Amagical look on the bright side
Montalvo Arts Center glows with British artist Bruce Munro’s light installations
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.”
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.
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.