British Light Artist Bruce Munro Illuminates Montalvo

by Jean Schiffman

Bruce Munro creates a magic with light at this night-time exhibit on the grounds of the longtime nonprofit arts center in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains in Saratoga.

When Bruce Munro, the renowned British light installation artist, was 32 and traveling across the Australian desert, he had a nightmare about a giant wave that carried him to its crest, with a black presence looming behind him. “God almighty, that scared me,” he says now, at 59, on the phone from his studio in the countryside south of Bath, England. Later, when he thought of creating work inspired by fanciful stories from one of his favorite childhood series, British author C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia,” he realized that although the wave in that long-ago dream was frightening, he could re-invent it as a joyful wave, “with a sense of mystery to it.” It brought to mind Reepicheep’s wave, from the fifth book in the seven-book series, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” “That wonderful, still wave,” he muses. “There was something magical about the way [Lewis] described [it].”

At the book’s end, the valiant talking mouse Reepicheep sails east toward the wave, which Lewis described as “endlessly fixed in one place as you may often see at the edge of a waterfall…. about 30 feet high… rainbow colors.” Beyond it is the end of the world, and beyond that, the land of the god-like lion Aslan. (Lewis’ children’s books, like those of Tolkien and some of the other British children’s book writers of the early 20th century, were full of Christian imagery.) Munro was also inspired by Japanese painter Katsushika Hokusai’s “Wave off Kanagawa” and Australian filmmaker Peter Weir’s 1977 “The Last Wave,” which he saw as a teenager. “I guess over a lifetime, you see things all the time,” he reflects, “and something in your mind’s eye, from your childhood imagination, comes through.”

“Reepicheep’s Wave” is one of 10 illusory installations that comprise “Bruce Munro at Montalvo: Stories in Light,” a world-premiere night-time exhibit on the grounds of the longtime nonprofit arts center in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains in Saratoga. It’s a multi-hued wave 20 feet high and 46 feet wide, set on Montalvo’s Garden Stage and composed of 1,296 fiber optic lines, 1,296 weights, 18,000 vacuum-cast mussel shells enhanced by an unearthly, hypnotic auditory score. It’s the only one of the exhibit’s components that Munro created especially for Montalvo.

Having studied painting and sculpture at art school, Munro found himself, in his mid-20s, fascinated with the quality and properties of light. He vowed, I’m going to exhaust every idea about light. By 40, his artistic practice had become deeper, as he found himself, after the death of his father, realizing the relative brevity of human life. “I was too young when I left art school. I didn’t have anything to say,” he muses. “I finally realized art can be describing experiences about life… where you feel at peace with yourself and connected to the world around you.” He had fleeting glimpses of being connected to everything—“when your state becomes not I, but us”—and ultimately ventured into large-scale light installations. And he found himself at times returning to the imagery that was important to him as a child

Munro’s work has been shown worldwide, in galleries, estates, cathedrals, museums (including New York’s Guggenheim and London’s Victoria & Albert) and more, and a current installation, “Field of Light,” featuring 50,000 spheres of light, is on display at Uluru, Australia. The Washington Post opined that Munro is to fiber optics what Dale Chihuly is to blown glass and Christo is to wrapped fabric.

It wasn’t until he visited Montalvo last year, at the behest of the organization’s leaders, who had seen one of his recent exhibits in Arizona, that Munro envisioned an entire exhibit with a Narnian theme—his first exhibit to be thematically unified. Montalvo’s fields and meadows, terraces, Italianate Garden, hiking trails, historic villa and artists’ residences range over 175 acres. “I walked up the hill from the artists’ studios to this open lawn… and I got this sort of feeling that I’d been to this place before,” he says. When he explored the villa, “it was early in the morning and had that kind of musty smell of old houses,” bringing to mind the magician Coriakin’s house, which Lewis described in “Dawn Treader” as “very long and gray and quiet-looking in the afternoon sun.” Then he saw the villa’s 106-year-old stained glass window depicting Spanish explorer Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo’s galleon; the ship in the window resembled the illustration of the sailing vessel the Dawn Treader on the cover of his childhood book “and it was like a message.”

Munro animated the historic window with a psychedelic projection, connecting eras from Cabrillo’s exploration, which included California’s coast (in the 16th century) to the villa itself (built by Senator James Phelan in 1912) to the 1950s, when the Narnia books were published, right up to pop art.

And the great lawn, that slopes down to the Italianate Garden and exhibit entrance (where visitors are dropped off at dusk by a shuttle so as not to disturb the exhibit’s glowing illuminations) is transformed into the Silver Sea, a life-giving freshwater ocean blanketed with “an endless carpet of lilies,” upon which the Dawn Treader’s adventurers—three children, the mouse, King Caspian and his intrepid crew—find themselves drifting on their quest. The 25 “lilies” are glass spheres with fiber optics and acrylic stems. As the night grows darker, they seem to undulate in gentle oceanic waves. Munro was also thinking of Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Sky Above Clouds” series when he crafted it.

“Ramandu’s Table,” a garden filled with 1,000 white flamingos, refers to both “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”—each morning, at the table of the gentle Ramandu (who’s an elderly star fallen long go from the firmament), a flock of mythical white birds descends for a magical feast—and to Munro’s own beloved childhood treasure, an iconic pink plastic garden flamingo that his father brought back with him from America. Programmable LED lights flood the garden, conjuring the passage of time from sunset to dusk. “It’s a fun idea but also a beautiful story,” says Munro.

The various mixed-media installations use everything from ultraviolet light to digital projections to speakers and amplifiers, but, Munro says, “The things I do are simple…. It’s all technology that’s been around a long time.” As an artist, he never wants to be burdened with materials. “I was terrible in school in sciences and all that,” he remarks. “If it’s too much about technique, you lose the essence. It shouldn’t have to be all razzmatazz.
We spend too much time putting a searchlight onto things that don’t need it. What about a gentle candle? A whisper of light goes a long way.”

Through March 17

15400 Montalvo Rd., Saratoga