British artist Bruce Munro‘s immersive, site-specific installations utilize light to create experiential art. Ranchlands spoke with Bruce about his journey to artistic recognition, the inspiration he draws from travel and music, and his interest in the intersection of time, place, and light.
Madeline Jorden: I wanted to start by just asking you if you have a first memory of having an interest in art or when you remember first recognizing that about yourself.
Bruce Munro: It certainly stemmed from childhood. I have really young memories of just feeling very happy with a paintbrush in my hand, or a pen and paper. The light thing came to me slightly later in life, but I remember just moments as well. Like at Christmas… My father traveled a lot and I think we were probably one of the few people at the time who had an American-style Christmas tree that was artificial and–this is in the ’60s–it was very sort of tinsel-y and lots of lights on it, like those sort of old style, we call them fairy lights. But I remember being fascinated by the play of light in a room and only those lights were on and the reflections. And I was staring at this tree for hours… nothing to do with the presents or Father Christmas or anything. I just was transfixed by the kind of light qualities.
Madeline Jorden: And in terms of memory, listening to you speak and reading some other interviews with you, memories of things that are significant to you are what show up in your work a lot of the time. I also read that you journal a lot. Is that something that you still do and what is your practice of journaling?
Bruce Munro: Yes. It started actually, when I was about 16. I had a teacher, a young student master. I was sent away to school and it was quite a traditional boys’ school at that time. And there was a young art teacher… he was sort of just helping out, I guess. And he was different from the more traditional teachers. He was making art out of old apple crates and bits of brown paper, and we all thought this was very cool. But he bought us all an A5 sized sketchbook, which I still use. Now I’ve got a kind of a leather holder as it were, and I put the new books in, but since that age I have… because he said put anything in and don’t be self conscious about what. Use it as a recorder of life.
And if something’s of interest or if there’s something you pick up… you could find an old sweet wrapper on the pavement, or you could find a twig. So in that sense, it became just a sort of point to collect either thoughts or small objects. And then as I kind of got older, I found I had a short hand for memory, because words are quite evocative. So I found that I could scribble in a book and maybe write half a dozen words. They mean nothing to other people. It looks like a bunch of rubbish probably to others, but I can then write these things where I’m having an experience and that moment comes back to me. It’s much more effective than a camera in a funny way, because it’s… you are kind of… there are multiple senses that you are capturing and that’s what I use them for.
And to be honest, I never really thought of them being useful for anything. I just did it as a habit. And then when I was about 40, I decided that, through my father dying… and I thought I needed to give this art interest a real go, although I’d been kind of at the periphery in design and everything… I’d never really put it into action.
I looked in my book one day and found a notation that really caught a moment of experience. And I thought I’ve got to make that experience, because I suddenly realized that a lot of art is very self indulgent, and a bit of a reflection on the ego. And I kind of worked out that these observations were nothing really to–they were to do with me in the fact that I was in a landscape in a time and a place–but they tended to be moments of connection with a place, so when you–and I think everybody feels this–when you are traveling somewhere or when you are having a particularly, what I call, a good moment, you sort of dissolve into the space and you become less aware of yourself. And I’m more aware of being part of a much bigger whole.
And I thought suddenly it took me to… I was about 40 at the time, I thought this is good subject matter. This is what I want to make art about. It wasn’t, as I said, self indulgent, sort of trying to be expressive about you as an ego, it was about expressing the experience of being alive, but which was much more ballistic and more about how we all feel, how people feel, because I think ultimately art is a brilliant form of communicating to each other, things that might not be said in words, or in just the visual or sound, music… it’s a sort of a conglomerate of lots of things coming together.
Madeline Jorden: So that experience of feeling sort of dissolved into a place, is that what you felt at Uluru?
Bruce Munro: Yeah. That’s exactly right. My wife (then girlfriend) and I were… I think I was about 32. She would’ve been about 29. We were actually leaving Australia to go back to England and then get married. And we literally had said, okay, we’re going to do a trip around Australia. We bought an old banger–that’s an old car–shoved a tent in the back and off we went for three or four months. And that was really refreshing because we only drove in daylight because of the roos. It’s safer to do that. And we literally would go to bed with the sunset and get up the sunrise. So it was a very nice way to live.
