Field of Light by Bruce Munro at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center (photos by John Anderson)
A rare flower blooms at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. It is not native to Texas, although it is a unique grape variety, its cousins sprouting all over the world. By day, its many tendrils and pods glisten in the sun; at night they shine from dusk until darkness has swaddled the earth.
These are flowers of field of light, a massive installation by British artist Bruce Munro. Covering 16 of the center’s 264 acres, the 28,000 solar-powered LED illuminations — bright, translucent globes on acrylic rods, dancing in the wind — almost look like pods, ready to burst. But Munro isn’t interested in imposing his art on the landscape: Instead, he says, the aim of the project is “to express how a landscape inspires you. … People who have never been to this place, they might be drawn to go, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting,’ but then they find out about this beautiful garden.”
The roots of the project lie in a 1992 road trip through Australia. Munro and his then girlfriend, now wife, had spent the last eight years living there, and before returning to the UK “we bought an old banger and put a tent out the back, and had four month of travel”. One of their destinations was Uluru, the 2,831-foot-tall sandstone escarpment nicknamed Ayers Rock by western settlers, and a sacred space for the Pitjantjatjara natives. Munro admitted he felt a little cynical about it being hyped (“I was thinking, ‘God, if another Aussie mate tells me how awesome this rock is, I’ll kill him'”) but when it actually got there “I felt completely alive, almost to the point where I thought I had been artificially stimulated. It was a weird feeling, but really happy and connected.
Immediately, he grabbed his sketchbook and let the inspiration flow. “I understood that it wasn’t about creating an object that you stand in front of. I wanted it to be an experience that captures that essence of joy, of feeling in tune with the world. And the field of light materialized in concept. »
He returned to the UK with the idea, but marriage, children and the demands of a career as an active artist meant it took him a decade before he could put together the first incarnation of field of light: in a meadow next to the ruined farmhouse he had bought, using readily available materials. He said: “My dear old mum said, ‘Don’t be a talker, be an actor,’ and that’s the best advice I’ve ever had.”
And since then he hasn’t stopped doing it. There have been 20 different iterations of the field of light worldwide, from Denmark to Mexico. In many ways, it became the defining work of Munro’s career, although he admits he had no such intention when he cobbled together this early version from what was to be put back into his workshop. Obviously, he added, he would have liked it to become the success he has, “but I just wanted to get rid of this need to create this work”.
Each version of field of light is created in response to the local environment, but the Austin version came with an additional challenge: Due to the pandemic, Munro had to begin planning remotely, without traveling the field. However, the basic process remained the same. “You look at the space you have and figure out the route, and luckily with the Wildflower Center there are some really wonderful trails.” There was also a strange recognition: due to the large number of oak trees and meadows, “it was almost like an English park”. Each location reflects the local wildlife and topography, and in the case of the Wildflower Center, it’s the silhouettes of the trees and the light gravel walkways, especially the way they glisten in the moonlight. The lighting in the installation – “a whisper of light”, as the artist described it – is set so low that ambient light still dominates. “Never try to eclipse the moon or the stars,” laughed Munro.
Much of Munro’s large-scale work deals with a tension between the built and natural worlds, often using reclaimed materials. “We kind of borrow things on their way to the recycling facility,” Munro said. Don’s flamingos and Ramandu’s table (named after the sculptor of the original wire-legged flamingo, Don Featherstone) in Rockford, Illinois, uses infrared light to illuminate flocks of the classic lawn ornament. Ferryman crossing, exhibited at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, recreated the Styx River through flowing waves of compact discs – a medium to which he returned repeatedly for its reflective and refractive qualities. “I try to look at the beauty of everyday objects that we don’t really look at for their aesthetic values.”
Not just beauty, but also practicality: because at the end of the day, Munro is as much a technologist and engineer as he is an artist. He remembers being inspired as a child, watching episodes of The man from UNCLE and see spies communicate using video watches. “It really was fantasy land, and now you have Apple Watches, and you can do more with them than they ever could have imagined.” Take something as mundane as a plastic bottle (thousands of which are reused for Water towers, an installation by Munro originally designed for the cloisters of Salisbury Cathedral). Take one to the court of a medieval king, Munro said, “and they’d think it was magic.”
The underlying technology of Field of Light has changed over time. Early versions used bundles of thermofused acrylic fibers lit by slow-burning metal halide bulbs (“you turn on the power and it takes two or three minutes for the light to warm up”) with a rotating color wheel at the before. Each spotlight was 150 watts,” and if you had a hundred spotlights, that was a lot of power. Today we use LED technology and each spotlight is 25 watts. So divide 150 by six, and we use about 15% of the power we were using. By the time he brought the project to Uluru in 2016, everything was solar-powered, and even the control systems have been miniaturized “so it’s very, very green” The environmental element goes beyond reducing the carbon footprint or using recycled and recyclable materials.” You don’t want to mess up the natural cycle of insects and animals in the area. So we turned it on for about four hours a day, usually 7 to 11, and then it goes to sleep.”
The cycles and rhythms of each living element enter the installation. Even on early installations, Munro noted that he saw his team’s behavior change between entering and leaving the Gardens, a change he compared to that of his father when he recovered from a serious illness when the artist was a child. “We are only just beginning to understand that the best thing to do is to spend more time in nature, because it is a natural healer.”
At the same time, Munro’s work comes with an implicit call to let nature heal as well. As global temperatures soar, he asked: “Are we going to move forward fast enough to avoid doing a complete Horlicks of the planet? We haven’t grown in terms of emotional connection with each other, but we’ve finally now come so far that we can destroy ourselves if we take the wrong path. That’s the real fear, and one of the things that I realized a long time ago while making art is that in a very, very small way you can bring people together, and make people aware not only of themselves, but also of family, friends and strangers, and also of the landscape that we live and share.”
Field of Light, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse, from Thursday to Sunday, until December. For timed tickets, visit fieldoflightaustin.com.