I met artist Bruce Munro via Skype from his studio in England and, even though we were many miles apart, I was struck by his warmth and good humor, as well as his excitement about his upcoming exhibition in Brookgreen Gardens. Talking to this brilliant, world renowned artist had me a bit star struck, but Bruce immediately put me at ease with a laugh, saying, “If you do something long enough, people take notice, I’m just incredibly fortunate to be doing this work.”
British artist, Bruce Munro is best known for immersive large-scale light-based installations inspired largely by his interest in shared human experience. For 40 years, he’s recorded his ideas and images in sketchbooks, and his delight in the world around him provides continuous inspiration. Brookgreen Gardens will host an exhibition of his work beginning next month. Versions of the mixed-media installation have popped up around the world since its debut at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2004, everywhere from Uluru, Australia, South Korea, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, to Houston, Nashville, and Columbus, Ohio.
“Brookgreen Gardens got in touch with us,” Bruce began when I asked him why Brookgreen was chosen as the only East Coast exhibition of his work. “It was a great honor to be asked. I love gardens, and when I first visited Brookgreen, I was struck by the way the art is presented. It’s a good place that puts people at ease – I particularly like it when people can enjoy art without being scrutinized.”
I was curious about the process of creating the installation, and Bruce explained, saying, “I’m very responsive to space, and every space is unique – with a different climate, different flora and fauna, etc. It’s always very easy for me to find inspiration.” As someone who loves Brookgreen Gardens and spends a fair amount of time there, I felt this artist really captured the feeling of the space as he continued, saying, “In Brookgreen I feel like I am in a series of outdoor rooms – not all gardens have this feeling. It’s rather like going to a museum.”
Most readers will recognize the artist’s Field of Light installation, and I asked Bruce to talk a bit about this spectacular artwork. “It’s a very important piece of work for me; it was the start of me working as an adult. I was living with my girlfriend (now wife) in Australia when the idea first landed in my sketch book – it was something I felt I needed to do, and it took me 12 years to complete.” Visitors to Brookgreen will experience Field of Light as 11,700 stems of light in softly moving colors covering the Arboretum.
“After the experience of creating Field of Light, it kept nagging at me that I needed to do other things,” Bruce continued, talking about the evolution of his work, and his incredible catalogue of light creations. “My work is very instinctive. The older I get the more I look at the world like I did as a child – not that my work is childish, but I am more in touch with the feeling behind the art. It is about shared human experience and connection.”
I asked Bruce to talk a bit about the Okonjima Choral Society installation, consisting of 2,000 “frogs” singing in unison behind the garden wall at the Rosen Carolina Terrace, accented by the pulses and rhythms of their illuminated “eyes.” “When I was walking around Brookgreen, I came to this wall – beyond it was wild territory – I liked the feeling of this area and the beautiful trees hanging with moss. There was a feeling of being on the edge of the wild.” He continued, telling me the story behind the piece. “My family and I took a holiday in Namibia, Africa, and I heard these frogs singing near a waterhole. The sound was mesmerizing. At first I thought I should maybe write a choral piece around the song of the frogs [laughter].” Bruce also drew inspiration from the beloved children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. “There will be 2000 ‘frogs’ made from repurposed road markers. You may not have them here, but they light up for safety, keeping you in your driving lane, and they look like small animals. I illuminated them and synchronized the illumination with the frogs’ singing. My newer works have a gentle humor like this one. It’s something wild that’s also safe.”
“When I saw the old bell tower in the gardens, surrounded by the old filigreed brickwork, I thought it looked like an enormous hive,” the artist said when I asked him to talk about some of the other works in this installation. “This one also has a soundtrack.” Hive is composed of 1,448 bee-inspired hexagonal elements and gives the impression of a giant manmade beehive.
“I want to draw people in and stimulate their imagination,” this visionary artist began. “I love the fact that people walk around together in gardens – I want people to visit gardens – people have the perception gardens are boring, but they are truly the museums of tomorrow. I love the relationship between gardens and art; they go together spiritually and physically. I feel it’s important for all of us to rediscover our physical roots and connect to the physical world. That’s what I hope to do with my art.”
Bruce’s love for gardens is deeply entwined with his art. “Once, when we were in a garden in Philadelphia, I watched people walking around – they weren’t there for me, they were just visiting the garden. They looked so much more relaxed and happy when they left than when they came in.”
“The joy for me in the Brookgreen installation is being able to come over and meet the people who helped put it together,” Bruce said as we finished our chat. “The volunteers, the staff – they are all brilliant. I wish I could stay longer, but I do love being in my studio. The joy of work is in the creating.”
“If people have a good time, if the pieces warm their hearts and bring a smile, if they are inspired to come back to Brookgreen Gardens, then we’ve done what we set out to achieve,” Bruce told me thoughtfully. His father’s death 20 years ago was a huge watershed in Bruce’s life, and this great loss occurred before the artist was doing large scale light installations. “I treat all of my exhibitions as a very great honor. My father always encouraged me to follow my dreams. I feel very privileged to bring my ideas across the pond.”
Visit Bruce Munro at Brookgreen: Southern Lights beginning April 8th. The exhibition will be open Wednesday-Saturday, 7-10pm, through September 12th. The Premiere Celebration Event is Saturday, April 4th.
For tickets and more information, visit www.brookgreen.org or call 843-235-6000.