I remember coming to Uluru… well, it was known as Ayers Rock, but Uluru is the indigenous name. And I was a bit cynical about it all because I’d had a lot of Aussie mates and English mates, living in the city, who’d been telling me all about Uluru. And I thought, oh God, if another person tells me about this big red rock. But actually, when I got there, I was sort of jaw on the… it just has a real presence. And the feelings that I got from there were incredible. And I just wrote. I remember writing a lot about it. It wasn’t about spirituality. It was about this… there was a feeling of energy in the air and in the ground. And when I say energy, I don’t know how else to express it. It felt very alive and very really kind of high in spirit and mood. And I had been working in a factory in Sydney, working in light, and I kind of was just starting to think of light as a medium of expression.
And then this idea, I just thought that making a kind of object of art or something that you stood in front of, in a gallery, was just not going to do what I wanted to say. And I actually had this idea… it was slightly different from the integral… quite different to how you see the field of light, now. It was actually a series of vertical pipes that were about six feet tall that I had imagined I could orient in 360 degrees on a horizontal plane, and then about 270 degrees in a vertical plane. So in other words, it was a bit like a giant wand that would move around. And I saw these on a grid in my mind’s eye and the idea… And obviously all the technology didn’t really exist, but I was just using my imagination. And I saw it as a light dance that would kind of wake up in the night. So during the day it was asleep. And then as the light went down, these vertical poles would rise out of the ground and then they would start changing color and dancing. So it was a kind of a dance. And when I got back to the UK, I did try and pursue this as an idea, but it was going to cost a lot of money, and I had no money. And I tried to get myself on to do a Masters at university to visualize it. I couldn’t do that.
So I kind of put it back. Obviously, I had three children… well, I had sorry, one child by then, on the way. And I had to start thinking about earning money to look after a young family. And it was several years later… this idea of doing this light field just kept on nagging at me. And then eventually I did develop my own design practice in the UK. It was probably… could have been 10 years later from that period. And I was experimenting with fiber optics. And while I was doing that, I came across this idea. I was doing lots of experimenting. I went, that is just what I want to do. That is exactly… it was a less complex answer to the same feeling.
By then, we had three children. I think the fourth was on the way, and we’d moved into an old farmhouse with a field, and I’d been telling people about this and saying, I want to borrow a field, but people don’t like to lend their fields to you necessarily, or if they do, they want lots of money for it. And that’s probably why we bought this place. I’m looking at the field now, because it has a 12 acre field. So I thought, great, there’s my canvas. And I can do anything I want on it. So that’s really how the Field Of Light started.
Madeline Jorden: It struck me that you visited Uluru, and then I think it was 10 years later that you kind of remembered that experience and executed your first large scale light installations, and then a certain amount of time later before you actually went back to Australia and installed something at that site. So just the time that it can take for art to unfold a little bit.
Bruce Munro: Yes. Really we’re talking now probably 30 years ago. That’s incredible and it’s scary when you think of that because it feels like yesterday. On the inside, you don’t… you feel the same, but on the outside you are not the same. But I really like that… I think that’s, again, something quite important for youngsters. I said to my children now that, doing art, you’ve got to be in for the long term. And it really helps you work out why you’re doing it, because it is a struggle in the beginning, unless you are extremely lucky, and you’ve just got to keep going. And when the breaks come along, you take them. You take the opportunities. I’ve been very fortunate.
I’ve had some good opportunities and some people might not get those opportunities. And I can see that must be frustrating, but it’s still… I was still prepared to do what I was doing. We put the field of light in our field initially and to great expense… a certain proportion of my mortgage went on that. And obviously my wife was not pleased when she looked out of the window, saw all these lights in the field and she didn’t have any wallpaper on the walls, so I have to say to you since that day, I’ve not made the same mistake again.
Madeline Jorden: Because you did study art in school and then tried a lot of different things–working in galleries, painting, tile, light engineering–before you finally sort of hit on what you’re doing so much of now. So I think that is probably very interesting or helpful for young people to kind of study what different artists’ paths are.
Bruce Munro: And also every job you do… I think the perception is, oh, I can’t do that job because it’s not… why is that going to… how’s that going to get me to be an artist? Well, actually every job you do feeds into it. Working behind a bar when I was a student taught me how to interact with people, taught me how to talk to people. Every job one does, you’re meeting people and it’s communicating and it’s selling yourself and it’s also listening to other people. So adding up in your head, which in those days before you had, well, you had calculators, but mental arithmetic, that’s quite important for artists because you are often dealing with distances and numbers and I’m not math based, but I probably, through the love of making stuff, have probably got a little bit better. My teachers at school would probably been amazed that I could have actually done some of the things that I’ve done because as a kid, I was pretty thick.
