A breathtaking and temporary lighting exhibit illuminates a historic 1,077-acre property in the Brandywine Creek Valley.
Located in Kennett Square, Pa., Longwood Gardens has a unique and storied history dating back to the 1700s. As one of the most renowned botanical sites in the U.S., it is home to gardens, woodlands, and meadows offering a panorama of exotic plants and horticulture to visitors who come year-round to tour the grounds or attend events, performances, lectures, and workshops.
This summer, the rolling expanse comes to life in evenings like never before as a temporary exhibit (which ends September 29) called Light: Installations by Bruce Munro enchants everyone who witnesses it.
Although this is Englishman Bruce Munro’s first U.S. exhibition of this magnitude, it is not the first time he has explored lighting landscapes in an extraordinary way.
“The curators at Longwood Gardens read about my Field of Light at the Eden Project in Cornwall, England, and got in touch to see if I’d be willing and able to do something [for them],” Munro explains. “That was two years ago, and I didn’t really know if it would work until I made a trip there to see the gardens. I was really so impressed with their beauty that I was immediately inspired to do a lot of installations there! Eventually, we’ve covered 23 acres. Longwood Gardens is a stunning place and I admire its history and ethos, too.”
Munro has a reputation for bringing landscapes alive through lighting effects. “I did a Field of Light in 2004-2005 as an experiment in a 10-acre field near my studio in the English countryside of Wiltshire,” he recalls. “Later, I did a piece called CDSea in the same field. It has a public footpath bisecting it, which a lot of ramblers use, so it’s essentially a natural art gallery. The two pieces I did for the Salisbury Cathedral project (2010-2011) were big, but it was such a huge space that they didn’t seem particularly large. The ‘Light Shower’ I did at the spire crossing in the interior of the cathedral (which was completed in about 1238) was as big as a four-bedroom house in volume, but seemed almost lost in that magnificent space. However, the exhibition at Longwood is – by far – the biggest I’ve ever done! It was quite a challenge, and it took us nine weeks to set up.”
At Longwood, Munro’s Light exhibition consists of six large-scale outdoor installations, two installations within the four-acre Grand Conservatory interior space, and a small collection of illuminated sculptures in the Music Room.
In the “Forest of Light,” 20,000 illuminated stems are scattered along a forest walk. The “Water Towers” consist of a monumental maze of 69 towers in the water meadow, with the “towers” appearing to move in a glowing dance as they change color in sync with music. In the “Waterlilies” section, Munro pays homage to Longwood’s iconic water lily by floating platters of shimmering CDs onto the large lake. Nearby on the banks, the 7,000-stem “Field of Light” installation beckons visitors toward its enchanting glow. The “Arrow Spring” section artfully mixes the horticultural splendor of salvia plants and sparkling LEDs to create a meandering hillside stream. For “Candlelight” inside Longwood’s tree house, Munro has placed ceramic candles lit with xenon along the beams and angled mirrors to refract their glowing light.
Inside the Conservatory, the Orangery is hung with six “Snowballs” suspended from the ceiling. Each chandelier measures more than nine feet in diameter and encircles 127 glass balls. In “Light Shower,” more than 1,600 drops of twinkling light “rain” over the flooded Fern Floor, creating a magical reflection that intensifies the luminous shower.
Behind the Scenes
To prepare for the grand installation, Munro flew from England to Longwood Gardens two or three times with his assistant. Together with the curators, they sat down and mapped out a plan in detail. “To a certain extent, all of my installations are site-specific,” Munro comments. “There’s no point plonking something into the landscape with no reference to the environment at all.”
As for the fixtures, Munro and his team made as much as possible in his studio, and then shipped them out in containers. “Some pieces had to be adapted when we were installing them. For instance I changed the light source on Arrow Spring as we went along because of unforeseen elements,” he notes. “I took Longwood’s advice on which plants to use for that piece, as I am no botanist. I wasn’t expecting the snapping turtles in the lake when we floated ‘Waterlilies’ or the midges in the water meadows! I wore shorts on the first day installing Water Towers, which was not a good idea.”
Overall, Munro’s creative intention was to celebrate the beauty of the gardens themselves and help visitors see them in a whole new “light,” so to speak. “Many pieces have been inspired by fleeting moments involving natural light when I was in my twenties that I jotted down in the sketchbooks that I always carry with me.”
Munro still has inspirations from that time that he hopes to be able to realize as installations some day. “The Field of Light at the small lake was one of those sketchbook jottings, inspired by a road trip with my fiancée (who is now my wife and the mother of our four children). We were in the red desert in Australia,” he recalls. “One evening it rained, and suddenly from nowhere in this barren landscape there were flowers! I realized that dormant seeds lie waiting for the rain to burst into bloom. Similarly, I guess my Field of Light has been waiting for decades, too!”
In the Music room at Longwood, there is a collection of Munro’s smaller indoor illuminated sculptures: Beach Without Sand, Restless Fakir, Gnasher’s Big Raspberry, Boogie Woogie Tower, Rapunzel’s Towers, and Mettabhavana. “One of these small pieces – Mettabhavana – is a model for an extraordinary building that I saw in a dream,” Munro states. “I couldn’t tell where the light was coming from; it seemed to shine through the walls. The building just irradiated light. The large round illuminated baubles at the visitor entrance are called Whizz Pops, and they are a reflection of my childish sense of humor inspired by Roald Dahl’s book called The BFG.”
The Longwood Gardens project is especially dear to Munro. “The unmatched beauty of it inspired me in so many ways. It’s been an exciting artistic challenge. I hope that guests will see the beauty of melding light and landscape become one,” he says. I’ve done eight installations [there] altogether, and with all of them I like to spread positivity. If I make people smile, or feel good, I consider it a job well done.”
“Longwood Gardens is thrilled to host Bruce Munro’s first large-scale exhibition in the USA,” comments Paul Redman, director of Longwood Gardens. “His imaginative works will enchant and amaze our guests with their beauty and ingenuity, but also inspire them to see and experience gardens in a whole new way. What also appealed to us about Bruce’s work is its focus on low-energy output and his sensitivity to the landscape. Bruce shares Longwood’s commitment to sustainable practices.”