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At SC's Brookgreen Gardens, Bruce Munro's 'Southern Light' brings us (safely) together

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If there was an artistic medium for this moment, it may well be light.

Light, which is able to make a striking visual statement from a distance, lends itself to outsize works safely six feet staggered. Best seen amid darkness, it’s ideal for elevating an outdoor evening sojourn, certainly a welcome reprieve from our recently confined spaces. When it comes to metaphoric resonance, light has long carried mystical status as a source of enlightenment, connection and healing.

Artist Bruce Munro's 'Fireflies'

Part of "Bruce Munro at Brookgreen: Southern Light," "Fireflies" is installed throughout the Brookgreen's oak allee. Christopher John/provided 

After we were all shooed inside this spring, our shut-in days may also shed new light on the work of Bruce Munro, the British artist known the world over for imbuing vast, natural spaces with thousands of fiber optics. Glowing spectral from organic, timeless forms, Munro's work radiates with curiously reassuring light and sound, often meted out in subtly calibrated sequences of time and coming together in otherworldly, stolen moments shining serene joy into the darkest of nights.

"It's created a huge amount of anxiety for people, this pandemic," said Munro. In his personal and professional life, the artist has found that now more than ever, gardens can help connect people to nature and to heal. 

Garden of worldly delights

As of Friday, Munro’s work lights up the live oak allee, wetland banks, expansive grassy stretches and timeworn filigreed bricks of Brookgreen Gardens, the storied sweep of animal, vegetable and sculptural in Murrells Inlet. In an exhibition that staff members say is the garden's most ambitious undertaking to date, “Bruce Munro at Brookgreen: Southern Light,” this weekend finally sees the light.

That’s no small triumph, what with its mad shuffle earlier this spring. First, Brookgreen staff, volunteers and Munro’s on-site team had to compress a scheduled seven-week installation into a nail-biting, midnight-oil-burning four weeks so that the Munro team could make it back to England. Then, they had to nix the planned opening date in response to the coronavirus, while remaining ready to ramp up the show when it was safe to do so.

Artist Bruce Munro's 'Hive'

Artist Bruce Munro's "Hive" transforms the bell tower at Brookgreen Gardens into a glowing, buzzing beehive. Christopher John/provided

On view through Sept. 12, the exhibition will be turned on evenings from 8-11 p.m., during which time viewers walk a meandering mile of select Brookgreen Gardens along lit paths under the night sky. Along the way, they will chance upon transfixing lit works, often also emanating accompanying sounds from chanting to buzzing to croaking.

Mission illuminated

So how exactly do repurposed everyday, techno-friendly objects find a home at Brookgreen, the august National Historic Landmark and America’s first public sculpture garden? Founded in 1931 by Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington, its express purpose was to house and preserve American figurative sculpture, while doing the same for Southeast flora and fauna.

Artist Bruce Munro's 'Time and Again' at Brookgreen Gardens

"Time and Again" is one of seven installations that comprise "Bruce Munro at Brookgreen: Southern Light," which is on view at Brookgreen Gardens through Sept. 12. Christopher John/provided

Page Kiniry, Brookgreen’s president and CEO, noted that Munro’s work is in lockstep with that mission, which she said focuses on the quiet joining of science and nature. “This exhibit fits perfectly into that reverential feeling of the beauty of nature and the inspiration of art together," adding that the exhibition furthers that mission in that "it really reflects an artist's vision."

Artist Bruce Munro's 'Water-Towers'

"Water-Towers" is part of "Bruce Munro at Brookgreen: Southern Light," an exhibition on view at Brookgreen Gardens through Sept. 12. Christopher John/Provided

There is certainly a case to be made that “Southern Light” is also especially apt for uplifting this spring's garden-goers as they tentatively venture out from  protective burrows while still seeking safe distances. Given its mile-long trajectory along designated paths, Kiniry noted that the garden had calculated the length of the exhibition, and estimated they could accommodate as many as 20,000 visitors.

"This is an opportunity to finally get to be outside and be doing something that's fun and meaningful," she said.

