A Light Safari in Wine Country
Public light spectacles by artists like Bruce Munro herald a movement that infuses culture in valleys of viticulture (and blazes new trails in cities, too).
Published September 15, 2019
By Patricia Leigh Brown
But there is nothing quite like the mind-bending spectacle now on display at dusk in the hills of Paso Robles here, a popular wine destination. That is the witching hour when thousands of solar-powered glass orbs on stems, created by the artist Bruce Munro, enfold visitors in an earthbound aurora borealis of shifting hues.
Since it opened in May, “Field of Light at Sensorio” — the 60-year-old British artist’s largest such installation to date — has drawn thousands of tourists and become an Instagram phenomenon. The subtly changing patterns of this light safari, activated by a nebula of fiber-optic cables attached to hidden projectors, seem to inspire a cathedral-like awe among ticket-holders, who pay $19 to $30 for an evening stroll along 15 acres of illuminated walkways. (A V.I.P. dinner on a terrace with killer views will set you back $95.)
“It’s like Pandora in ‘Avatar,’” said Marc J. Zilversmit, a criminal defense lawyer from San Francisco, referring to the lush alien world with bioluminescent species in the James Cameron film. “It’s a beautiful CinemaScope of an alternative universe.”
The arrival of “Field of Light” in “Paso,” as Paso Robles is commonly called, is perhaps fitting. A four-hour drive from San Francisco and Los Angeles, the area has morphed from a folksy cowboy outpost with cattle drives to a grape mecca with some 300 vineyards and perfect rows of lavender spilling down hillsides. Mr. Munro’s work, on view through Jan. 5, is only the first phase of Sensorio — an ambitious, 386-acre attraction on a former turkey ranch owned by Kenneth Hunter III, a real estate developer and founder of an oil and gas company, and his wife, Bobbi. Plans for Sensorio include themed interactive exhibits, a 4,000-square-foot wine center and a resort hotel with a conference center.
With its time-sequence ticketing and Sensorio-branded hoodies for sale, “Field of Light” joins a coterie of art entertainments at wineries and related establishments seeking to infuse culture into viticulture — what has been called the Vine Art Movement. Some, like the Donum Estate in Sonoma, already have serious permanent collections.
It also heralds a global wave of experiential light displays — such as Leo Villareal’s “Illuminated River,” which lit up four bridges across the River Thames in London, and “Vivid Sydney,” an annual extravaganza in which multimedia light projections, sculptures and other installations reimagine the city’s architecture.
Mr. Munro, who works out of a 16th-century barn in Wiltshire, England, has become the Christo and Jeanne-Claude of fiber-optic light environments. He created his first “Field of Light” in 2004, when he “planted” 15,000 stems in the field adjoining his studio. The otherworldly display prompted a Royal Air Force helicopter to circle around to get a better look, at which point the waggish artist turned the “E.T.”-like installation off.
Earlier in his career, Mr. Munro worked in the illuminated sign business, steeping himself in manufacturing and production processes. “I put aside all my artistic aspirations and learned how things got made,” he said. “That’s an important lesson for any young artist.”
Mr. Munro committed himself to light as an artistic medium after his father died in 1999. To commemorate their relationship, he created “CD Sea” in 2010, a shimmering inland ocean of 600,000 discarded CDs. At Salisbury Cathedral the same year, he animated the nave with a “Light Shower” of teardrop shaped prisms that appeared to float in space; it was accompanied by a series of lit “Water-Towers” in synchronized colors crafted from recycled plastic bottles and other materials.
“I’m not trying to make art that’s complex to understand,” Mr. Munro said in a Skype interview. “I want to express what it means to be alive in a genuine way.”
His installations have appeared at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Jegu Light Art Festival in South Korea and elsewhere. “There is a pleasing handmade quality and playfulness to his work,” said Alexander Sturgis, the director of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford, which commissioned “Impression: Time Crossing Culture,” a digitally animated sculpture inspired by a clock dial.