Madeline Jorden: Yeah. You can learn something from every job or experience. So the other thing about your work is that it’s very site specific, which is different from a lot of other painting, but also at the same time, very similar to in medieval or Renaissance times when painters were doing, for example, an altarpiece for a specific church or a fresco on a certain wall. So in the broader scope of art history, how do you think about the relationship between place and art?
Bruce Munro: Well, for me, I don’t go to… there are situations where somebody will say, come and see this landscape or this space specific for you to be inspired by it. But I tend to do that on a daily basis. So it’s sort of like second nature. I’m often walking around a place or doing something and I’ll look at a space and I’ll be thinking about… well, I don’t know what I’ll be thinking about, but some idea will pop into my head. And so I just think it’s a kind of language that you have. It’s a sort of conversation that you are having with yourself, wherever you go. And sometimes it’s to create something that’s talking about the art you are putting in the space. And sometimes it’s actually a balance between the art and the space. And sometimes it’s about the art making… or the space, how it changes the art.
I’m quite interested in the way… for example, there are a number of installations that I do like the Field Of Light or Water Towers, when they go into different spaces, the space will change the dynamics of the artwork, and it sounds an obvious thing to say, but most people don’t get that. And they’ll be surprised when they visit, say, a Field Of Light in six different locations, they will have very different atmospheres and a different feeling.
Madeline Jorden: There’s an exchange between the art and the place that’s kind of reciprocal and I would imagine even in the same location, as the time of day changes or day-to-day with different weather, that impacts the way that people experience the art as well.
Bruce Munro: Obviously through lockdown over the past two years, we haven’t been allowed to travel. So we’ve been all restricted to where we are. So I kind of gave myself a couple of projects. And one of those was a two dimensional project, which I hadn’t done for years. And I was basically using the resource on my phone, because what I do is typically when I travel places, I do these panoramics. And I must say, again, I get a bit of the mickey taken out of me by my family, because I sort of look a bit weird because I’m turning my body as I take photographs.
But I’ve now got quite a few years of different spaces. And what I did was… what occurred to me is that we are defined, by light, through where we are in the world physically and also by our time code. So there’s a sort of a place and a time code. So I’ve come up with a system of bringing these images back into the world. They’re sort of abstractions of those images. And they’re basically known… they’re titled by the date and the longitude and latitude. And that’s all. They don’t have any title other than that. And the reason I’m kind of interested in that is because the light, what I call the chromatic balance and the tonal balance of light in any place at any time, is always unique. It’s like a fingerprint. And I wanted to abstract the photographs in such a way that they’re broken down into their light components… the chromatic values and their tonal values.
And I’ve now got about 3 or 400 pieces that I’ve done. Basically it’s a way of comparing a moment of time with another moment of time. And I find that a fascinating journey as well, because that’s really what our life is. It’s a sort of… if you look at it in a film, it’s a bit like a film, but I wanted to make it slightly purer. I wanted to break it down into light.
Madeline Jorden: What was interesting too, to think about using light as a medium, because photography or painting, it’s trying to capture the effects of light in a different format, but you’re really using light itself as the material that you’re working with, which is so different in a lot of ways.
Bruce Munro: But I’m still quite simple in the way that I’m… I mean, I do see things very simply, and I’m very visual in my makeup. I’m not really conceptual. I’m not bright enough to do that, but I think about things a great deal, but I then try and interpret them into ways that I feel answers the feeling or the job in hand. And I think in some ways I’ve been lucky because people seem to get it. They seem to understand the simplicity, but they also understand there’s a sort of playfulness with it as well. I don’t try to take it too seriously because I think when you take yourself too seriously, you’re getting, again, into realms of ego and sort of that kind of rubbish.
Madeline Jorden: Yeah. Well, another element of your work is that it’s super interactive for people. They really can be within the art in a lot of instances. Do you pay attention to sort of what people’s reactions are or what their experience is like when they visit some of your installations? And if so, what have you noticed?
Bruce Munro: To say I pay attention… I was just fortunate that people actually could be bothered to come and see them. And I actually… and they say this really did happen by chance, because when we did our installation in our field out here, obviously nobody knew about it. And a couple of things happened. One was, when people did turn up… I was a bit like a lighthouse keeper for a year because I had like a main switch. I could come out and turn the lights on and the field would light up and we’d get these people turning up and saying, oh, well, we hear you’ve got some lights, is it alright to come and have a look at… obviously that was the point of it. So it was interesting to see the kind of diversity of interpretation. And I really enjoyed that. But the most important thing for me was the fact that everybody seemed to be uplifted by it. So I thought, well, that’s really positive.
