ribbon of light illustrates an important aspect of Munro’s work: he wants it to be a balm for the soul. His dazzling displays are backed up with ideas and theorems, but he also wants them to lift our spirits; to remind us of beauty and transcendence in a world ravaged by disease and war.
He has always been fascinated by light, he says. As a child growing up in Hertfordshire, Munro was mesmerized by going to the cinema – “the light on the screen was beautiful”. At Christmas, he spent hours testing each bulb of the light garland adorning the tree.
When he enrolled to study fine art at Bristol Polytechnic, a career as an artist of some sort seemed inevitable. But Munro, by his own admission, was slow to find his calling. He dropped out of university for 14 months, went back to school, graduated and then joined the ranks of young Britons heading to Australia for fun in the sun.
Settling in Sydney, he enrolled in a course organized by Saatchi & Saatchi who convinced him that he was not cut out for publicity. One night his tutor took him out for a drink and told him he had a “butterfly spirit.” “I thought it was rude at first, but I knew what he meant,” he recalled. “He suggested I stick to one thing, which was when I decided to work exclusively with light. I still have a butterfly mind – it goes all over the place – but today, I look at everything through the prism of light.
Sydney favored his career – he started a commercial lighting business – but the outback made him an artist. Camping in Uluru with his fiancée, now wife, Serena, he was mesmerized. “I felt there was something in the air there – not just in Uluru, but in the outback as a whole. The rawness, the light and this incredible energy. I thought “My God, it’s like being plugged into the mains”.
It is in Uluru that Munro conceives the work that will make his name: a field of light that blooms at night like seeds of the desert soaked by the rain. What he didn’t know was that it would take him 12 years to realize his vision.
Back in Britain, Munro tried to become a painter and failed. He is more successful as a bespoke light designer, but the artistic dreams forged in Australia haunt him. When he and Serena bought the farmhouse in Wiltshire, he realized that its large field and the outlines of the Long Knoll – a grass-covered chalk ridge behind the house – were the perfect backdrop for his art. . He created the first iteration of field of light – the one that dazzles unwary helicopter pilots – using 15,000 light rods that had been used in a display case he designed for London department store Harvey Nichols.
The business plunged him into debt. But he convinced Eden Project – a collection of massive biomes in Cornwall home to flora from around the world – to erect field of light. The project attracted international attention and his first paid commissions as an artist followed.
The 62-year-old man who greets me in the studio meeting room seems genuinely amazed by his success. “When you put a load of lights in a field, you never imagine you’ll be sitting here talking about it 20 years later. In retrospect, it was a dumb thing to do, but something told me I had to.
He insists that he is still uncomfortable describing himself as an artist. “I’m not smart enough to be a contemporary artist. I’m a bit old-fashioned – I deal with feelings and the atmosphere they create. The only part of the art world that really concerns me is someone giving you a job, because it pays the bills and allows me to do another project.
Like many people in the creative sector, her work dried up at the start of the pandemic. The virus has also caused the postponement of Bruce Munro: From Sunrise Road, the first museum exhibition in Australia of his work. The exhibition, originally scheduled to open at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in June 2021, will finally debut on June 25. Munro insists the long delay was for the best. “In a way, it was a blessing that we didn’t continue [in 2021],” he says. “It would have been awful to have the exhibit there and no one to see it because of a lockdown. It would have been very depressing.
The title of his Australian exhibition refers to the street in Palm Beach in Sydney where he and Serena lived in the 1980s. One of the works, Place and time, is a color grid extracted from three photographic transparencies that Munro captured at the time. He compares it to “recreating a memory”.
The undeniable centerpiece of the exhibition is Ferryman crossing, an evocation of an “abstract luminescent river” composed of more than 4000 CDs. It is inspired by the novel by Herman Hesse Siddhartha and the text of the book will be flashed in morse code on the surface of the discs.
Morse code is also used in reflections, a series of circular and kaleidoscopic digital light animations projected onto the floor of the gallery. The one Munro shows me on his computer is inspired by Wordsworth’s poem I was walking lonely like a cloud. Set to music by Prokofiev, it is a slow swirl of daffodil-yellow shapes; mesmerizing and undeniably beautiful.
I ask him what unites these works besides the innovative use of light. “It’s a way of shortening great ideas,” he ventures. Another answer could be this: they are all products of a butterfly mind.
Bruce Munro: From Sunrise Road is at the Heide Museum of Modert Art, from June 25 to October 16.