Under the darkening sky, the frosted light bulbs rising from slender stems that fill the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Storza Woods come into focus, looking like an endless crop of candles twinkling on the forest floor.
Or jumbo-sized synapses. Er, make that nebulae. Maybe superhighways as depicted by an aboriginal artist under some cosmic spell. Hmm, how about billions and billions of stars?
Where have you gone, Carl Sagan, when we need you to comprehend what we’re seeing?
Happily, there are no incorrect answers when interpreting what “Forest of Light,” Bruce Munro’s expansive installation of 31,000 flowerlike lights with spherical blooms, evokes.
All anyone who bears witness need agree upon is that it and five other site-specific light installations created by the British light artist, in an exhibition opening a five-month run at the botanical garden Saturday night, are evocative.
For four years, the Midtown attraction has built winter attendance with its unconventional Christmastime light show “Garden Lights, Holiday Nights,” drawing a record 165,000 last year. Now with “Bruce Munro: Light in the Garden,” the Midtown attraction is aglow in an even more artful way for summer and fall, too.
Atlanta Botanical Garden President and CEO Mary Pat Matheson said she was “immediately smitten” when she first experienced Munro’s work at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens in 2012 and pursued the artist to create a show for here.
Matheson projects that 350,000 could be similarly “enchanted” during the exhibit’s five-month run.
That’s ambitious given that “Light in the Garden,” like “Holiday Nights,” requires a separate admission from the one daytime visitors pay.
But it appears very much a show that will generate electric social media buzz, such as the Twitter posts from an Arkansas visitor who, after an exhibit preview this week, put up a video and a photograph with the single-word caption: “Transformative!”
In addition to “Forest of Light” — equally, well, transformative from 40 feet above on the Kendeda Canopy Walk as on the floor of the recently expanded Storza Woods — three other highlights are clustered at the other end of the 40-acre garden.
Beside the Fuqua Conservatory, 20 “Water-Towers” encircle the Aquatic Plant Pond, each 6-foot-tall structure assembled from 216 recycled plastic bottles threaded with fiber optic cables that pulse colored light synchronized to meditative music.
Its subdued jewel tones stand in stark contrast to the saturated, changing hues of the five “Eden Blooms” spheres of flower stems that greet guests in the deep darkness inside the misty conservatory, hanging amid epic aerial roots and “Tarzan”-like tropical foliage.
The path leads into the Fuqua Orchid Center, where a completely new work, “Three Degrees,” a trio of curvaceous towering sculptures cloaked in reflective material and inspired by the Supremes, struts its stuff.
The backstory of how Munro came to create “Three Degrees” gives a revealing glimpse into the unapologetically idiosyncratic mind of its 55-year-old maker.
The artist said he was having dinner with Matheson on an early visit to Atlanta, with glasses of wine helping animate the conversation, when Diana Ross’ music, and, even more so, her sexy stage presence came up. Munro mistakenly got it in his mind that the Detroit songstress was from around these parts and that she was the lead singer of yet another female trio, Philadelphia soulsters the Three Degrees.
“I don’t know how Diana Ross came into the conversation, but I just quickly had this idea of taking an oval (form) and spinning the oval by degrees,” recounted the Brit, a sunny and chatty bloke with an unself-conscious disposition that keeps him from taking himself or his art-making too seriously. “I could see it in my mind: I got this very lovely feminine form. That’s what did it even, though it’s all wrong — she wasn’t a Three Degree!
“But it doesn’t matter,” Munro continued, relishing the tale. “That actually got me going. I remember at 24 listening to her — this was way after her young days and she was going through a rejuvenation. She was a very beautiful woman and very sassy. I remember the sequined dresses and all those curves and I guess my blood just got hot!”
Inspiration has come to the designer in bolts of lightning like that throughout a career that was slow to gain traction but now is going full-throttle.
In 1992, after a decade of varied post-college jobs (gallery worker, painter, cook, bricklayer, aerobics instructor, illustrator, display and sign-maker) in England and Australia, he made a stop during a long Aussie driving adventure at Uluru. The ancient sandstone monolith in the Northern Territory’s Red Centre desert is sacred to indigenous Australians, but Munro wasn’t quite a believer.
“I was going, ‘If another person tells me about Uluru …’ But then it was just an extraordinary feeling. I don’t want to sound like an old hippie, but you got out there and there was energy, electricity coming up through the earth. I promise you, we’d (he and future wife Serena) given all our booze away, so we had had nothing to drink! I remember writing all these things down. I just felt very alive and I wanted to express that.”
It took him another decade to do so, after Munro, now working in lighting design, had purchased Long Knoll, a derelict 16th-century farmhouse in Wiltshire that included a seven-acre field. There, finally, he created his first “Field of Light,” a precursor to a series of similar and ever-growing installations in the U.K. and U.S.
Sitting in a gentle drizzle near his newest and largest iteration of the installation yet during a recent “Light in the Garden” preview, Munro marveled at how a stalled painter fell into an international career of painting with light.
But like Uluru, he reasoned, light exerts an immeasurable power over people.
“It’s so subliminal and it’s part of the core,” Munro said. “If you think about it, we came from light. I’m not a scientist but everything is light based. We see the world through light, so there’s something very poetic about that.”
“Bruce Munro: Light in the Garden”
Opens Saturday and runs through Oct. 3. 6-11 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays. Special event ticketing (separate from regular Atlanta Botanical Garden admission). Peak nights (Fridays-Saturdays): $22.95, $15.95 ages 3-12. Non-peak (Wednesdays-Thursdays and Sundays): $19.95, $13.95 ages 3-12. Closed during Concerts in the Garden. 1345 Piedmont Ave. N.E., Atlanta. 404-876-5859, atlantabg.org.
BY THE NUMBERS
Glass spheres used to create “Forest of Light” installation
Recyclable water bottles used to create “Water-Towers” installation
Recyclable water bottles used to create “Beacon” installation
Man hours required to build the art in the United Kingdom
Volunteer hours needed to support Munro team with installation
Crates and boxes in which the art was packed
Miles of fiber optics used in installations
Light sources used
Designers, technicians and staff required to create art
Months it took to design exhibition
Months it took to build the art in studio
Containers (40 feet each) needed to ship art from U.K. to U.S.