As darkness falls, the lights grow more brilliant. Thousands of glowing stems seem to sprout from the flower beds at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, their colors slowly shifting, their twisted cords gleaming like roots not quite of this world.
This art installation, part of a new nighttime show at the arboretum in Chaska, came from the mind of Bruce Munro. It was inspired, like much of his work, by a moment.
“All through my life, I’ve had these instant sorts of experiences where I just felt so connected with the world,” Munro said. “And we all get it. I know we all get it.
“That’s great subject matter.”
The British artist uses light to re-create those lightbulb moments. His massive, immersive installations pop up in unexpected places across the globe — including a wide swath of Australian desert — and exploit odd materials. “Winter Light at the Arboretum” involves hay bales. Clothespins. More than two dozen glowing, pulsing towers built with plastic water bottles.
One piece, called “Minnesota Gathering,” draws on Munro’s first visit to Minnesota. It was snowing then, freezing cold.
“It was like coming into a Narnian landscape,” Munro said, his eyes wide behind round glasses.
The arboretum’s art curator invited him to go snowshoeing, something he had never done before. They padded around on the trails, encountering a grove of maple trees, bright blue tubes tapped into them. “I saw these lines stuck into trees,” he said in an interview this month. “Tapping into trees and getting this golden liquid out was sort of lovely.
“A bit of weird, wonderful hocus-pocus.”
That led Munro to think about another piece of his work, another moment. As a young man living in Australia, near the beach, he heard dozens of cockatoos congregating each morning, making a racket. (“It’s a beautiful bird,” he said, “but it’s got an awful voice.”) Years later, having a gin and tonic in another part of the world, Munro noticed something out of the corner of his eye. Birds on a washing line, he thought, but at second glance, no — clothespins.
“That took me to a memory of when I was a kid, of seeing the swallows migrating back to Africa,” Munro continued. “It was a feeling of sadness because it told you that you were going back to school.”
So in “Minnesota Gathering,” lines crisscross between trees like the maple sap tubes. On top of them sit fluorescent pegs, their colors representing different species of indigenous cockatoos. From hidden speakers, a chorus of birds squawk.
Munro works and speaks like this, one inspiration tying to the next, a sketch in his diary reminding him of a quote in one of his favorite books. A word he learned in poetry club brings him to a detail from “The Silver Chair” by C.S. Lewis.
The exhibit is Munro’s 12th in the United States and the farthest north. One of its six large-scale works, “Oreum,” featuring the luminescent stems, is a take on his famous “Field of Light,” the 57-year-old artist’s breakout work. Earlier this year, after years of staging smaller versions, Munro brought “Field of Light” to the spot that first inspired it: Uluru, in the center of Australia. It involved 60,000 lights that, from afar, create a colorful, shimmering landscape that somehow appears organic.
Minnesota weather necessitated some tweaks: The 8,500 stems are taller, to leave room for snow. Rather than bulbs atop the stems, there are miniature turbines, designed to spin with the wind and prevent snow from building up.
“Winter Light” is the arboretum’s first major outdoor, nighttime exhibition. While the arboretum has featured sculptures and gallery shows for years, the addition of the Harrison Sculpture Garden in 2013 attracted a new type of visitor, said Peter Moe, the arboretum’s director.
Moe encountered Munro’s work a few years ago at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania and felt compelled to bring it to Minnesota. It is no “big holiday light display,” Moe said by phone Thursday. Instead, it’s artistic, sculptural.
“The light enhances” the gardens and landscape, he continued. “It doesn’t distract in any way.”
Munro designs each exhibition but leaves technical details to experts. Each show involves “literally a cast of hundreds,” he said. That cast took 2,700 hours to design and build the “Winter Light” exhibition, which uses 70 miles of optical fiber, in the United Kingdom. Re-creating it in Minnesota took another 3,200 hours.
Back in the day, Munro used to spend more time installing the pieces. As he did that work at Longwood Gardens, he watched people entering the massive grounds, then seeing them again as they left.
“I noticed that gardens change people,” he said. “Coming out, they had smiles on their faces.
“Bloody hell, that’s powerful stuff.”