British artist Bruce Munro is best known for immersive large-scale light-based installations inspired largely by his interest in shared human experience. Recording ideas and images in sketchbooks has been his practice for over 30 years. By this means he has captured his responses to stimuli such as music, literature, science, and the world around him for reference, reflection, and subject matter. This tendency has been combined with a liking for components and an inventive urge for reuse, coupled with career training in manufacture of light. As a result, Bruce produces both monumental temporary experiential artworks as well as intimate story-pieces.
The artist’s work has been widely exhibited, including by the Guggenheim Museum, NY, Waddesdon Manor for the Rothschild Collection, UK, Longwood Gardens, PA, and Texas Tech University. His art is held in the collections of museums and botanical gardens internationally, including the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK. His massive “Field of Light” installation will be on display at Uluru in Australia’s Northern Territory up till 2020.
Here, Bruce talks about daydreaming, his approach to work, and the big project he would love to realise sometime in the future…
I was reading your “Chronology” and there was a sentence that really spoke out loud to me: “As a youngster, Munro found himself often in trouble for daydreaming.” In conversational English, the word carries a very negative meaning. Daydreaming is always the distraction from the problem on the blackboard and the exam paper on the table. But I don’t look at it in such a reductive way.
I consider mindwandering a very powerful practice and have strategically incorporated it into my daily morning routine; it comes after meditation and before journalling. The American psychologist Jerome L. Singer considered daydreaming one of the highest of human capacities—as it allows one to transcend space and time. Also, T. E. Lawrence said: “All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” I quite go with that.
Given my interest in daydreaming, I’d like to begin with its role in your life and career. When you were small, what did you daydream about—how did it direct your course and manifest later?
As a child, the borders between fact and fiction were less defined. I do not remember specific daydreams but I genuinely thought anything was possible. I think that this is the case for most children. I only became conscious of daydreaming when a piece of chalk whizzed past my ear during a lesson. After that, I learned to fake attentiveness. Daydreaming became my great escape from a boring teaching. Fortunately, I had great parents who encouraged me to make the most of my childhood. At art school, I discovered that daydreaming was a natural creative process where disparate thoughts sometimes danced. In my twenties, I went through a stage of recording dreams but from thirty onwards, I decided to just let it happen and not force things. I have been an advocate of the practice ever since.
You’re into our shared human experience and connectedness—and somehow these principles are very well depicted in CD Sea. Why CDs? Why the sea? And how did you collect the raw material…from all over the world?
I was living in Paddington, Sydney and used to visit Nielsen Park (a harbour beach). One Sunday, I was sitting by the water’s edge, feeling a bit down in the dumps and thinking of my father who lived in Salcombe, South Devon, UK. I remember just sitting and staring (daydreaming) at this sparkling sea for hours. I became conscious that my state of mind had morphed into a feeling of well being. I jotted this down in my sketch book and forgot about it.
Over the years, I became conscious that the natural world really generated peace of mind. Soon after my father died (1999), I decided that I would like to start making Art again. I wanted to make work that conveyed the feelings the natural world had evoked. I was certain that everyone shared the same kind of experiences and thought this was worthy subject matter for a pursuit that is often self-indulgent. To capture the essence of the blissful contemplation at Nielsen Park all those years ago, I decided to create an inland faux Sea in our field at home. I had a simple idea, and loved the dazzling light effects of sequins. I rationalised that a CD/DVD is a just big sequin! We collected CDs and DVDs from recycling companies, and also placed a series of advertisements in magazines. It took a year to amass enough to cover our field (600,000). The finished piece shone like a sea and most importantly inspired lovely memories of my father.
“Literature” is also a source of inspiration to you. Do you have works particularly inspired by any epics, mythology, legends or even contemporary writing (I did see Narnia, anything other than that)?
Words evoke feelings of how it is to be alive and sometimes I like to incorporate them into a work as both inspiration and homage. In recent years, I have been experimenting with Morse Code to convey words (and equations). I have approached this in several ways; firstly as semaphore; flashing sequences of light and secondly as dots and dashes.
Herman Hesse, Lyall Watson, Rudyard Kipling and C S Lewis and many other writers and scientists inspire me. My one regret is that my brain is a bit of a sieve and I struggle to retain information…perhaps this is why I make art as it helps me to remember some of the beautiful observations of others.
I like how you use things like plastic, steel, optical fibre–stuff that is manufactured, “artificial”—and fix or place them in fields and ponds. It never looks odd or jarring. The natural and the man-made come together very harmoniously in your art. I like how they are not held in competition. Where is this approach coming from?
