The creator of amazing lighting installations, some on massive scales, some in cathedrals and some bound to bemuse aircraft pilots, tells Jamie Mitchell about how his lighting dreams have literally become reality
In 2006 two Chinook helicopters flying over Wiltshire at dusk observed a strange phenomenon on the ground below: they circled a couple of times, watching thousands of tiny globes of light pulsate across the darkening landscape. And then, suddenly, the lights went out.
‘I had to laugh,’ says lighting designer and installation artist Bruce Munro, the man behind the mysterious apparition. ‘They must have thought aliens had landed!’ Munro had been testing his first major lighting installation, Field of Light, a public artwork made of thousands of acrylic stems containing fibre-optic cables and lit by metal halide projectors.
But confusing the military was never the point. Field of Light was the realisation of an idea conceived when Munro was in his 20s and travelling across Australia. ‘The landscape was so powerful,’ he remembers. ‘It felt like electricity was coming out of the ground.’ He wrote the idea down in his notebook (his most valued tool) where it stayed for 19 years, ‘nagging at me. It just had to be done’, he says.
Having studied fine art at Bristol Polytechnic Munro had been living in Australia for several years, briefly trying his hand at advertising before stumbling upon the material he would use to make his first ‘light sculpture’. Passing a shop window one day, he noticed a kind of plastic that glowed when irradiated with ultraviolet light. He bought a load of it wholesale and started making lights, using cardboard boxes and painting them black – ‘very basic stuff’, he says. He was doing a course with Saatchi and Saatchi at the time, and the agency commissioned one of his lights for an awards dinner. More commissions followed, and eventually Munro was able to start a small lighting company of his own.
But his epiphany came later, when after selling his company he and his fiancée decided to return to England. ‘We were doing a bit of travelling before we went back and I thought to myself: “Right, Bruce, you’ve really got to have a go at the things you love to do”.’
As well as keeping a notebook, Munro has always painted. And although he describes himself as an ‘atrocious painter’, the medium has played a surprising role in his success.
Back in London he found work with Kevin McCloud, who was also then working as a lighting designer. ‘Kevin was doing these really quirky chandeliers and he looked at my dreadful paintings and said: “I think you could handle the finishes for them.” Then one day I was in my studio and a friend asked about one of my paintings. I told him it was an idea I had for a field of light and he said: “Oh, you’ll never do that.” Well, that was like a red rag to a bull. I said: “Right, you bastard – I will do it”.’
In essence, Munro spent the next few years building up his own lighting design company, creating schemes for luxury houses including ones in the Caribbean and France, as well as making bespoke pieces. But the more artistic and sculptural ideas in his notebook still nagged at him. The breakthrough finally came with a commission to create a window display for the department store Harvey Nichols in London, which then evolved into Field of Light. ‘My wife and I had just moved into a house in Wiltshire and it had its own field. I suddenly thought: ‘There’s the field I’ve been looking for all this time.’
The project was a big success and Munro was asked to create another Field of Light at the Eden Project in Cornwall. CDSea, a shimmering surface made of 600,000 unwanted CDs donated by the public, followed. It lasted only 10 days before the grass began to come through and the effect was lost. ‘I like that,’ says Munro, ‘the fleeting nature of the work.’
Munro now employs trained lighting designers to look after more of the commercial stuff, leaving him time to explore his artistic interests. ‘I’ve never stopped dreaming up my installations, and thank God that’s all now starting to come to fruition,’ he says.
There’s an ethereal quality to Munro’s work that makes it perfect for religious buildings, and last year he was commissioned to create two installations for Salisbury Cathedral.
The first, to mark the beginning of Advent in November last year, was Light Shower, an installation of 1,984 optic fibres ending in clear teardrop-shaped diffusers. It looked like thousands of illuminated raindrops that had been frozen as they cascaded from the cathedral’s spire crossing.
The second was Water-Towers, an installation of 69 towers, each made of 216 illuminated plastic water bottles. They line two sides of the cloistered walkway and change colour in synchronisation with a musical score.
The Water-Towers idea had been in Munro’s notebook in one form or another since he was 21. ‘I had read a novel called Gifts of Unknown Things by Lyall Watson, which describes a young girl who possesses the gift of synesthesia – seeing sounds in colour,’ he explains, ‘and I’d always wanted to explore that idea in my work.’
Nowadays Munro has more freedom than ever to explore his own ideas. He’s currently working on an exhibition for next year in Philadelphia and is also hard at work on what is literally a dream project. ‘I was in the Caribbean and I had a dream about a building with light coming through the walls,’ he says. ‘The point of the building is that it’s lit by daylight and candlelight – no electricity – and it would be a place where people could go to meditate, though it’s not to do with religion at all. I’d love to do that – in fact I will do it.’
Thankfully for Munro, his growing reputation means it no longer takes decades for him to see an idea come to fruition.
‘The time lapse between thinking of an idea and actually being able to do it is shrinking and that’s really exciting,’ he says. ‘People are starting to ask me what I would like to do as opposed to telling me what they’d like me to do, which, after all these years, is a really lovely thing to be able to say.’
This article was first published in fx Magazine.