Amag­i­cal look on the bright side

Mon­talvo Arts Cen­ter glows with Bri­tish artist Bruce Munro’s light in­stal­la­tions

The Mercury News Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - IN­SPIRED BY ‘CHRON­I­CLES OFNARNIA’ By Linda Za­vo­ral lza­vo­ral@ba­yare­anews­group.com

Bruce Munro stood on the Mon­talvo Arts Cen­ter ter­race, above the Great Lawn, and gazed at his 6,000 bulbs of light clus­tered be­low. A full moon rose in the sky, a stand­ing ova­tion from a fel­low il­lu­mi­na­tor.

“The ‘ Sil­ver Sea’ is do­ing its thing,” he said ap­prov­ingly of this ma­jor art­work, an acre-sized “ocean” of flick­er­ing lilies on tall stems. “And then you’ve got the city twin­kling in the back­ground.”

Saratoga’s hills have been elec­tri­fied by “Munro at Mon­talvo: Sto­ries in Light,” a fan­tas­ti­cal dis­play of 10 large- scale works by the Bri­tish artist, who has fa­mously il­lu­mi­nated the vast Aus­tralian land­scape near Uluru, placed a sea of shim­mer­ing CDs in an English vil­lage and cre­ated eye­catch­ing art in the Ari­zona desert.

The ex­hi­bi­tion opens Sun­day and runs through March 17, with nearly 90 op­por­tu­ni­ties for pub­lic view­ing, in­clud­ing fam­ily-ac­tiv­ity nights and plein air paint­ing ses­sions.

“It’s re­ally jaw- drop­ping,” said An­gela McCon­nell, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Mon­talvo. “And it’s not hap­pen­ing in L. A. or San Fran­cisco. It’s hap­pen­ing right here.”

Over the next five months, Mon­talvo ex­pects to host thou­sands of new

That’s a bit of a pas­sion of mine — get peo­ple to en­gage in the here and now. I hope that they en­joy it. And go away­with a light heart.” — Bruce Munro, artist

vis­i­tors, from arts afi­ciona­dos ea­ger to see Munro’s first West Coast ex­hi­bi­tion to mil­len­ni­als who grew up on the fan­tasy books and films that in­spired Munro.

Mon­talvo’s artis­tic coup was more than two years in the­mak­ing. In 2016, McCon­nell and arts di­rec­tor Kelly Si­cat asked Munro to visit the venue and dream about what he could cre­ate here.

Munro says his first morn­ing here, he emerged from the artists’ res­i­dency on-site and dis­cov­ered the Ital­ianate Gar­den, the man­i­cured lawns and the grand man­sion, built in 1912 by Sen. James Phe­lan, with its stained-glass de­pic­tion of a sail­ing ship.

“I kind of had a shiver. I felt I’d been here be­fore,” he said. “I thought, god, this is a Nar­nian ex­pe­ri­ence.”

So Munro’s fa­vorite books as a young­ster — the C. S. Lewis fan­tasy se­ries “The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia” — in­flu­enced his works on this 175-acre prop­erty. “You can play games as an adult with your child­hood mem­o­ries,” he said.

Those fan­ci­ful treat­ments all cen­ter on light, Munro’s artis­tic medium of choice, whether he’s ex­per­i­ment­ing with LEDs, fiber op­tics, flu­o­res­cents, pro­jec­tion map­ping or bat­tery-op­er­ated can­dles.

“By def­i­ni­tion, light is so im­me­di­ate. I love the idea that it’s ephemeral. You can flick a switch and it’s on. You can flick it off and it’s gone.”

In Munro’s world — and he in­vites view­ers to draw from their imag­i­na­tions and cre­ate their own worlds — that mas­sive Mon­talvo lawn has be­come a mo­ment from “The Voy­age of the Dawn Treader,” when King Caspian sails from the end of the Nar­nian world to the world that awaits, a jour­ney from the salt­wa­ter sea to a fresh­wa­ter sea of lilies.

