When the Sun Goes Down, the Magic Comes Up
Entering British artist Bruce Munro's luminous fairyland is like walking into an alternate reality of enchantment. The brilliance of his large-scale light installations reawakens the joys of childhood playfulness while it inspires respect for his remarkable artistic and technical achievements. Some viewers gasp, others weep, all are touched.
The exhibition, "Bruce Munro: Light," cascades over the 12 acres of the Hermitage Museums and Gardens in Norfolk, Virginia, through January 10. The display features ten light sculpture installations, including three designed specifically for the Hermitage site, which is open in the evenings for this special exhibit.
Field of Light
While each exhibition is unique due to site specificity, "Field of Light" is the iconic Munro installation. The version at the Hermitage features thousands of stems of light in graduating heights, all dancing in the wind as gentle color changes flow over the field in undulating waves.
The Hermitage's front garden has over 8500 stems of light in that section of the "Field of Light," and there are another 2000 more in the back garden area according to Munro staff technicians, Mo Webb and Mike Fountain, who worked with Hermitage staff and volunteers for several weeks onsite to set up the exhibit.
This is Munro's fourth exhibition in the US. Previous exhibitions include installations at Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Columbus, OH; Cheekwood Gardens, TN, and his first one-man show at Longwood Gardens in PA. Munro said that he receives much of his inspiration from music, literature and childhood memories which he's carefully recorded in 40 years of sketchbooks.
Walking through Munro's shimmering installations, one almost expects to spot a faery creature unawares, as if stumbling into the artwork of Munro's compatriots in enchantment, the turn-of-the-century British Victorian artists who wielded their brand of sparkling magic with brushes and paints.
Munro's fiber optic "Fireflies" seem especially conducive to stolen glimpses of pixies or, perhaps, the fairy-folk from Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream." Greg Sharp, Bruce's publisher, told me that he has seen the Firefly installation set up in a number of different places before, but as he strolled around the glade, he decided that the version at the Hermitage was his favorite.
Charming and unassuming, Bruce is quick to give plenty of credit to his staff and the volunteers who help construct the temporary installations after he's designed them. Speaking with him at the show's opening about his artistic passions was a delight. He's brilliant and humble, and seems to still be surprised at his good fortune at finally living his dreams after a respectable lifetime in more "practical" designing pursuits.
As a child, he notes he "got into trouble" for daydreaming--and now we are the grateful beneficiaries of those dreams.
Bruce noted, "If someone goes away with a smile on their face then I've done my job."
One look at the faces of visitors leaving the exhibit reveals that he's been wildly successful, and the extensive preparation has been worth it! For a peek at what those mysterious preparations are like, this 36-second time-lapse video of Bruce Munro's installation of "Field of Light" at Longwood sheds some light:
Munro's "Water Towers" appear to be stained glass columns, illumined from within. Webb and Fountain explained that each of the 17 towers on display was actually comprised of over 250 water bottles. Each tower is about 6-1/2 feet tall and is illuminated by optic fibres which gently change color in rhythm to the multicultural music emanating from within each tower.
Munro notes that he specifically chose choral music with international diversity, including groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, to create "a feeling like the world is singing to you."
Parliament of Owls
Fans of C. S. Lewis' Narnia will remember the Parliament of Owls summoned by Glimfeather in the 4th book in the series, "The Silver Chair." A simple glass lens that resembled an owl's eye inspired Munro to design the installation of 36 pairs of blinking eyes which gaze out across the estate.
Lighthouse and Waves
"Lighthouse" and "Waves" are new pieces which were specifically created for the exhibition at the Hermitage.
Munro told me that while he has been a "coast-dweller" since childhood--both in England and Australia--this is his first coastal exhibition, and he was excited about the opportunity to create art that could interact with waterfront surroundings.
"Lighthouse," a 20-foot-tall pulsing cylinder of light, flashes a Morse code message that can be seen--along with most of the other installations--by boaters in the adjacent Lafayette River. Unlike the average lighthouse, however, this one is designed to entice visitors toward the exhibit, not keep them away! Its message, in Morse code, is appropriately, "There is a light that never goes out."
The kinetic "Waves" sculpture illuminates the boardwalk and is reflected in the river below.
There are three installations inside the mansion, including "Light Shower,"-- illuminated amber teardrops suspended magically in the air.
In mounting this major exhibition, the Hermitage claims its position as "The Little Museum That Could." In spite of its relatively small size, the museum has shown that it can hold its own on the world stage--and this isn't the first time! Just last year the Hermitage repatriated an important 18th Century work of religious art back to South Korea. The huge textile painting had found its way from Korea to Japan and New York. Then it became part of the Hermitage collection in Virginia, before finally being returned to Korea.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
The irresistable attraction of Munro's light exhibition draws visitors like moths to a flame, including one couple who drove from Ohio for the opening of the Norfolk, VA show in October. No doubt Munro will garner a unique set of groupies who will follow his exhibitions across the US. Shows are scheduled for Atlanta, GA, and Scottsdale, AZ, in 2015, so get ready!
In times of personal or global concerns, a meditative stroll through Munro's lights may be just what the doctor ordered, and perhaps can do as much to lower tension and anxiety as any stress reduction technique or pharmaceutical intervention. And not only is immersion in magical light refreshing to body and soul, but a visit also supports the arts - and, in this case, the considerable stretch made by the Hermitage to bring this glimpse of extraordinary beauty to Virginia.
A spectacular vision of light seems to fill a yearning soul in the darkest hours of winter. So, if it only takes one light to dispel the darkness, then Munro's thousands of bulbs just might be enough to change the world--at the very least, they will change the world for each visitor for a magical moment.
RESOURCESBruce Munro Light ExhibitionatHermitage Museum & Gardens7637 North Shore RoadNorfolk, Virginia 23505HoursDecember 26 to 30Fri. through Tues., 4:00 - 9:00 p.m.(Closed Dec. 31 and January 1)Jan 2 to 10Wed. through Sat., 4:00 - 9:00 p.m.Admission$15 Non-Members$12 Members, Children (6-12), and Active-Duty MilitaryTaxes and Fees additionalOnline Ticketing available
Bruce Munro's first garden installation in the US was at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA, June 9 through Sept. 1, 2012. It featured six large-scale outdoor installations, two installations within Longwood's grand 4-acre Conservatory, and a collection of illuminated sculptures in Longwood's historic Music Room. Longwood Gardens was voted America's Best Public Garden in 2014 by USAToday. In 1906, industrialist Pierre du Pont (1870-1954) purchased a small farm 30 miles west of Philadelphia in order to to save a collection of historic trees from being sold for lumber. Today, Longwood Gardens encompasses 1,077 acres of gardens, woodlands, meadows, fountains, and a 4-acre conservatory, and offers programming that includes exhibitions, performing arts, renowned horticulture education programs, horticulture research, environmental stewardship and cultural and community engagement.
Franklin Park Conservatory is a botanical garden and conservatory located in Columbus, Ohio. Originally built in 1895, the Conservatory is on the National Register of Historic Places. They hosted Bruce Munro: Light from September 25, 2013 through March 30, 2014.
Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art is a privately funded 55-acre estate on the western edge of Nashville, Tennessee which hosted LIGHT: Bruce Munro at Cheekwood from May 24 through November 10, 2013.