Seeing the Light
by Terry Conway
Bruce Munro is a clever man. A British artist working in lighting design installation, some on massive scales, his magical illuminated sculptures have showcased tens of thousands of tiny globes of light pulsating across darkened landscapes.
You will also find an ethereal quality to his work. Two years ago Munro was commissioned to create a pair of installations at the Salisbury cathedral built in the 13th century. His work has been showcased at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum as well as in the windows of the swanky Harvey Nichols department store. All drew international praise.
Still, his most valued tool is his notebook that he’s carried in a pocket since art college days.
“I go through one about every six months and everything that touches my life goes into it,” said Munro, 53, on a recent morning at Longwood Gardens, located in the Brandywine Valley about 30 miles southwest of Philadelphia, PA. “Light is my passion so I’ve always scribbled down thoughts or sculptural sketch ideas. It’s funny, you write down a couple of words and later it will take you back to that moment.”
Munro makes his American debut with a 23-acre exhibition at Longwood Gardens that will showcase never before seen views of the venue at night. With the garden-wide exhibition LIGHT!, Longwood is transformed into a “Forest of Light” where guests can wander through a serene forest of 20,000 illuminated stems reminiscent of blooming flowers.
“Water Towers” has been in Munro’s notebook in one form or another since age 21. Longwood’s meadows play host to a collection of 69 symmetric towers that create a glowing maze of light that change hues to music. In “Waterlilies in Bloom,” Munro pays homage to Longwood’s iconic waterlily platters and sets his shimmering interpretations to float on the Large Lake. Nearby, the 6,000 stem installation “Field of Light” creates an enchanting glow. “Arrow Spring” artfully mixes horticultural splendor and candles to create a hillside stream. The show runs from June 9 until September 1.
“This show is very relevant to a garden like this,” Munro noted. “It will connect with the landscape. Make it slightly different, and hopefully give people the opportunity to revisit the landscape and look at it with a different eye. They can absorb the experience through another medium. And, finally, leave them with lovely memories.”
Where did this fascination with light arise?
“Everything starts with light, it was the beginning of creation,” Munro replied. “It’s just such a clean, pure medium. It does have a physical presence, but we can’t grasp it.
“I remember at age five being amazed by a tinsely Christmas tree that caught the light and reflectivity,” Munro said. “Lying under a window on a summer afternoon watching the dust motes float in the sunshine. It’s there and it’s gone. We had torches (flashlights) as kids. They were our magic lanterns that took us to unknown places.”
In the spring of 2010 Munro was contacted by Longwood representatives about the possibility of staging a large-scale lighting installation.
“I read some books and looked at Longwood on the Internet but you can’t really get a true sense,” Munro remembered. “When I walked in the first day into those glass houses I thought I was coming to Buckingham Palace. It is like being in a sweet shop, isn’t it? I spent the next few days walking around everywhere absorbing everything. It was a dream come true for me.”
In early April Munro travelled to the region with a team of eight young lighting designers that work at a studio on his farm where he lives with his wife and four children near the town of Bath in southwest England.
“Now that I’ve been here these last two months I’ve realized what a special place these gardens are,” Munro related. “As the world progresses we get less of this natural space. These are our touchstones where we can connect with our roots. Also it’s not exclusive, anyone can come to relax and enjoy it.”
Munro started the project with sketches in his notebook which evolved into computer generated images.
“The concept started with a very natural idea that comes from your imagination,” Munro explained.”But there are lots of logistics to make it all come together. It’s a huge business here- metal works shops, electrical shops. It’s always a team effort. They were 40 volunteers a day giving their free time and good spirit, plus our eight people, plus the Longwood staff who are always here. ”
Munro utilizes ordinary materials in his light installations that focus on low-energy output, and all materials will be recycled into future installations by the artist. Munro is talking with other gardens and venues about recreating the show.
“What appealed to us about Bruce’s work was his sensitivity to the landscape,” noted Paul Redman, Longwood’s director. “He shares Longwood’s commitment to sustainable practices.”
Inside the Conservatory, the Orangery is adorned with six grand “Snowball Chandeliers” suspended from the towering ceiling. Each chandelier is more than nine feet in diameter and formed by 127 perfectly uniform glass balls. “Light Shower” rains more than 1600 drops of twinkling lights over the flooded Fern Floor, creating a reflection that intensifies the shower.
The Music Room features a small collection of illuminated sculptures and models. In “Beach Walled Sand” visitors find 24 hand-cast glass impressions of Bantham Beach (South Devon, UK), in a wood structure, and a halogen light source with a hand-painted color wheel.
Munro says he was inspired to make “Field of Light” during a trip through the Australian red desert at age 20 in 1992. Driving along he would stop at night at roadside campsites which were often in stark contrast to the barren desert surrounding them. There he found sprinkler-fed oases of green, each one displaying a larger than life sculpture of surreal design and proportions -perhaps a giant banana, pineapple or Merino sheep. It was like an alien installation in the midst of nature.
The sculpture’s fiber-optic stems were dormant until darkness fell, and then under a blazing blanket of stars they would flower with gentle rhythms of light.
“The landscape was so powerful it felt like there was electricity coming from out of the ground,” Munro recalled. “I wrote the idea down in my notebook and it kept nagging at me.”
Two decades later his first light installation donned the windows of Harvey Nichols in London in November 2003. His most celebrated installation to date was “CDSea” at Long Knoll Field in June 2010. Munro’s appeal to the general public to collect unwanted CDs led to an ocean of 600,000 glimmering discs installed in a 10 acre field in Wiltshire, England. CDSea was the first of a number of self-funded installations using discarded or recycled materials.
Like all of Munro’s work, the Longwood light installation is about creating and connecting.
“It’s all about creating something for that moment, then I’m hoping that people will have their own little moment of fun or delight,” he noted.
How would Longwood’s founder, the legendary Pierre S. du Pont view LIGHT?
“I got a bit of a shiver up the back of my neck the first day I was walking around looking at the fountains and imaging the early years of Longwood,” Munro related. “I had read about him but seeing this horticulture showplace and everything surrounding it was truly amazing. He was such an eclectic man and visionary. Hopefully, if he’s looking down he would have a little smile upon his face.”
For more information, go to www.longwoodgardens.org