Contemporary Art

In the Studio: Bruce Munro

By Mariko Finch

A head of his work Time and Again being shown at this year's Beyond Limits at Chatsworth House, Bruce Munro opened the doors of his Wiltshire studio to discuss his working process, the origins of this latest work and illuminating the landscape. Munro has an enduring fascination with the concept of time and has investigated this through different mediums throughout his career – producing large-scale installations around the world, exploring human intervention with our surroundings through the medium of light.


When did you decide to become an artist? Was it a conscious decision or something that you always had to do?

Consciously, it was something I recognised really young. I am really content with a drawing material in my hand. Not that I draw or paint very much these days, and truthfully, it was as I got older and went through the school system (I wasn’t very academic) and I found it something I was good at, and could express myself with. It was always something that I loved and felt very close to. I had a very traditional boy’s education; I was sent away to school and the art curriculum there was fairly mundane. I had a wonderful teacher who taught drawing well, but he didn’t really cover much about art history. So when I started my foundation, I was a little behind other kids in terms of their knowledge, but it didn’t worry me – I just got on with it. At art school in those days people seem to wear their art on their sleeve and I was much more of an internal artist. I wasn’t very good at playing an artist or dressing like one or speaking like one. I didn’t think you had to act like an artist; you just were one – inside your heart and spirit. 

When I eventually left art school, I escaped England in 1984 and went to Australia – planning to do odd jobs to make a living, and it was here that I discovered light, so to speak. I could see that although it wasn’t formally art, as I’d known it, I started to see the world and art through light. Through these investigations, I developed a business that (when I returned to England with my wife Serena, whom I met in Australia) eventually developed into designing lighting for houses and gardens. I really enjoyed it, but after a time became frustrated with becoming bogged down in the technicalities of the process, as I just saw light as a way to create atmosphere in the surroundings. I’ve always thought of light as a medium, like paint and the physical three-dimensional space is like a canvas.


How did your work develop from lighting spaces?

One of the first designed pieces I made was a snowball chandelier, and it went up in Babington House when it first opened up down the road from here. Nick Jones is a business guru now, but then he was a guy setting up a new local venture, with not much money and trying to fill the rooms with interesting objects. He said; ''I hear you’ve got a light. Do you want to put it up?'' – so I went and installed it and it went from there.

You said you don’t draw as much as you used to, but are sketchbooks something that are quite important to you? I can see you have a few lying around.

Just before we left Australia to come home, Serena and I did a three month trip around the country, and we ended up camping at Uluru. The whole time I was sketching and scribbling and trying to express how I felt about the place; making notes and writing down ideas. Sketchbooks are a visual diary for me. The Chatsworth piece is in direct response to my most recent experience of Uluru. In April this year I was very kindly taken by a ranger to the indigenous area close to the rock, that I’d been to some 25 years ago. I realised was two thirds into my life, and it made me think about how quickly time passes. I stood and stared at this rock and thought: ''my god – you haven’t changed at all, have you? And here I am withering in front of you.'' And what I learnt is that the indigenous Australians have this wonderful sense of time which we don’t have in our culture. They have a true holistic view of time. We like to take a scalpel to time to delineate it. Their past, present and future are woven – bound together, not separated. The landscape tells you the past, exists with you in the present and moves it into the future. Time is the constant currency, it is infinity. 


How did the work being shown at Chatsworth come about? 

It was whilst investigating these ideas that I had the idea for the piece I made for Beyond Limits – Time and Again. I tend to write things again and again until they makes sense, and I kept coming back to the number twelve. The face of a clock divides time into 12 hours; a year passes by in twelve months. I wanted to diagrammatically give a sense of ''time, and again'' that I was experiencing in Australia. I considered a formation; 36 radials; 12 representing the past, the next 12 the present and the outer third representing the future, and to give that sense of infinity, I drew dash dot, dash dot and then the infinity sign and etched them on to each one. In Morse code, 'C' is represented by dash dot, and 'C' is also of course the speed of light, and together they represent my concept of the passage of time. The installation at Chatsworth is an abstraction of that concept. One of the most significant things to happen in my life was my cousin giving me the Narnia books, aged about nine or ten. In the Voyage of the Dawn Treader there is a description of the galleon sailing up to a sea of lilies. Lilies have always been an important symbol for me, and I return to them often. 


