July 2016

The Nation Reviewed

Desert blooms

By Ashley Hay
Bruce Munro’s ‘Field of Light’ brings 50,000 LED spheres to Uluru

In the new-moon black of early winter, a coach draws up on a hillside just outside the Northern Territory town of Yulara, and four dozen or so of us clamber down into the night. The sky is cloudy and the air cold. But something special shimmers in the land’s wide dip below. Some 50,000 softly coloured lights – combinations of oranges, blues, whites, greens and reds – sway a little in the breeze. It looks like magic.

This Field of Light is the inaugural Australian creation of British light artist Bruce Munro. The site-specific piece, which covers 49,000 square metres of red dirt just beyond the margins of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, is the manifestation of a vision Munro had in 1992 when he first visited Central Australia. “I had the idea of the desert blooming,” he told me in March this year before the installation was complete. But he’d had two immediate problems in the ’90s: the technology needed for such a project hadn’t yet been invented, and he wasn’t working as an artist at the time.

He installed the first iteration of Field of Light on his own property in England more than a decade ago (“I bought a house with a field on purpose,” he confessed), and when someone drove an ailing friend up to see it – and she burst into tears – he realised he’d made something powerful. New versions of the piece were commissioned for sites from Scotland to the United States and beyond. Soon after a radio host in Alice Springs interviewed Munro about his work, he found himself talking to the Voyages Ayers Rock Resort and the Indigenous Land Corporation about bringing the idea home.

Munro’s 16th Field resembles a horizontal sheet of stained glass, a luminous magic carpet thrown down in front of the rock’s famous panorama – or the idea of it, at night. Walking among its garden of tiny solar-powered globes perched on fine stems is like walking through a vast pointillist painting, the frosted spherical “flowers” of each bloom almost as mesmerising as single beacons as they are in combination. There is a beautiful symmetry between the washes of colour that ebb and flow through the lights and those that do the same across the surface of that vast presence just to the south, the sandstone inselberg whose own colours so famously change with the time of each day and its weather. And all around, as it happens, as we walk, the red desert is blooming too – cassia, grevillea, acacia and more – in the wake of recent rains.

“The chromatic palette chosen is a reflection of the sky and the land, particularly at dawn,” Munro says now that the work is complete. And the level of light he used means “that if you’re standing in the middle of the installation on a moonless night, the arc of the Milky Way would meld with the outer edges of the field”.

Back on the bus, tiny screens glow in almost every lap as people send their moments – I was here, and I saw this – into the world.

The local Anangu people have described the piece as Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku, “looking at lots of beautiful lights”. “Art changes with time,” Munro notes, “so I’ll be interested to learn more about how they perceive the work on my next visit.” His own reaction to it, when it was finally finished and illuminated, was “huge relief” but also “pretty detached”, he says. “Perhaps this was because the inspiration behind the piece was so visceral and personal … the installation is more an echo and expression of those feelings.”

He had wanted it to be “an expression of how that land made me feel”, Munro had told me in March. “It was electrifying.” And the piece can own that adjective too – more so in the hour before sunrise. Visitors at that time are delivered a little further along the ridge, and a little further below its crest, so that the walk towards the hilltop in the deeper pre-dawn darkness suddenly reveals the whole glorious field below. The lights look brighter; they seem to sparkle more.

It’s pure spectacle, an animated rainbow. And then the earth turns a little further and the darkness heads west. The sky lightens, and that one dark shape, behind the lights, solidifies into its distinct geological profile. The sunrise returns the landscape to itself. The lights and all their colours sink into an elegant daytime monochrome of white.

“If I can produce a positive moment, if I can add to the positivity of the world, well, that’s what it’s all about,” Munro had said to me in March. Networks of cables – more than 380 kilometres of illuminated optical fibre – connect these 50,000 points of light not only to one another but also to the energy of our closest star via 36 portable solar panels. It is some thing to be in the right place at the right time to witness the luminous product of someone else’s imagination. Leaving it is only made bearable by the idea that it will still be there while you are not.

At least for a while – this Field will be on show until the end of March next year.

And that’s “part of the fun”, Munro says, “putting something into a space and then sweeping it away again – leaving the ground just as you found it, like a ghost”.

Ashley Hay

Ashley Hay won last year’s Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing. Her last novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, won the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies’ Colin Roderick Award and the People’s Choice category in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her new novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, will be published this April. She lives in Brisbane.

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