I try to use materials instinctively and not get too fixated on what they were originally designed for. I was part of the “Blue Peter” (children’s TV show) generation. Boxes, bottles and sticky backed plastic were the building blocks for castles, spaceships and whacky costumes. For example, when I was seven I built a Bat Cave in a garden shed complete with flashing lights acquired from our Christmas tree. At a similar age, I remember being extremely frustrated when a friend’s father produced two plastic spades, a handful of bamboo sticks, some old newspaper and a roll of Sellotape to build an underground pirate den. This is when I realised that some adults had no imagination!
Over the years, I have disciplined myself to look at the beauty of everyday objects…a plastic bottle is a sculptural lens of liquid light. I admire many artists and I believe that every jot of one’s life experience influences the art one makes. If the art I make evokes an essence of the feelings that I am trying to convey then I have succeeded.
You have a splendid portfolio of commissions. I especially like “Impression – Time Crossing Culture” that you did for the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. The overall form of the artwork takes inspiration from the dial of a clock where each of the 12 numbers is represented by rings of identical spheres suspended from the ceiling. While the overall form represents the concept of time, each sphere or globe (the shape created from the lines of longitude and latitude) is representative of the Earth. The sculpture is overlaid with a digital animation casting a gentle moving image (an eclectic mix of ancient symbols and geometry) through the spheres on to the floor below.You have a splendid portfolio of commissions. How was the concept decided?
I was asked by Xa Sturgess, the Director of the Museum, to look at the new entrance lobby for a possible commission. I get excited by spaces and their function (and it would be impossible not to be inspired by a museum such as the Ashmolean). This is a good example of when the daydreaming technique becomes very useful. Experience has taught me that when one consciously looks for an idea it never appears. My aim was to simply express the essence of the Museum. A year after the original installation, I decided to modify the installation (at my own expense) because it needed to be done…this all part of the process of making art.
You’ve had two big projects recently, in South Korea and Australia. Tell us more…
We created two installations on the beautiful world heritage island of Jeju. The first being a Water Towers installation in the middle of a tea plantation. The second, Oreum (named after the unique volcanic hills and mountains that populate the island). Oreum is in essence an iteration of the field of light. Pragmatically it was necessary to exchange the glass spheres for small wind mills. The island is known for its strong onshore winds during the winter months.
I am just about to leave for Albany in WA. We are creating a field of light installation to commemorate the century of the Anzacs in the Avenue of Honour, Albany Heritage Park. It’s a beautiful location and it is a huge honour to create this work. For me, the field of light is a symbol of peace and reconciliation.
Technology is changing rapidly and the art world is witnessing all manner of experiments, particular in terms of audience participation. When you think about the future—what do you see happening?
I always try to follow my instincts. If something comes along that fits into what I am doing then that’s a plus. On occasions, new technologies will inspire ideas but I am more interested in following my heart and spirit. At the moment, I am absorbed in trying to convey time, place and experience to others. Its cliché to say but communication and connection make our lives happier.
“Light” is a major element of your work. I’d love to hear your thoughts on vision, colour, darkness, what we are able to see, and what we aren’t able to see. Do you find yourself reflecting on or meditating upon forces or phenomena that might be beyond our senses?
Light is about everything. I formally chose it as a medium to experiment with in 1986 because a fellow called Terry Bunton (copywriter at Saatchi & Saatchi, Sydney) told me I had a butterfly mind and needed structure and I just happened to be dabbling in light at the time.
Light has been at the forefront of my life ever since. I spend a great deal of time thinking about what it is to be alive and I endeavour to create works that will convey the importance of how our actions and thoughts today affect all of our lives tomorrow.
Lastly, do you have a dream project that you would like to realise?
The answer is simply yes. To illustrate my butterfly nature, I attach the projection of a building, Mettabhavana. I must build this before I die! The building will be dedicated to a beautifully pragmatic Buddhist meditation that encourages one to be compassionate and empathetic towards oneself and others.
In 1997, whilst on holiday I had a memorable dream. It was about a building. I was left with an impression of light, colour and people. I could not see where the light came from. It just came softly through the walls. I had a great inner sense of peace and unity, feelings and visions of such clarity, which remain with me today just as I had experienced them in my dream. I had a strong instinct from the moment that I woke up that this was a building for everyone. A space to simply practise Mettabhavana, nothing more. It was about drawing light back into the world, both literally and spiritually.
I let the experience sit with me for some months before I started to create a design. I have not forced the design. Just let the ideas come to me naturally. It’s beginning to take shape, and although the building form is quite visually complex, the functional side is extremely simple; there’s no electricity, and it’s lit by sunlight by day and beeswax candles by night. It is my life’s greatest ambition to build the Mettabhavana.