Mr. Munro conceived of his best-known scheme in 1992 while camping near Uluru, a sandstone monolith in Australia also known as Ayers Rock, which is sacred to Aboriginal people. He envisioned a dreamlike work that might bloom at night — like dormant desert seeds responding to rain. “It felt like there was energy in the ground,” he recalled. “Your body picks up on these things.”
Twenty-four years later, “The Field of Light Uluru” opened at the Aboriginal-owed Ayers Rock Resort. The feverish reaction has led to camel tours and “Field of Light by Heli” tours. (The site is open until December 2020.)
Mr. Munro’s installations are temporary, underscoring their ethereal, magic-mushroom quality. Their ephemeral nature “allows the landscape to be itself and recover and hopefully inspire other artists,” Mr. Munro said. His goal is to connect people with nature — a bond he compares to “the root systems of trees talking to each other,” though he is quick to add that he doesn’t want to sound like a flake.
Mr. and Mrs. Hunter had planned to build a golf course on the property, but shifted focus after encountering Mr. Munro’s art in Australia. “I was attracted like a bug in a candle,” Mr. Hunter recalled.
For Mr. Munro, the site offered the opportunity to “light a valley,” as he put it. The existing landscape was redesigned to block views of industrial buildings. During a recent visit, waves of light cast the gnarled branches of blue oak trees into relief. Visitors strolled the trails with hushed voices. “I like how the lights gently go up,” Allison Dufty, a museum audio tour writer in Oakland, observed. “It’s big enough to feel you can get lost in it.”
The stillness is apt to be short lived. The coming Sensorio project is being designed by Thinkwell Group, a Los Angeles-based firm known for immersive attractions like Ski Abu Dhabi, an indoor ski resort, and expansions to “The Making of Harry Potter” Warner Bros. Studio Tour near London. It will include five digital and analog garden zones, tree houses with rope bridges and a light-controlled underground tunnel. Although Sensorio is not a vineyard or a tasting room, it hopes to tap into the region’s wine tourism industry. Some 1.8 million pleasure-seekers visit San Luis Obispo County; Hearst Castle, in San Simeon, is just up the coast.
The melding of wine and art is a hallmark of venerable European institutions like Chateau Mouton Rothschild near Bordeaux, France, which pioneered the artist-designed label craze in the 1940s by commissioning Chagall, Miro and Braque.
Since 2015, the Donum Estate in Sonoma has placed large-scale sculptures in the landscape, including works by Ai Weiwei, Yayoi Kusama, Keith Haring and Yue Minjun, whose bronze “Contemporary Terra Cotta Warriors” commune with grapevines. Allan Warburg, the Danish businessman who owns Donum with his wife, Mei, lives in Hong Kong and works closely with the artists.
“The placement has been quite an obsession,” he said in a telephone interview. “I don’t know how to make wine or art so it’s the only contribution I can make.”
Mr. Warburg added, “Walking around the landscape with a couple of glasses of wine, objects become more beautiful.”
The Hess Collection, on the steep slopes of Mount Veeder in the Napa Valley, was assembled by the Swiss wine producer and businessman Donald M. Hess. It has a museum director and includes works by Francis Bacon, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Goldsworthy, among other artists.
“Art is a calling card,” said Tom Matthews, the executive editor of Wine Spectator. “Can it be commercialized? Yes. But so can museums.”
Some are dubious of the so-called Vine Art Movement. “Equating wine with art flatters the people who buy wine into thinking they’re participating in something larger than they are,” said James Conaway, the author of “Napa at Last Light.” And there have been some spectacular busts: Copia, an ambitious museum dedicated to wine, food and the arts, opened to much fanfare in 2001 then closed in 2008.
But as public light spectacles flourish at places like the Morton Arboretum outside Chicago — where some 183,000 people braved subzero temperatures last winter to experience an interactive light show by the design firm Lightswitch — they cast their spell wide.
Images on social media have difficulty conveying the works’ subtle, hypnotic spells. People assume that “light is about brightness,” Mr. Munro, the wizard of Wiltshire, said. “You just need a whisper of light.”