And there was an instance where there was a lady who turned up on a number of occasions and on one occasion she said, can I bring a friend along, but we need to drive right up to the field because she’s not mobile. And she brought her friend along and the lady got out and I happened to be there. And this lady got out of the car and then just burst into tears. And I was sort of thinking, God, what have I done? And then she grabbed my hand and just said, thank you. And I went well that’s… you are humbled when that happens. And this lady… the long and the short, she died about three or four months later, but she’d been very moved by it. And I don’t think in my life up to that point, I could… I hadn’t recognized that art can really move people’s hearts and spirits. So that was a bonus for me, I just thought, wow. And that made me want to do more. And I felt vindicated by the fact I’d squandered our mortgage.
That one reaction I said to my wife, I said, wow, you can’t beat that. Money is… but obviously I’ve got to be pragmatic. And I was thrilled when the opportunity started to come for me to make these things and make a living at it. So that was icing on the cake, but it was never my raison d’etre. In fact, I was really pleased that I started my life out commercially doing something, which wasn’t in my heart and soul. It didn’t matter so much because I kept my art ideas privately and never mixed money and art together. So it keeps you very true to your core values, but that’s really important because there are temptations.
People do all sorts of stuff where they will say, hey, we’ll pay you this to go and do this. And you think, well, I don’t see the connection with that piece of work with this product that they’re trying to promote, and that’s the commercial world. And that’s very unfortunate. Though that happens, you’ve got to be quite wary and on your toes as an artist because when you do have a bit of success, obviously you think, well maybe it’s never going to happen again. And you might lose your way a bit. So hopefully I’ve got my head screwed on pretty well. And I’m too old now to worry about it. I just get on with it.
Madeline Jorden: In some of your installations, it looks like you use upcycled materials. Would you call it that?
Bruce Munro: Yes. I borrow materials on the way to the recycling or being recycled or repurposed. I’m fascinated by the simplicity of stuff. Our lives are full of mass produced product. And it was partly done for pragmatic reasons because I’d have an idea and I’d want to create something, but to make it all from scratch will add huge amounts of cost. And I also thought that it’s quite nice to elevate a humble plastic bottle or glass bottle or a CD or something that has no intrinsic value beyond once it’s been used… to borrow that and create something hopefully quite beautiful with it. And then it gets repurposed. It gets broken down at the end of that. And then those components get reprocessed.
So there’s sort of pragmatic reasons for it, but also there’s a sort of a responsibility to our world that we live in. I do try and think about that, and the same goes for energy that we use in our installations where energy is required. We’ve teamed up with a company to really look into that, so we’re using solar quite a bit to power our lights. We use very small amounts of power anyway, but it’s an interesting thing, when you do have solar, you don’t have to dig in an infrastructure. You don’t have to put wires all through the ground because you can normally put the solar panel close to the art that you are creating. And so it’s a very light footprint on the ground. Particularly if it’s a beautiful landscape, you don’t want to go plowing up the landscape.
Madeline Jorden: My last question for you is: who are a few other contemporary artists whose work you’re watching or you’re interested in right now?
Bruce Munro: I know it sounds a bit strange… I’m not one to really… there are people that I really admire in terms of painters or sculptors, or whatever, who from my growing up years who I love. But the thing that I find is if you look up too much, spend yourself sort of looking at too much art, for me, it has the opposite effect of inspiring me. It can close me down. I tend to get inspired by the life that’s in front of me, rather than trying to go and look at how other people are seeing the world, because I don’t want to then be… I think that we are a product of our environment and the concern I would have is… obviously I see stuff all the time and it would be wrong of me to try and become another artist.
And so I’ve never really done that. As I said, there are wonderful painters, from Renaissance painters to Impressionists, to people who are more recent painters and that probably had a lot to do with my art schooling. Again, we are going back quite a long time, but there are some incredible people around who you are in awe of their work, but I don’t particularly want to spend hours looking at other people’s work because I’m trying to sort of develop a language of my own to express.
Madeline Jorden: You can sort of lose sight of what’s truest to you if you spend too much time in other people’s vision?
Bruce Munro: A little bit. I’d set myself a project while I was going through the pandemic of listening to… I went on Google and looked at classical composers going from the present back in time. And there are 7 or 800 composers. So I listen to different music every day. And that’s been a really rich vein of just going through music that I’ve never listened to, say, for two or three years, and that’s been exciting. And I have a list–actually, I’m looking at it now–that I kind of tick. And that’s been a really exciting project, but it sort of inspires me rather than… it doesn’t sort of give me a problem, whereas I think if I was looking at visual stuff, it would be getting inside my brain and stopping me thinking freely.