The British artist who transformed Uluru’s desert landscape has opened his second Field of Light in Australia. With it, he’s redefining another powerful Australian icon in a most unexpected way.
The story of the field of light
Bruce Munro likes to make people happy. He shares the beauty he sees in the outdoors by lighting up landscapes with thousands of spherical bulbs, and is constantly driven by a sense of joy and wonder. So teaming him with a devastating war story might not seem like a natural fit. Or, it could be a stroke of genius.
Marking one hundred years since the end of the Great War, the British light artist has created a new work to honour the 41,000 troops who, in 1914, shipped out of the natural harbour at Albany, on the southern edge of Western Australia. The Australians and New Zealanders – now known as the ANZACs – were headed for Egypt, Gallipoli, France and beyond; many were teenagers who would never see Australia again.
Avenue of Honour
Plenty were the same age as Munro’s four children are now, something he readily admits has deeply affected him. Yet the cheeky grins and innocent optimism of those marching in uniform forms the basis of his latest light installation, which opened in early October along the town’s Avenue of Honour. “We shouldn’t dwell on the macabre and fear. These people would’ve been joyous about life,” says Munro, overlooking the island-sheltered harbour where warships once clustered. “Commemorating something is about optimism and life and to say to ourselves, ‘We shouldn’t do this again’,”.
Thousands and thousands of bulbs
Sixteen-thousand spherical bulbs that illuminate at dusk, gently glowing in hues of green, yellow and white, express Munro’s uplifting translation of this idea. The bulbs sway in the breeze, resembling a carpet of wildflowers that’s seemingly alive – a fitting tribute, given many troops were seen clutching the region’s blooms as they waved goodbye. With Albany’s wildly romantic coastline in the background, the stems flow down a gentle hill, pooling around rows of 60-year-old gum trees, whose gnarled trunks rise behind plaques commemorating those who served at war. Women and men are remembered along the avenue, their surnames matching up with one third of the volunteers who helped build the installation over a 10-day “planting” period. Munro, whose children were part of the 50-strong team, likes to see each bloom as a smile.
The effect at night is spectacular
By dark, the blacked-out tree trunks become silhouettes against the bulb carpet, while each tree canopy is subtly lit by white floodlights. It creates an effect of dark beings standing tall and strong within an ethereal field of light, their spirit present even if their form is no longer visible. It’s an evocative illusion. “I’m hoping it creates a different opportunity to think about war,” say Munro. “I want to dwell on the spirit of these young people: the dancing, the joy. That’s what we’ve got to remember. This joy goes forward.”
But you’d be wrong to miss it during daylight
Surprisingly, the installation is just as captivating by day, when the bulbs are off, as it is by night. The avenue is blanketed in white, as though snow has fallen, the pale spheres contrasting with the weathered brown of the trees.
Albany’s Field of Light is nearby the National Anzac Centre, a new museum that sits atop Mt Clarence, the site of Australia’s first dawn service. On entry, a grainy film plays, showing thousands of plucky youngsters marching by as their footsteps boom, loud and rhythmic. Munro was transfixed by these soldiers, noticing the boyish grins some gave to the camera as they passed. They inspired him to make his work about cherishing life, rather than the melancholy of the war fields. “War is something I really haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about, probably because I’m a bit of an ostrich with it: I want to put my head in the sand,” he says. “But this has made me focus on it, and think about the value of what somebody does when they give their life.”
Munro spent his mid-20s to early 30s in Australia, working as a bricklayer, cook and even aerobics instructor in Sydney. He regards our continent as his spiritual home; in it, he found both his future wife and his artistic calling. “Serena and I met in Australia and fell in love over here. For us, it brings back our youth,” he says. “That feeling of having no barriers and going where the wind blows. We have that spirit and I think that’s what Australia gave me.”
Where the idea originated
Witnessing fireworks along the Sydney Harbour Bridge for Expo 88 stoked a fascination with the possibilities of illumination and a road trip to Uluru in 1992 sparked the brainwave for what became Field of Light. “The landscape made me feel so joyous; I felt like I’d been plugged into the grid – and I’d had no beer or funny cigarettes,” he says. “I became obsessed with trying to express it.”
It marinated in his mind for the next 12 years. In 2004 he spent the couple’s mortgage on thousands of lights that he planted in the field surrounding their English farmhouse and waited to see how people would respond. “A friend bust into tears, grabbed my hand and said ‘Thank you’,” he says.
The reactions were so powerful, it catapulted his art onto the global stage: he’s now exhibited Field of Light in the United States, Mexico, Denmark and the United Kingdom. Each one is site-specific, responding to what he calls the voice of the landscape. His Field of Light at Uluru has resonated so deeply, it’s been extended until 2020.
One of Munro’s daughters is now based in Sydney and he’s thrilled to head Down Under as often as he can. In fact, he dreams of having a Field of Light in every Australian capital city and is already in talks with Darwin about a future installation.
Having successfully put new spins on two Australian icons – Uluru and now, the Anzac memory – it’ll be exciting to see what he injects wonder and joy into next.