If, after sundown, you visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Uluru—the red monolithic sandstone rock in the Northern Territory that’s one of Australia’s most famous landmarks—you’ll see a spectacle of 50,000 fantastical, fairy-like spindles of violet, blue, ochre, and white light spread out and swaying across a field.
With the mysterious ancient red rock as its backdrop, and surrounded by desert and sparse bushland, the lit spindles seem to dance and glow in communion with the rugged landscape and the starry night sky.
(Related: Artful motion: kinetic art in Singapore)
Field of Light, the large-scale light art installation fashioned from fibre optic light sources within glass and acrylic structures, is one of the most prominent works of English-Australian artist Bruce Munro, and different versions of it have been displayed across the United Kingdom, Australia, and North America, as well as in Mexico, Denmark, and South Korea. Field of Light Uluru has been so popular that it has been extended indefinitely.
Munro’s other works include Time and Again, with 37 stainless steel “lilies” laid out in a convex pattern that shimmer with radial starbursts of light; C-scales, an audiovisual installation composed of a reflective sea of CDs and DVDs; and Water-Towers, which consists of 69 towers, each built with more than 200 stacked bottles filled with water and illuminated by optic fibres that seem to dance to the music as they change colour in an offset pattern.
All mesmerise and remind us of the delicate relationships between nature and technology.
“Field of Light is my expression of how Uluru made me feel,” says Munro, who at 62 hasn’t lost the boyish gleam in his eyes. Having grown up in the UK where he was born, the artist first visited Uluru in 1992 while touring Australia with his then fiancée and now wife Serena.
He beams excitedly as tells me, “Uluru opens you up and brings to the fore feelings that are hard to describe or express. When I am there, I just know that we are all a part of something much bigger than ourselves and I find great comfort when I remember that everything is connected, absolutely everything.”
Light art — in which sculptures produce light or light is manipulated to create visual expressions—became a respected visual art form in the 1960s, thanks to the pioneering work of American installation artists Robert Irwin and James Turrell.
Munro, whose works have been displayed in the Sharjah Art Museum in the United Arab Emirates, the Guggenheim in New York, and the Salisbury Cathedral as well as the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Pirelli Garden in London, has certainly earned his place among the world’s light art masters.
In his early 20s, while living in Sydney, Munro aspired to be a painter. However, in 1985, he discovered light as his new creative medium after participating in a commercial lighting design training course led by global advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi.
“I read an article in the Sydney Morning Herald about Saatchi & Saatchi—that the people who worked for the agency used their imaginations to make a living, and it looked like they made a good living! So I applied for an interview with the company. They offered me a place in an evening course to learn more about the industry,” he says.
A plastic product with ultraviolet properties caught his attention during the course. “It was an extruded tube on a reel of varying diameters and colours. When it was irradiated with UV light, it magically glowed. I was transfixed by this item, and soon I started Neo Neon, a fledgling business where I made shop signs and display lighting around this product.”
Neo Neon caught the attention of furniture and lighting company de de ce, which purchased Munro’s business and hired him first as their R&D man and then as Head of Production for the company’s signage branch.
While he was with de de ce, he spent three years in a factory learning about the manufacturing and production of lighting products before he left to pursue a career as an artist.
“Working in the factory was not my thing, but the experience was invaluable. Every job was a lesson,” says Munro, who previously worked as a commis chef, a shop assistant, a bricklayer, an aerobics instructor, and an illustrator.
While at de de ce, a friend quipped that Munro had a butterfly mind and needed a focus. “At the time, I thought it was an insult,” recalls Munro. But he pondered those words and decided to commit to creating his own art with light as his medium.
When he left, he threw himself into light art—despite the financial uncertainties of an artist’s life—and hasn’t looked back since. “I realised that my love for art was a life-long passion. I really had little choice in my decision to be an artist, it’s just who I am and what I do,” he says.
These days, he’s not ashamed to admit that he is an incorrigible daydreamer. “As a young boy, summer afternoons in the classroom created the perfect environment for a good daydream, and I would often be rudely interrupted by the teacher’s chalk whizzing past my desk.”
“I think daydreaming has served me well, though. Daydreaming involves consciously releasing the mind to explore possibilities, and this is a great way to discover solutions to even the most pragmatic of endeavours,” he says.
Currently, Munro is working on an installation near a lake in Cullulleraine, a small town in Northwest Victoria, Australia. The locals have high hopes that it will help revive the region’s lagging tourism and boost their economy, and Munro is more than happy to help.
“I can’t say too much about the exhibition just yet, but it’s something that will help people to decompress and connect with the world. I feel this is something everyone needs now in these troubled times,” he says.
Bruce Munro’s Upcoming Exhibitions
From Sunrise Road
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Victoria, Australia June 25 to Oct 16 2022
Light: Installations By Bruce Munro
Longwood Gardens, Philadelphia, USA June 30 to Oct 30 2022
Niseko Hanazono Resort, Hokkaido, Japan July 1 to Nov 2024
Photos: Bruce Munro, Chris Hardy, Mark Picktall, Serena Munro & Christopher John