Lighting Up Montalvo Arts Center

Installation artist Bruce Munro takes over Saratoga creative campus
For his installation 'Silver Sea,' Bruce Montalvo covered the lawn stretching out in front of Villa Montalvo with thousands of lights. Photo by Mark Pickthall

Right before sundown, Bruce Munro addressed a small crowd assembled to see "Stories in Light," his installation collection at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga.

To exhibit a mix of newly commissioned and older work, Munro used the Montalvo grounds the way other artists populate a canvas with color. As he talked about the inspiration behind many of the light sculptures, the Great Lawn behind him slowly lit up.

His Silver Sea consists of white spheres on poles, "lilies" that undulate with white waves of light that turn blue and then back to white. Munro had previously stayed at Montalvo in 2016 to discuss the idea of an installation. One night he crossed the grounds stumbling toward his destination in the dark. Silver Sea is an antidote to that ordinary darkness, a wayfinder for anyone struggling to stay on the right path.

In his introduction, Munro referenced Sky Above Clouds, a series of paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe, and C.S. Lewis' famed series of books, The Chronicles of Narnia, as Silver Sea influences. O'Keeffe arranged oblong, wobbling clouds in a pattern above a blue sky. Munro also arranges the lilies in cloud-like formations that cover most of the lawn. But the title refers to a sea the characters journey toward in Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The author describes it as a "whiteness, shot with faintest colour of gold, spread round them on every side…" Munro interpreted Lewis' Silver Sea as an allegory about accepting death with equanimity rather than resisting it. A wave emanates from the sea that carries one character from Narnia to Aslan's realm, i.e. the afterlife.

Reepicheep the feisty mouse who makes the ultimate departure. And on the Garden Theatre stage behind the Villa, Munro has installed Reepicheep's Wave, his version of the wave that takes the mouse, and everyone else in their turn, to the other side.

"The coracle went more and more quickly, and beautifully it rushed up the wave's side," Lewis writes. "For one split second they saw its shape and Reepicheep's on the very top. Then it vanished, and since that moment no one can truly claim to have seen Reepicheep the Mouse."

To make the wave, Munro and his crew suspended 18,000 mussel shells on 1,296 fiber optic lines. The lines are strung up parallel to each other and vertically from the ceiling to the stage floor. The lights change colors and appear to move through the lines in a wave-like motion as they blink on and off. But Reepicheep's Wave is a sonic as well as a visual experience. The music is wordless, abstract and ominous, an undersea symphony that takes place after a storm.

Down in the Italianate Garden, below the Great Lawn and the Silver Sea, Munro installed Gathering of the Clans, a sculpture that emits light and a collection of cacophonous sounds. He's clipped hundreds of fluorescent clothespins on eight "Hills Hoists," or two-tiered Australian clotheslines (the family in the 1994 movie Muriel's Wedding uses them). Munro and his wife have traveled extensively across the entire Australian continent. The green, yellow and blue clothespins represent the color of the cockatoos that would wake them up there every morning. The speakers flood the garden with the cries of wild animals.

You can still hear cockatoos screeching in the background when you reach Bacchus' Spring in the Love Temple at the far end of the garden. Four gargoyle torsos are affixed to the side of a marble fountain. They leer down preparing for or anticipating some mischief. Munro created an installation to illuminate the shadows around them. It's like a miniature star glowing with curving lines of racing white light—like Fourth of July sparklers that never die out. He's fitted fiber optic cables inside an elegant arrangement of 90 recycled plastic bottles, a chandelier fit for whatever unholy ideas gargoyles come up with after midnight.

Outside, along the Villa's second story, a digitally animated "stained glass window," The Dawn Treader, is easy to miss if you're distracted by the nearby field of 1,000 white flamingos. It was modeled after Villa Montalvo's own stained glass window depicting Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo's galleon the San Salvador. As for the flamingos, Munro calls that installation Ramandu's Table, inspired by this passage from Lewis' book: "They were birds, large and white, and they came by hundreds and thousands and alighted on everything... till it looked as if heavy snow had fallen."

Ramandu is a fallen star, depleted of light. The birds bring him a little piece of fruit, like a live coal, to replenish him. Munro casts the multicolored lights of this newborn sun across their backs. In these installations, familiar mythologies take on an uncanny incandescence.

Stories in Light
Thru Mar 17, $15+
Montalvo Arts Center, Saratoga

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