For the past five years, Bruce Munro’s massively scaled light installations have been making their way through American botanical gardens. Pennsylvania’s influential Longwood Gardens, in the town of Kennett Square, launched the British artist’s invasion in 2012, and since then more than a dozen institutions—conservatories, art museums, and galleries—have followed suit, making the fifty-eight-year-old Munro one of the most popular illumination artists you’ve never heard of.
Think “light artist,” and if you’re an aficionado of the global gallery and biennial circuit, a roll call slips off the tongue: James Turrell, Leo Villareal, Robert Irwin. The name that likely won’t come to mind is Munro’s. That’s not just because the artist’s frequent venues—those greenhouses and conservatories— are unlikely spots for the art crowd. It’s also because Munro who’s based in Wiltshire, England, is concerned not with art-world politics but in relating to his audience. Munro, he’ll happily tell you, is an everyday guy who just wants to connect.
“I break walls down by making things very accessible,” he says. “I’m not trying to tease people or test them intellectually. I’m trying to represent thoughts and feelings in the materials that I love experimenting with.”
That spirit of inclusiveness has proven a strong selling point. For audiences, a Munro show is a magical thing, incorporating sometimes tens of thousands of LED lights and complex webs of fiber optics, which the artist and his team intersperse, embed, and plant in natural environments. His nighttime installations enliven gardens, forests, and fields as well as large-scale indoor atria. Some works also incorporate sound—from feel-good tracks by Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the cacophony of cockatoos.
“I love placing something in a natural landscape and seeing how the landscape changes it and how it changes the landscape,” Munro says. “There’s theater to this—it’s a happening.” In that spirit, his works ask viewers to pay attention, to be present with earth and light. For Munro, it’s about probing the existential human experience, something he seems increasingly to express in his works, likening them to the experience of life itself. “We land on this earth for a set amount of years and then we’re gone,” he says. “What I’m doing is what a human being does. You’re here and then you’re gone.”
Installations can be massive. A recent exhibition at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum included a version of Munro’s popular Field of Light that incorporated tens of thousands of individual stems of fiber optics. The work ran the length of nearly three football fields. That’s almost twenty-four acres covered in lights, fed with a slowly changing spectrum of color that seemed to make the hills undulate and breathe.
“It’s harmony in a way that is almost biomimicry,” says Paul B. Redman, Longwood president and CEO, of Munro’s capacity to blend his work into nature. The artist’s 2012 exhibition in Kennett Square covered twenty-three acres and included two versions of the Field of Light concept, incorporating 27,000 illuminated stems. Although “they’re not living, breathing things,” Redman says, “they have this surrealism to them. Field of Light in our forest almost felt like fireflies.”
“He’s the kind of installation artist that you don’t want to say no to,” says Wendy DePaolis, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum curator who organized the Munro show, which closed in April. “This idea of synthesizing art and nature with light is something the Upper Midwest craves. The days get shorter, the nights get longer.” Munro’s attraction to the fanciful tales of C. S. Lewis, which inspired some of the works chosen by DePaolis, led him to create something of a winter wonderland for Minneapolis area audiences.
Munro’s life as an artist came together later than usual. It wasn’t until his mid-forties that he began creating the immersive installations he’s now known for. Although he graduated from art school, the practical matters of earning a living and supporting a young family led him to work in architectural lighting, first in Australia and then in the United Kingdom.
But landscape—and the British landscape tradition—remained close to his heart. As a child, Munro spent time with his father in the southwestern English fishing village of Salcombe in Devon. “I was about eight or nine, and my father’d take my brother and sister off fishing and I’d get bored,” Munro recalls. “I’d say, ‘Can you drop me off at the beach with my paints and sketch pads?’ I would sit and paint. When I got a little bit older I took walks around the cliffs.”
In his thirties, while living and backpacking in Australia, Munro struck upon the idea for Field of Light at the massive sandstone Ayers Rock—also called Uluru—in central Australia’s Northern Territory. He was awed by the innate beauty of the scene and sketched out designs for illuminations that would mirror the powerful natural forces he felt emanating from the spot.
“If I’d been a decent painter I might have painted a picture,” Munro says. “But I was a crap painter.”
It would be another twelve years before those early sketches became the first iteration of Field of Light —and the works’ inaugural run happened in the artist’s backyard. By then, Munro was in his mid-forties, his father had died several years before, and he found his own sketchbooks brimming with ideas never realized. With his mother’s admonishments in the back of his mind—“Be a doer, not a talker”—Munro took out a loan and createdField of Light on the grounds around his farmhouse. Word of the work spread in the community. Friends brought along their friends. A few visitors were moved to tears. A phenomenon was born.
But it was only last year that Field of Light was realized at ground zero for its inspiration—Uluru itself. The work is currently on view adjacent the giant rock and will remain through March 2018. Like so much of Munro’s work, it’s proven immensely popular.
Munro installations are considered by their host venues to be unqualified successes; evidence both anecdotal and numerical confirms that they’re people magnets. Longwood’s attendance nearly doubled during the 2012 Munro exhibition from the same period the year before.
“It was a goal of ours to expand our audience base and reach a younger arts-and-culture carnivore,” Redman says. “That is exactly what happened. It was a very diverse audience, a younger audience. People were driving for over three hours to see the artwork.”
“We are always trying to find ways to merge art and nature and marry these two worlds,” says Bonnie Roche, the exhibitions manager at Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, in Columbus, Ohio. She mounted a Munro show in fall of 2013 after hearing about the Longwood installation. “His work has such a natural feel to it. They fit right into these spaces and marry together.”
The complexity and scale of Munro’s art aren’t without their challenges. It’s often an institution’s first nighttime exhibition; staff must establish pathway lighting, ensure that electricity reaches the far corners of their facility, and work longer hours. An installation generally runs about a month—not unusual in the contemporary art world, but often requiring scores of volunteers in addition to Munro’s small team.
That the local community is invited to help install the work was considered an advantage by Julie Maguire, the visual-art advisor to Green Box Arts Festival in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado. She will oversee the Munro installations opening on July 1, 2017.
“When we can involve people in the community with the artwork, it seems to resonate more with the community,” Maguire says. “So that was really a plus.”
But not all locals are keen on cooperating. Unexpected visitors to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum caused a ruckus, upending the delicate filaments that made their way across the ground to feed the luminous bulbs. Building mechanic Jeff Stuewe’s investigation of the outages unearthed a cadre of non ticketed guests. “We’ve been blaming it on the turkeys,” Stuewe says. “But I think the rabbits have been culprits too.” The wild animals had Stuewe and his team scurrying to reconnect stems to their wires.
“We’ve had our issues, but we’ve been able to deal with it,” Stuewe says. “Everybody loves the exhibit. That’s the biggest thing.”
Bruce Munro was the featured artist at the 2017 Green Box Arts Festival in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado. For more information visit greenboxarts.org.
Photo credit: Tom Kimmell