UFOs or trick of the light? Bruce Munro has got the military guessing

Warminster, a small garrison town on the edge of Salisbury Plain, has a reputation as the UFO capital of England. The reason extra-terrestrials are drawn to this corner of Wiltshire is open to conjecture, but sightings of slow-moving lights in the night sky have come thick and fast since the 1960s.

Can it be a coincidence that Bruce Munro, an artist who creates immersive large-scale light-based installations, has his studio a short drive from Warminster? He insists it is. But pressed on the matter, he admits he may have contributed to the area’s high UFO count on at least one occasion.

In 2004, not long after buying Long Knoll, the 16th century farmhouse that would become his home and studio, he installed 15,000 illuminated stems in the field adjacent to the house. The enormous sculpture changed colour slowly, creating a mesmerising blanket of light.

One evening, Munro heard the sound of a military helicopter (Salisbury Plain is an army training area). The sculpture – Field of Light – was switched off at the time, but as the rotors came closer he pulled the lever that turned it on. God knows what the pilots thought it was, he chuckles. The chopper went round and round the field then I snapped off the lights.

The airmen may have been enjoying the view. If they were, they were witnesses to a watershed moment: Munro’s transition from commercial lighting designer to light artist.

The components of his art are dotted around the studio. A Hills Hoist with light-emitting fibre optic cables suspended from its arms is a prototype for a work called FOSO (Fibre Optic Symphonic Orchestra). Every instrument in the orchestra will be represented by a single Hills Hoist, he explains. If the first violin is playing, the First Violin Hills Hoist will pulse in time to the music. Walking around the installation – a total of 108 Hills Hoists – will be like walking around an orchestra.

Next up is a firefly, another fibre optic creation resembling a plant with illuminated fronds. About 6000 of them are to be installed on a mountainside in Japan. SOS, an installation made up of 162 one-metre cubes made from builders’ sacks, has taken over the field once occupied by Field of Light. Lit from within, the cubes pulse in time to a soundtrack recreating the noise of a transistor radio being tuned. Snatches of music and voices are interspersed with static and bursts of morse code.

Sadly, Ribbon of Light – his response to the pandemic – is no longer in place. Inspired by the efforts of Britain’s NHS workers who put their lives on the line to battle the novel coronavirus, it comprised 66,000 donated compact discs strung on a 1650-metre stretch of fence bisecting the ridge of the hill behind Long Knoll. The shimmering work was designed with one purpose: to cheer and console everyone who saw it.

Ribbon of Light illustrates an important aspect of Munro’s work: he wants it to be a salve for the soul. His dazzling displays are underpinned by ideas and theorems, but he also wants them to lift our spirits; to remind us of beauty and transcendence in a world ravaged by disease and war.

He has always been fascinated by light, he says. As a child growing up in Hertfordshire, Munro was mesmerised by trips to the cinema – the light on the screen was beautiful. At Christmas he would spend hours testing each bulb on the string of lights adorning the tree.

When he enrolled to study fine art at Bristol Polytechnic, a career as an artist of some kind seemed inevitable. But Munro, by his own admission, took a long time to find his calling. He dropped out of college for 14 months, resumed his studies, graduated then joined the ranks of young Brits heading to Australia for some fun in the sun.

Settling in Sydney, he enrolled in a course run by Saatchi & Saatchi that convinced him he wasn’t cut out for advertising. One evening his tutor took him out for a drink and told him he had a butterfly mind. I thought it was f—ing rude at first, but I knew what he meant, he recalls. He suggested I stick to one thing which is when I decided to work exclusively with light. I’ve still got a butterfly mind – it goes off in all directions – but nowadays I look at everything through the lens of light.

Sydney fostered his career – he started a commercial lighting company – but the outback made him an artist. Camping at Uluru with his fiancee, now wife, Serena, he was mesmerised. I felt there was something in the air there – not just at Uluru, but the outback as a whole. The rawness of it, the light and this incredible energy. I thought: ‘God, this is like being plugged into the mains’.

It was at Uluru that Munro conceived the work that would make his name: a field of light that bloomed at night like desert seeds drenched by rain. What he didn’t know is that it would be 12 years before he realised his vision.

Back in Britain, Munro tried to make it as a painter and failed. He was more successful as a designer of bespoke lighting, but the artistic dreams forged in Australia haunted him. When he and Serena bought the farmhouse in Wiltshire, he realised its big field and the contours of Long Knoll – a grass-covered chalk ridge behind the house – were the perfect backdrop for his art. He created the first iteration of Field of Light – the one that dazzled the unwary helicopter pilots – using 15,000 illuminated stems that had been used in a window display he designed for the London department store Harvey Nichols.

The venture plunged him into debt. But he convinced Eden Project – a collection of massive biomes in Cornwall housing flora from around the world – to erect Field of Light. The project attracted international attention and his first paid commissions as an artist followed.

The 62-year-old man who greets me in the studio’s meeting room seems genuinely amazed by his success. When you stick a load of lights in a field you never imagine you’ll be sitting here talking about it 20 years later. It was a bloody stupid thing to do in retrospect, but something told me I had to do it.

He insists he is still uncomfortable describing himself as an artist. I’m not clever enough to be a contemporary artist. I’m slightly old-fashioned – I’m dealing with feelings and the atmosphere they create. The only part of the art world that really concerns me is someone giving you a job, because that pays the bills and allows me to do another project.

Like many people in the creative sector his work dried up at the start of the pandemic. The virus also caused the postponement of Bruce Munro: From Sunrise Road, the first museum exhibition in Australia of his work. The show, originally scheduled to open at Heide Museum of Modern Art in June 2021, will finally make its debut on June 25. Munro insists the long delay was all for the best. In a way it was a blessing that we didn’t go ahead [in 2021], he says. It would have been awful to have the exhibition there and then have nobody see it because of a lockdown. That would have been very depressing.

The title of his Australian exhibition refers to the street in Sydney’s Palm Beach where he and Serena lived in the 1980s. One of the works, Time and Place, is a grid of colour culled from three photographic transparencies Munro captured at the time. He compares it to recreating a memory.

The exhibition’s undeniable centrepiece is Ferryman’s Crossing, an evocation of an abstracted luminescent river comprised of more than 4000 CDs. It is inspired by Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha and text from the book will be flashed as morse code onto the surface of the discs.

Morse code is also used in Reflections, a series of circular, kaleidoscopic digital light animations projected on the gallery floor. The one Munro shows me on his computer is inspired by Wordsworth’s poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. Set to music by Prokofiev, it’s a slow-moving whirl of daffodil yellow forms; hypnotic and undeniably beautiful.

I ask him what unites these works besides the innovative use of light. It’s a way of making shorthand of bigger ideas, he ventures. Another answer might be this: they are all the products of a butterfly mind.

Bruce Munro: From Sunrise Road is at Heide Museum of Modert Art, June 25–October 16.

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