It is not often that the ghosts of the past stare straight at us. Yet that is exactly what happens in the entrance to Albany’s National Anzac Centre.
In World War I footage, soldiers march through the streets of this remote port in Western Australia, where tens of thousands departed for the trenches in 1914. Most of the young men look directly at the camera. Some give a cheeky smile, others seem serious and sad, others searching. There is no sound except the trudging of feet.
To commemorate their sacrifice – as well as the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War – British artist Bruce Munro, renowned for his vast light installations, has created a new site-specific work close to the museum.
Field of Light: Avenue of Honour sees 16,000 glass spheres, balancing on fine stems, nestled within a walkway of trees. This luminescent fairytale terrain is both awesome and intimate. Seen from a distance it looks like a blanket of stars. Yet up close, each bulb trembles individually. For Munro, they represent the ‘young spirits [of the fallen], the lives they could have led.’
I meet Munro in a café, perched high up on Mount Clarence, just outside the Anzac Centre. It is a cold spring day and rabbits frolic on the lawn outside; one perches on the top of a rock looking out to sea. Dressed in a blue jumper paired incongruously with shorts, Munro is quintessentially British. Posh, self-deprecating, and cheery, he peppers his words with ‘bloody’ and is fond of phrases such as: ‘It’s just my funny old makeup.’
The installation is meant to bring tourists to this windswept town, located nearly a five hour drive from Perth, whose main industries are fishing and timber. And on this front, it has succeeded: 12,000 people made the trip to visit it in the first few weeks alone, according to FORM, the not-for-profit behind the artwork.
Helping them along is Munro who, like a magician, is able to transform landscapes already laden with significance into otherworldly spheres – an ability that has taken his talents from the Eden Project in Cornwall to the Guggenheim.
He calls his artworks, made up of thousands upon thousands of lights spread over vast spaces, ‘little moments of sculptural theatre’. In Australia, that includes his wildly successful installation at Uluru, also titled Field of Light, which sees 50,000 bulbs spread across the rust red sand. Opened in 2016, it was meant to be temporary; it has proved so popular it still stands today.
Munro, 59, grew up in Devon, moving to Sydney as a young man, where he stayed eight years.
In 1992, preparing to return to England, Munro and his now wife Serena visited Uluru on a goodbye tour. He expected it to just be ‘a big sandstone rock’. What he found instead was a site imbued with spirituality. It was there that Munro started to sketch an idea: of myriad lights blooming in the desert. Yet it took another 12 years to take fruition. This time, in his own backyard. In 2004 Munro planted 5,000 light bulbs in the field behind his 16th-century farmhouse in Wiltshire, southern England, for no other reason than for the love of beauty.
‘My mother said: “Don’t be a talker, be a doer.” And I think that was bloody good advice,’ recalls Munro. Working from a cowshed, and with four children to support, Munro diverted ‘a few bob’ (read £50,000) from renovations for his newly purchased house into the artwork.
‘Serena was not best pleased at the time,’ he chuckles, recalling she had demanded to know what two strange men were doing ‘planting’ lights into their field. Munro told her he was experimenting. He remembers pleading: ‘Look, I’ve just got this feeling about it. I’ve just got to do it, then I’ll promise you I’ll get on and be sensible.’
Since then Munro, who in many ways sits outside the traditional art world (his interest in lights originally started when he worked in a commercial illuminated display business), has exhibited across the world.
These are artworks designed to be felt, rather than intellectualised. One woman who accidentally drove past his field in Wiltshire, and stopped to drink in the random scattering of earthly phosphorescence, wept.
This desire to reach out to our most primal emotions – whether of elation and euphoria or of deep sadness – is what drives Munro.
‘In my twenties, I always thought art had to be a very tortured process. [I thought] I had to put my own tortured soul on the line,’ he admits. It was in Uluru that Munro realised art could also be a celebration of something much bigger than himself. Deserts are meant to be barren, infertile places – but when it rains in the desert you do get this speed inversion of life coming together. It really was trying to describe how I felt: very joyful.’
Field of Light: Avenue of Honour was different. In this case, it was not desert blooms but lives lost that Munro had to conjure up. (The lights are apt; we are all, as he puts it, ‘just atoms dancing’.)
In the Avenue of Honour Munro was drawn to the shadows of the trees, the sculptural forms of the trunks, the dappled light, the way the branches, caught in the corner of your eye, become a human limb. An arm, a leg, a hand.
‘The tendrils of light grow out of the ground. It’s like an illustration of spirit,’ he says. ‘Spirits under the great trees – roaring in the wind, quivering. Some in groups, some on the edges looking in.’
At the opening night event, as the champagne is poured and canapés are served, Munro is suddenly overcome with emotion. During his speech he breaks down and cries, his jolliness, for just a moment, paused. ‘They are just my children’s age and they didn’t come back,’ he whispers.
Field of Light, like most of Munro’s installations, is temporary. He wants people to see it as a passing moment in time, to reflect the fleeting nature of life. In his own field in Wiltshire, when he first created the kind of art that was to make him famous, he left no explanation other than a single sign. It read: ‘Please turn off the lights when you’re finished.’
Field of Light: Avenue of Honour is showing in Albany until April 2019