Monday, July 2, 2012

Bright Idea: Artist Turns Simple Materials Into Massive Lighting Installations

Bruce Munro’s lighting installations rely on thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable. Photo: Mark Pickthall

It took English lighting designer Bruce Munro a while to come around to the art world, but when he did, he did it in a big way. Munro’s first solo show, Light: Installations by Bruce Munro, covers 23 acres of Longwood Gardens, just outside of Philadelphia. The show, which opened this month and runs through September, comprises 12 installations and a set of sculptures that use a whopping 235 miles of fiber-optic cable.
On a large scale, the shifting colors form a blanket of color. Photo: Mark Pickthall
The largest installation, called Forest of Light, covers the understory of a grove of white oak, sugar maple, and tulip trees with 20,000 crystal globes standing on acrylic rods. A cable runs from each globe back to one of a set of 80 halogen projectors that shine light through a rotating series of hand-painted slides. When night falls, the orbs illuminate like bioluminescent seed pods, forming a sea of shifting colors like something out of a Hayao Miyazaki movie.
In another, called Water Towers, laser-cut wood layers hold together 69 stacks of 252 one-liter bottles scattered in a meadow. The fiber-optic cable links each tower’s bottles to a low-voltage LED projector. The projector shifts colors in response to music by Orlando Gough’s choral group The Shout.
In many installations, says Munro, “we use a lot of halogen and metal halide lights, which can be a lot brighter. I wanted this one to be soft and almost glowing. Each of these projectors inside these towers is calibrated to interpret the sound slightly differently, so it’s rather like you’ve got 69 voices. And as the music plays you do get these rhythms of light, but you have to sit there for a while to get it.”
“The technology is pretty old and simple,” Munro admits. “Designers tend to grab hold of what is new. I always feel that you should leave what’s new well alone until it’s been well and truly put through its paces, been tried and tested. I always look at things and then I revisit them and ask, ‘What if I did this with it?’ It’s rather like being a musician, I guess. You spend your life learning to play an instrument and then you have to unpick it to play discords. I believe you have to play the harmonies before you can play the discords.”
That’s a good summary of Munro’s career. An art school graduate, he spent years building his own lighting design business before returning to art in his early 40s (Munro is now 53). His signature installation, Field of Light (which is the same as Forest of Light except — you guessed it — in a field), took 15 years to move from original inspiration, a 1992 visit to Uluru, aka Ayers Rock, in Australia, to installation. “It was a long experiment,” says Munro.

Field of Light is made of glass spheres on staked vinyl tubes fed by a single optical cable. Photo: Mark Pickthall
After gathering all the materials, he set up a first test of the installation on the field by his home in Wiltshire in the English countryside.
But what happened next told him he was on to something. News of the lights spread by word of mouth, and people started showing up. “I would wake up in the middle of the night and people would have come and turned the lights on,” says Munro. “I took a huge risk in doing it. By the end of it I had lost an arm and a leg in financial terms. My wife was saying, ‘What are you doing?’ In fact I put a sign in the field saying ‘please turn the lights off when you’re finished.’”
Exhibition invitations soon followed, and their scale has grown by orders of magnitude. In May of next year Munro will return to Uluru for the biggest showing yet: a field of 250,000 lights tied to 500 solar-powered LED projectors by over 2,000 miles of cable. This time, however, he’s decided to share the financial risk by crowdsourcing the installation. His fundraiser lets the public chip in to the tune of $19 a light. It’s a small price for a big effect.
Music dictates how the lights move in these watertowers. Photo: Mark Pickthall

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