Bruce Munro brings "Light" to the Atlanta Botanical Garden

British artist channels Duchamp and Picasso to create show out of readymades

A hundred years ago, Marcel Duchamp hugely influenced painting and sculpture when he showed that unexpected things could be turned into art. He did this by enlarging the idea of a "found object," which he called a "readymade." This is any ordinary object that is displayed as art and so becomes art. Duchamp's readymades, such as a glass vial full of Parisian air and a porcelain urinal, are now seen as helping to define 20th century art.

Today, as plastic replaces glass and porcelain in our throwaway society, artists like Bruce Munro can draw on new types of readymades. Munro combines appreciation of light in nature with the use of readymades in his exhibition Light in the Garden, installed in May at six sites in the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Munro was born in England but also has roots in Australia, which has influenced his distinctive artistry. After earning an art degree in the U.K., he moved to Sydney, where his job was to make display signs using a plastic that glows under ultraviolet light. Though this experience plays into his art, it could have happened anywhere. What's more important is that Munro had a uniquely Australian moment when in 1992 he visited the great natural feature called Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock). Rising out of the desert in the midst of the Outback, this enormous sandstone monolith glows red at dawn and sunset and stands out even more than Georgia's Stone Mountain. It has spiritual meaning, too, for it is sacred to the local aborigines.

Munro, who comes across in person as both solidly grounded and wide open to any kind of inspiration, felt what he calls an "ever present zing of something special" at Uluru. The site energized him, he writes in his book Catching the Light, with a vision of life springing out of the desert, as when rain makes the arid environment suddenly blossom. In 2004, he expressed this vision in the big outdoor installation "Field of Light." Its theme was light interacting with nature, shown by myriads of flower-like vertical stems holding glowing globes of light and placed in a large field near Munro's home in England.

Since then, Munro continues to show light within nature in different large-scale outdoor installations including several in the U.S. "Forest of Light," his latest version of this signature work within Light in the Garden, occupies the Storza Woods, a hardwood forest at one end of the Garden. The work consists of tens of thousands of light sources on stems scattered throughout the forest floor. They are interconnected via optical fiber, thin glass conduits that carry light of any color to any desired location, and they can be viewed at ground level or from the elevated Canopy Walk that winds through the Woods. Peering down as twilight and then darkness settle in, you see one set of lights, then another and another, start to glow, each in its own muted color. The process and the final effect are natural, beautiful, and slightly disorienting, like an enhanced reflection of the constellation of lights in the night sky.

Other elements in the exhibition are more sculptural. Placed in indoor Garden venues are "Three Degrees," a set of three sinuous shapes reminiscent, in Munro's telling, of curvaceous female forms; and "Eden Blooms," fanciful alien-looking floral forms with bright colors that might have come from some distant tropical planet. "Swing Low" is an outdoors arrangement of light-filled spheres suspended over water.

The remaining two, "Beacon" and "Water-Towers," are where Munro uses his readymades, which could not be more ordinary and ubiquitous. They are transparent plastic water bottles, like those you buy filled with purified water at your local convenience store or supermarket.

When asked if he was thinking of Duchamp when he deciding to use the bottles, Munro says that it was a pragmatic choice, made because they were cheap. But, he adds, the decision was also based on "one of those fortunate moments when I spotted the beauty of a stack of bottles in a retail store ... the work of Duchamp, Picasso, et al, had seeped into my subconscious."

Munro creates what could be called "bottled light" by filling the water bottles with the same kind of optical fiber as in "Forest of Light." The colored light the fiber carries diffuses through the plastic to give the whole bottle a rich glow. In "Water-Towers," bottles are stacked in 20 separate six-foot-tall cylinders, placed around the Garden's Aquatic Plant Pond. At night, each column is luminous with a single color that changes as the cylinders cycle through different shades. The effect is of a hi-tech update of some ancient columned structure like a Greek temple.

"Beacon," located near the Garden's Great Lawn, works in both daylight and darkness. Its framework is made of girders forming a big geodesic dome 15 feet across. The open triangular spaces in the geodesic pattern are filled with nearly 3,000 water bottles pointing inward and again containing optical fiber. During the day, you can look through the bottles to see the intricate internal engineering, and if you step back, the structure resembles an enormous faceted diamond. At night, when varied jewel tones piped in by the optical fiber are visible, it becomes any gem you want it to be or the best kaleidoscope ever.

Munro's artistic use of light has appeared in many venues, from gardens to cathedrals in the U.S. and U.K. Asked about his Atlanta exhibition, he says it was a privilege to help inaugurate the next stage in the development of the Storza Woods, and that he especially liked its unique Canopy Walk. But among all his varied artistic experiences, Australia still exerts a special pull.

Munro finds inspiration in the offbeat film The Last Wave by director Peter Weir, an unsettling story based on aboriginal mythology about impending global catastrophe. Expressing this "dream world" in light is a future project for the artist. Then there is his continuing engagement with Uluru, which he has just revisited in hopes of celebrating his 1992 revelation with a new "Field of Light."

"'The Field of Light' at Uluru has been 23-year journey so it's essential I reduce the time lag between concept and execution," Munro says. "Getting older makes time a very precious commodity!"

Fortunately, Munro, Uluru, and even plastic readymades — should he need them — will be with us for a long time to come.

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