In “Ra­mandu’s Ta­ble,” a land­scape of 1,000 white plas­tic flamin­gos il­lu­mi­nated by flood­lights, Munro pays homage both to Lewis’ flock of myth­i­cal birds that fly from the sun daily and to the late Don Feather­stone, the­man who in­vented that pop cul­ture icon, the plas­tic pink flamingo.

“These flamin­gos be- come a can­vas for us to en­joy the dusk and the dawn,” Munro said.

And in “Reepicheep’s Wave,” Munro trans­forms the Gar­den Theatre stage into a 20- foot- tall wave through the use of 16 miles of fiber op­tic cable and 18,000 vac­uum- cast mus­sel shells. A sound­track — he calls it an “au­di­tory trompe l’oeil” — omi­nously sug­gests that this crest­ing wave could crash at any mo­ment.

A Tues­day night light­ing of the im­mer­sive ex­hi­bi­tion of­fered a sneak pre­view to do­cents who have been trained to give tours of Munro’s work, and the vol­un­teers who spent weeks in­stalling the art pieces. ( Un­pack­ing those mus­sel shells alone took two days.)

Do­cents Peg Hyl­bert and Mary Wond, both for­mer teach­ers, found the in­stal­la­tions won­drous and can’t wait to read “Nar­nia” pas­sages to vis­it­ing chil­dren. “I loved how the win­dow in the villa in­spired him,” Hyl­bert said, re­fer­ring to the stained- glass sail­ing ship. Wond was en­chanted by the cock­a­toos that pop­u­late “Gath­er­ing of the Clans.”

That be­guil­ing piece fea­tures 12 species of col­or­ful cock­a­toos — as de­picted by clothes­pins of vary­ing hues — sit­ting on clothes­lines, with au­dio of their non­stop chat­ter. If you lis­ten closely, you’ll hear Munro and his Aussie friends slip­ping in the oc­ca­sional “G’day, mate” among the squawks.

It’s a cheeky ad­di­tion to an art­work with a se­ri­ous un­der­cur­rent about the state of to­day’s world. “We are be­com­ing more frag­mented,” Munro said. “What about hu­man­ity as one species?”

Robert Gar­rett, Mon­talvo’s the­ater man­ager, capped off the weeks of in­stal­la­tion work with a stroll through the grounds. “We’re stick­ing poles in the ground, mov­ing rocks, hang­ing wires and all the thou­sands of bulbs — and then all of a sud­den you see it lit up for the first time, and it’s awe­some,” he said. “Now I get it.”

What does Munro want the pub­lic to “get” fromthis ex­pe­ri­ence?

Ide­ally, he’d like vis­i­tors to step out of their ev­ery­day ex­is­tence. “That’s a bit of a pas­sion of mine — get peo­ple to en­gage in the here and now.”

But in the end, he said, his art is about op­ti­mism.

“I hope that they en­joy it,” Munro said. “And go away with a light heart.”

KARL MONDON — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Bri­tish artist Bruce Munro has cov­ered the Great Lawn of the Mon­talvo Arts Cen­ter in Saratoga with thou­sands of glass bulbs lit by fiber op­tics for “Sil­ver Sea,” one of 10in­stal­la­tions in­cluded in his “Sto­ries in Light” show open­ing Sun­day.

With re­cy­cled plas­tic bot­tles and op­ti­cal fiber, Munro cre­ated “Bac­chus’ Spring,” an ad­di­tion to the sculp­tures in Mon­talvo’s Ital­ianate Gar­den.

Plas­tic lawn flamin­gos glow un­der col­ored flood­lights dur­ing a pre­view of the “Sto­ries in Light” show.

PHO­TOS BY KARL MONDON — STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Bruce Munro is dwarfed by the “Good Seed,” his dan­de­lion of Vic­to­rian iron lamp­posts, one of the dis­plays on ex­hibit.

Amy Pike un­coils fiber op­tic ca­bles as the lead in­staller for Bruce Munro’s “Sto­ries in Light” show. Munro’s works will be on view Sun­day through March 17at the Mon­talvo Arts Cen­ter.

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