Silver lining aside, Brookgreen began hatching its monumental, magical plan long before the prospect of a pandemic. When Kiniry joined Brookgreen three years ago, Jon McGann, its manager of public exhibition production and logistics shared his desire to mount a Munro exhibition. McGann, the man who dreamed up the garden's wildly popular Nights of A Thousand Candles, had seen “Field of Light” in Atlanta and was keen to bring it home to Brookgreen.

According to Kiniry, however, the most critical buy-in was from the artist himself, who is extremely deliberate regarding the site selection for his works. “He sort of has to interview you," she said. "It has to be the right fit. He has to be inspired by the institution and feel like it is going to be the right place." 

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For his part, Munro emphasizes that it is the nature that leads the effort, who was inspired also by the juxtaposition of the gardens with the wetland. "It made me feel that I was almost on this protected island, the garden itself, and then out there was where the wild things are."

That not only brought up Maurice Sendak's famous children's book by the name, but his family trip to Namibia. 

At Brookgreen, there is also the added element of all those glorious sculptures, with the likes of Dionysus emerging from landscaped beds in an ever present nod to the marriage of nature and art. "It felt like the garden was informing the art and the art was informing the garden," Munro said, who was drawn to that symbiotic relationship. 

Shedding light on childhood

"Art should be fun and joyful," Munro said in a message to visitors at Brookgreen. "This is the place that's made enough to do it."

Munro, who was worked both as an artist using light and in has been laser-focused on light since deciding to focus on it as an art student in his 20s living in Sydney, Australia. He then worked in the lighting manufacturing field before later devoting himself fully to his art. 

"I have this theory that every moment that we are alive is possibly a unique moment of light," he said.

Munro mentions "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," recalling the witch's nasty habit of turning animals into stone and them coming back to life in spring. "Brookgreen has a lot of figurative sculptures populating the garden and it is a Narnian garden ... It just felt like time stopped a little bit." 

You’ll find yourself mesmerized by a seemingly endless “Field of Light” that take the form of 12,700 otherworldly orb-like fiber optic stems that subtly shift through the colors of the spectrum, reminding me of the intoxicating poppy field that enfolds an Emerald City-bound Dorothy Gale.

You’ll come upon a massive beehive made expressly for Brookgreen filling the holes in a brick bell tower and amplifying them with the hypnotic drone of its countless imagined denizens. You'll survey delicate, ephemeral filament "Fireflies" hanging close to centuries-old live oaks and consider time's overlap with past, present and future in the steel, lit discs of "Time and Again." 

You’ll be drawn into the multi-colored circle that is “Water-Towers,” stacked plastic bottles of filaments accompanied by an entrancing composition which was inspired by Lyall Watson’s book “The Gifts of Unknown Things” that explores color synesthesia, or the gift of seeing sounds in color. "Fill a bottle with water and you've got a lens," said Munro.

Artist Bruce Munro's 'Okonjima Choral Society'

Artist Bruce Munro created "Okonjima Choral Society" specifically for the installation "Bruce Munro at Brookgreen: Southern Light," on view through September 12 at Brookgreen Gardens. Christopher John/provided 

You’ll be charmed by a croaking frog chorus of curious, alienesque techno-creatures in “Okonjima Choral Society,” clustering from wetland edges, whose red-and-green peepholes beaming from their clusters edging the wetlands.

It may dawn upon you at Brookgreen that you, too, have found the closet passageway to Narnia. Perhaps you'll wonder, as I did, if you slipped through Madeleine L'Engle's ”A Wrinkle in Time,” which transformed my own ivy-dripped Charleston childhood into a vast and magical terrain with ample potential for wonder. 

Many of Munro's works have transformed everyday objects like plastic bottles and British road markers into magical, beguiling vessels. Others train those veined filaments along reflective steel disks or within Brookgreen structures.

"Everything is looking. You forget how to look when you're older," he said, explaining how he came upon using everyday objects. "It's just realizing that there are things around you that you did not see in your day because they have become so familiar. Gardens help us do that, too."

Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.

Maura Hogan is the arts critic at The Post and Courier. She has previously written about arts, culture and lifestyle for The New York Times, Gourmet, Garden & Gun, among other publications.

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