Written by: 
Heather Noel

Alicia Eggert's art has reached new heights, literally.

In October, the UNT sculpture professor and interdisciplinary artist climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. At each campsite during the week-long trek up the mountain, she temporarily installed one of her newest light sculptures, "You are (on) a mountain." The neon sign, which is 8 feet by 8 feet, illuminates green while alternating between the phrases "You are on a mountain" and "You are a mountain."

Alicia Eggert with a portion of the sculpture that contains the letters, U, N, T

"It really did feel like we were becoming part of the mountain, which is the concept behind the sign," Eggert says. "We were eating the food, drinking the water and breathing the air--being sustained by the mountain."

The experience was unlike any other she has ever had both personally and professionally. Through her art, Eggert makes language and time tangible. She is known to exhibit in both unconventional places such as the uninhabited islands of Maine and more traditional art spaces like the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which acquired her "This Present Moment" light sculpture in 2021.

The Kilimanjaro installation started as a conversation between her and Satyabrata Dam, who Eggert met while participating in the TED Fellows program. Dam, a renowned mountain climber and globe-trotting explorer, was explaining the mindset he takes on when embarking on a climb.

"Satya doesn't see mountains as obstacles that he's trying to overcome. He really sees climbing as becoming-one-with the mountain," Eggert says. "And he sees his body as an extension of the landscape. I found that philosophy inspiring."

You are on a mountain sculpture

Eggert joked to Dam that she could make one of her neon signs that says, "You are on a mountain" and "You are a mountain." That jest quickly turned into plans for a real expedition and thought-provoking sculpture about the human relationship with nature.

Having never done an installation of this type, let alone climbed a mountain of this magnitude, Eggert had a few challenges to work through.  

To prepare physically, she began walking on a treadmill every day for an hour on the steepest incline and taking up to 5-hour hikes on the weekends.

Her sculpture had to be portable, made of materials easily assembled and broken down since they would be mounting it each night at camp. That's why she opted for one-inch square aluminum tubing with quick connects, enabling the sign structure to mostly snap into place.

Rather than the glass she normally uses, the sculpture's letters were made from LED neon making them more durable and weatherproof to endure Kilimanjaro's multiple ecological climate zones. The lighting was powered by a small battery pack Eggert charged with a solar panel. And all the components of the neon sign had to fit in two, 26-inch duffle bags weighing in under 20 kilograms per the local regulations inside the Mount Kilimanjaro National Park.

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

"There were definitely some hurdles in the beginning with figuring out new materials and processes, and where to source things from, but once everything came together, it was quite a simple design," Eggert says.

But the meaning behind the sign is not simple by any means.

"My work is always about trying to peel back layers of understanding and getting to a place where we can start to ask bigger, existential questions," Eggert says.

With "You are (on) a mountain," Eggert hopes those who experience it will start to explore their own relationship with nature, hopefully developing more compassion in the ways their actions impact the natural world around them.

To continue the project, Eggert will use photos and video with interviews from locals captured during the Kilimanjaro trip as part of an upcoming exhibition. She also plans to bring the artwork to other mountains in the future to raise awareness about the importance of environmental stewardship.

"This project has evolved into a way of studying environmental personhood and indigenous world views, and those perspectives are something I'd like to elevate," Eggert says. "Many indigenous cultures see geographical features as living relatives, and I think seeing our kinship with the land in a different way will mean we will be more likely to protect and preserve our environment rather than exploit and pollute it."