Text by Aaron Collins | Photos by Jorge Garcia
Are the world’s troubles getting you down? Can’t seem to shake the latest cable news-fanned disaster or political bombshell? Is climate change jacking up your anxiety levels?
The good news is this: There is relief. Fortunately, it’s not a pill. Not a cult. It has only a relatively modest fee. Wine and food trucks may be involved. Think of it as a pasture fit for unicorns and you’re almost there. With so much bad environ-mental news every day, you might be greatly in need of a few curative hours of wonder.
Internationally known artist Bruce Munro’s Field of Light, a trippy, candy-colored landscape-scale art installation on view at the new Sensorio art venue near Paso Robles, offers that rare high without a comedown, a trip without the hangover. From Australia’s Ayers Rock, where it was first conceived, to its current — and largest yet — incarnation in Central California via numerous other installations of the piece around the world, the artist‘s 15-acre vision creates a spectacle and transfixes throngs of locals and inter-national pilgrims who trek from afar for what is a rarity in this part of the state despite the wide open spaces: land-based art.
It’s been decades since Christo and Jeanne-Claude brought Running Fence to the hills of Marin County. But in Central California, perhaps only their early ’90s piece entitled The Umbrellas at Tejon Ranch offers precedent for such a major land-based artwork. Munro continues that tradition on a much more modest scale, but with a punch that is just as memorable in its own transformative way. And it is stunning.
Like Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms unleashed on the land, Field of Light mesmerizes and delights. Even before the sun sets, the work allures. The nearly 59,000 translucent bulbs appear as though a late summer frost has fallen on the camel-hued, semi-arid land, an occurrence about as likely as the aforementioned unicorns considering the Central Coast’s warm (and warming) climate. The amber glow of the golden hour shape shifts them again into a spectacular field of as-if flowers with all but the ’70s-era poster slogan. When the sun finally sets and the work fully alights, a hush falls in unison as 800 people from around the world share a giddy semi-awestruck state. A few hours without politics or any thought can be quite therapeutic. This work of art is medicine for over-thinkers.
The strength of the piece is that it makes viewers feel viscerally and think less critically. The camaraderie of strangers is unlike any museum-going experience where attendees clamor for space to view art. Field of Light triggers a forgivably easy suspension of disbelief as it unites viewers while inspiring a new kind of gaze onto the contours of the land as it interacts with the natural light, its various atmospheres. Above all, as with Christo, the grand scale of this luminous terrain inspires pure joy while forgetting all about the folly of such an enormous undertaking.
While the 1960s saw the genesis of today’s contemporary Land Art, whose prominent practitioners include Andy Goldsworthy and Maya Lin (Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, Michael Heizer’s monoliths, James Turrell’s Roden Crater and Walter DeMaria’s Lightning Field come to mind), the genre’s roots are ancient.
Geoglyphs such as the Nazca Lines in the Peruvian desert, the Serpent Mound in Ohio and others reflect all manner of cultures’ impulses to commune with the gods or at least leave a mark at landscape scale that says: We were here.
Whereas earlier Modern artists like Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin and Keith Sonnier used light as their primary medium, and the others mentioned above used the landscape (as did Dale Chihuly’s site-specific glass installations, whose eye candy dismissals might be tempting to art snobs viewing Field of Light), Munro combines the two genres into one. That and his use of the latest technology are perhaps the key features that locate his art in the current moment as fiber-optic lighting systems powered by solar energy enable the large-scale installation that spans the dell at Sensorio, a new arts venue slated for official opening in 2021.
But despite the technological aspect of the work, the Wiltshire, U.K.-based Munro was inspired to create Field of Light by something as old as the earth itself: the world-renowned Ayers Rock — Uluru — one of Australia’s most notable features and a sacred site to its aboriginal people.
As Munro told Sotheby’s in 2016, when the first Field of Light was installed there, “In April, 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 realized (it) 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.”
With hours changing according to the season and daylight saving time, you’ll want to arrive early and get tickets in advance. See the installation in the waning daylight; it’s well worth it to witness the fascinating progression of lighting effects on what appears to be a field of flowering weeds seeded from outer space. Wear comfortable shoes, as you will want to ramble along the half-mile of easily accessible paths to get diverse views of the lights and silhouetted coast live oaks dotting the landscape. For shutterbugs, the best time to shoot is during sunset, when the skies become an unwitting accomplice to the artist’s obsession with light. The northwest end of the field is prime real estate for viewing, as is the $110-a-ticket VIP experience at the top of the installation, where artgoers can catch the best sightlines as they enjoy a custom picnic dinner with choice of entrée, side dish, vegetable and dessert. And, of course, beer and wine, Paso’s primary claim to fame before Bruce Munro put it on the art world map.
General admission ticket prices vary according to date. If you’ve maxed out on the light spectacle, there are live musicians, cornhole and a taco truck to add to the festive ambience.
With many sold-out nights Wednesdays through Sundays as the show’s once-in-a-lifetime run nears its January end, the endeavor is off to an auspicious start before it even launches. San Joaquin Valley tourism boosters and arts champions might consider our dearth of contemporary art of a stature for which people will travel far and wide and come up with a plan. If contemporary art doesn’t turn you on, at least do the math of 800 people times an average of $29 a ticket — nightly.
To leave the grounds of Field of Light is to head back to a much duller, less magical nocturnal world. The occasional neon bangle or fluorescent torment pale after one senses the zap of Munro’s piece. Even the great mystery of the stars remains mostly obscured by light pollution these days. But perhaps the letdown also reminds us of the possi-bility that art means the world needn’t be quite so dull.
Art does many things: We have art so that truth will not kill us (Neitzsche). Art shakes off the dust of every day life (Picasso). And in an era of environmental degradation and an uncertain future, this experience reminds us that — with a boost from an artist — art can still instill childlike wonder if we’ll only allow it. At present, there may be more conceptually complex currents than Field of Light in contemporary art, but this is the art we need right now.