You have talked about the importance of landscape, and the passage of time: is this where your inspiration always begins?

I think they’re intertwined; time and place. Recently, we went to Paxos in Greece and I was reading Edmund de Waal’s The White Road. I love his aesthetic; his use of a mass of handmade objects and forms, his understanding and appreciation of material and history when describing the beauty of porcelain, and the way it interacts with light. I’ve been going to this island for six or seven years with the family, and every year I sit on this beach in the morning on my own. You have to walk through an olive grove down to this little pebbly beach and you are blitzed with the sound of cicadas; the sound of the water and the light. When you put your head in the water there is a mesmerising effect of sunshine moving over the stones on the bottom in rhythms of light. I’m trying to capture the essence of an experience which a writer might write about in the most simple way, which for me, every morning, was that perfect moment of floating in the water, hearing your own breathing. At that moment you’re completely on your own, but part of everything – part of the sea, part of the light in the sea, part of that particular moment. I try to communicate to others, what for me is a perfect moment. Easy to say but complex to do.


Your practice is very investigatory. Would you say your work is scientific?

My strength is in learning and being inquisitive, but I wouldn’t say I was scientific in my approach. Of course I have an imagination, and much of it is based on pragmatic truths and science, but with a creative foundation. Listening to somebody like Brian Cox is completely thrilling because he is talking about the real things, and the reality is far more interesting than anything we can make up. I’m a bit of a jackdaw – I borrow things from nature, from science, from literature, from the natural world around me.

That’s surely an artist’s prerogative – part of the tool box.

Art is the most marvellous way to communicate, much of that comes from borrowing theories and philosophies. The most awful conflicts in the world are caused by a dire lack of communication and willingness to listen.


The irony is it’s never been easier to communicate.

But it’s a superficial kind of communication. It’s a literal form; a telephone or a computer, but really, it’s got to be much deeper than that. It has to be something that makes you emotionally connected. It’s why I made Field of Light all those years ago, and it continues to be remade today, all over the world. My first instinct was to put in the field outside the house, in front of Long Knoll. It was the prototype and it got me in to a bit of trouble with my wife. I said it was an experiment, and she took one look at the plans and said: ''it looks expensive'', so I had to come clean. But I had an instinct that something good would come of it. 


I wasn’t excepting the reaction I got when people first came to see Field of Light. It was overwhelmingly positive, and I realised that was because this was an artwork about connecting people. It created a really interesting dialogue with people. When I was at Uluru I got this incredible moment of clarity where I literally scribbled in my sketch book, an idea, and the genus of Field of Light. I never thought it would see the light of day but it kept nagging at me and I realised I had to do it, and eventually that’s what happened. 


How was the work received by the local community? 

I was very nervous, because I was working on land owned by Indigenous Land Corporation who are responsible for the land; it’s cultural, and environmental impact.  During our eight years in Australia, Serena and I we were not really immersed in the politics of it, but when I was asked to present the work in the landscape that inspired it, I agreed on the understanding that the project be endorsed by the traditional land-owners. There was a positive dialogue with the local Anangu leaders and I was fortunate and delighted to receive their blessing which was sealed at a small private gathering with Anangu elders.  The artwork has its own name in Pitantjara, which loosely translates to ''looking at many beautiful lights'' – the perfect description for it. Tjukurpa is the tradition of passed on learning, of law, of family, stories, and history in the indigenous culture, through the landscape. The field recognises and thanks the place that inspired it.


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