face you’ve seen is your own, in the reflection of a mountain stream or a tin canteen. You turn a bend, and where are you? In the rubble of an ancient Buddhist shrine?

This moment of shock, of disorientation, is precisely what the artist Peter Hassen wishes to induce. In the dark of night, he hauls massive monuments onto public lands, in remote areas of the American wilderness. The monuments are cast-stone replicas of sacred sculptures: a Buddha head, a dancing Shiva, a hunched Egyptian falcon. It takes weeks of intensive labor for Hassen to mold and cast each one, and then there is a grueling overland trek, with 600 pounds of dead weight, a handcart, and only a small crew. Once the site is found and the monument erected, Hassen has to let it go, not knowing what the monument’s fate will be or whether he’ll ever see it again.

Recently, at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art in northern California, I encountered a series of giant, panoramic photographs of Hassen’s “Landscape Interventions,” as he calls them. The photographs are all that remain to him of each undertaking, and I found them both visually stunning and conceptually riveting. No matter how radically out of place—a giant bodhisattva leaning under quaking yellow aspen or a black Nevada sky—to me each sculpture looked as though it had been holding its ground for centuries. Though its presence was actually just as transgressive as graffiti sprayed on a post office wall, it looked as though it belonged there.

But the friend who’d come to see the show with me was having none of it. Steve is both a painter and a passionate backpacker, and while I was making little sounds of amazement, he was looking more and more irritated. “Why can’t he just leave the wilderness alone?” he exploded. “I hate it when humans have to leave their mark on nature. It’s like animals marking their territory. You know how people leave those little piles of rocks along trails? Well, when I come upon them, I kick them.”

I knew that my friend had a misanthropic streak, but to kick one of those carefully balanced little towers of stones—that seemed positively mean to me, and I told him so.

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