In 1984, recently graduated British artist Bruce Munro came to Australia for a six-month holiday. Eight years later he had yet to leave, and by the end of that time he’d largely moved away from his first artistic love, painting, and found his signature medium: light.
“The light in Australia is very different from the UK, and I think I was very aware of that when I first came over,” he says. “With a lot of the figurative Australian landscape painters, if you go into the Art Gallery of NSW, there’s a real bleached-out feel to the light. It almost looks like it’s overexposed, but that’s exactly right; there’s this beating, oppressive, bright light that almost give you a headache. The richness of colour comes in at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day, and boy oh boy, it comes in in this multicoloured way.”
Munro has worked with large-scale light installations for several decades now and is best known locally for his ‘Field of Light’ installation, a sprawling work of more than 50,000 illuminated spindles laid out in front of Uluru. It was meant to be a temporary installation when it opened in 2017, but it has since extended its run indefinitely.
Now Munro is back in the Northern Territory, a few hundred kilometres north, with a new city-wide exhibition called ‘Tropical Light’. There are eight works spread out across Darwin’s CBD and waterfront district, all of which speak to Munro’s experiences with the Northern Territory, its history and cultures, since his first visit in 1992.
“Light gives me feeling, and it’s through light and colour that I identify where I am in the world,” he says.
One of the most striking works is called ‘Water-Towers’, consisting of 30 oversized stacks of more than 200 plastic water bottles illuminated by light. They’re lined up across the sea wall at Darwin’s waterfront and are constantly changing colour.
“This is a single-use plastic, and we have to use them for the structural integrity of the towers,” Munro says. “But I’m going to take them back to the UK, make a piece of work from that secondary plastic as a gift to Darwin – a legacy piece as a thank you for doing this exhibition.”
Munro has used everyday materials in his work for much of his career, transforming them with light and encouraging viewers to see those objects in a new context. His work acts as a reminder of the beauty that surrounds us.
“We forget, because we’re so familiar with a bottle of water, how beautiful it is. If you took a bottle of water to a society that hasn’t seen one before, you’d be transfixed by it. It takes light, it magnifies water. It’s just beautiful. Similar with a CD or a DVD; I’ve always loved those optical qualities.”
There’s also a work called ‘Gathering of the Clans’, featuring neon clothes pegs on a Hills Hoist, which glow under black light and represent a variety of native Australian birds, as well as a giant sphere inspired by the ‘green flash’ phenomenon, said to occur in the moment when the sun sets and rises. Avid green flash ‘chasers’ often find themselves flocking to Darwin, which has some of the world’s most spectacular sunsets.
But the inspiration Munro has drawn from Darwin extends beyond the natural world: ‘Telegraph Rose’ is made up of 700 illuminated fishing rods, arranged vertically into the shape of the Sturt Desert Rose, the NT’s floral emblem. The lights flash out the first-ever international morse code message, which was sent from Darwin.
“It’s to do with communication, and I’m fascinated by that,” he says. “The reason I do what I do is that I think art is a great medium for people to meet and communicate; not necessarily about the art, but it’s a very gentle medium to bring people together.”
Bruce Munro's Tropical Light is in Darwin until April 30 2020.