Sparks

The art of solar energy

 By Anna Volpicelli

From afar, it looks like a colorful garden of beautiful Dutch tulips. Upon a closer look, one discovers that the vast land of rolling hillsides is covered up with thousands of light bulbs that change their colors based on sun’s rays…

Field of Light at Sensorio, on view through January 5th, 2020, in Paso Robles, California, is the largest-to-date lighting installation designed by Bruce Munro, well-known British artist. The grand exhibit adorns the Sensorio Gardens, a multidisciplinary destination at the intersection of art technology and nature.

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Gentle hills covered with "blooming" light bulbs (Serena Munro)

Insights from the desert

Munro, who started his career as a lighting designer, created Field of Light after a visit to Uluru, in Australia. “After working with light for 35 years, it became my go-to medium of expression to describe ideas and feelings,” he explains. “As cliché as it may sound, I had an emotional/spiritual reaction to the landscape when my wife and I first visited Uluru, Northern Territories, Australia in 1992. I felt part of something much bigger than me, and the Field of Light is simply an expression of that.” Munro continues on to describe that the emotions the original site evoked were an instinctive reaction. “The idea and need to express this have never left me, but over the intervening years (1992-2003), it evolved into the installation format that it is today.” After the camping tour in Australia in 1992, the artist, whose work has been showcased galleries, parks, grand estates, cathedrals, botanical gardens, and museums across the globe, kept thinking about his immersive experience at that red desert. He recalls how the landscape appeared infertile until the flowers bloomed after a rainfall, and explains how he dreamt about a field of lights—that like quiet seeds in a dry environment—would patiently wait until dusk to start blooming with soft rhythms of light.

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Bruce Munro (Serena Munro)

The power of the sun as a creative fuel

In 2004, the artist mounted the very first version of Field of Light behind his home in southwest England. Since then, Munro has exhibited it in Scotland, Denmark, South Korea, Arizona, and Australia. In 2016 he managed to install the illuminated artwork in the desert near Uluru, where it is possible to experience it until December 2020. However, the Sensorio’s installation is larger than any other Munro work, and it marks his first US exhibit entirely run on solar power. Covering 15 acres of Sensorio garden, the installation spans more than 58,800 stemmed spheres lit by fiber-optics, gently illuminating the landscape in the subtle blooms of morphing color. The sunlight goes into the solar panels, is stored and is then converted into energy, which is stored in small batteries that power the installation by night, Munro explains. The panels become part of the installation and are strategically placed amongst the light to minimize unnecessary cable runs (all on the surface). The best part? “The installation has a very light footprint on nature. I don’t wish to hide the panels because they have a good message. It’s magical that we can convert the sun’s rays into energy,” he says. When illuminated during the day, the effect is similar to that of the famous Californian spring super blooms. At night the lights unveil different shades of color, like a rainbow after the rain. “We use programmable color-changing LED projectors to illuminate the fiber optics. The whole installation uses the equivalent power of a couple of houses for six hours per day,” explains Munro.

A shared experience

According to Tracy Strann, executive director of Sensorio, it took five weeks to assemble this installation and 20 staff members and volunteers working 8 hours per day on site. Although Munro is known for large-scale light-based artworks, principally inspired by his continuous study of natural light and his curiosity for shared human experiences, the immersive installation at Sensorio is the one that engaged him more on a personal level as it was a project he had been thinking about it for more than a decade. “For me, the Field of Light installation is simply an expression of how that ancient landscape inspired me all those years,” he said. When introducing the artwork, Munro explained that Field of Light allows people to lose themselves within it and has inspired, led to love, healed sadness and made people think. “I had not imagined nor planned for such responses, but they powerfully demonstrate that ephemeral experiences and create a feeling of forever and always the truth—a sense of shared understanding”.

Cover image by: Serena Munro

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about the author
Anna Volpicelli