As 50,000-plus frosted glass spheres glistened, an indigenous culture's massive natural shrine loomed behind them. The lights seemed to undulate while they illuminated. Tendrils of fiber-optic wires suggested a lovely seabed of machine-made kelp. Descending an escarpment from a viewing area, people quietly vanished into an art installation the size of four soccer fields. A colleague whispered a prayer, accompanied by a tear.
"Let there be light," grand designer Bruce Munro might have said if he didn't come across as a modest man. But through March 2017, his "Field of Light" will reference and salute the mountain known as Uluru, in what is known as the spiritual heart of Australia.
For 550 million years, erosion and geologic shifts have crafted the giant trapezoid that is Uluru, now 1,142 feet tall and nearly six miles around. Think Utah on steroids.
Thirty thousand or so years ago, the Anangu people settled in the area. Their religious rites designated revered "marks of creation" along the rock's oxidized reddish faces.
In 1873, the first European reached Uluru and named it Ayers Rock for a government official.
In 1992, installation artist Munro saw the light.
Bruce Munro, the creator of “Field of Light,” was inspired by a trip to Uluru, saying, “It got into my heart.” Photo Credit: Mark Pickthall/Field of Light, Uluru
The U.K. citizen had taken his fine arts degree and moved to Australia. He worked as a cook, bricklayer and aerobics instructor, adding to a "butterfly" reputation that included a stint as — you can't make this up — a lighthouse keeper. When Munro shifted to creating illuminated window displays, he gained manufacturing and production experience that would serve his future work well.
Then he took a fateful camping trip to Uluru. "It truthfully changed my life," Munro, a smiling 56-year-old wearing his trademark blue-checked shirt, said during some predebut table-hopping. "What can a rock do for you? It blew me away. It got into my heart." As he'd put it: "The Red Centre [desert] seemed to radiate ideas like heat, and I dreamed of an artwork that would bloom at night, like dormant desert seeds responding to rain."
That visit sparked an artistic arc. In 2004, back in England, he created a preliminary "Field of Light" behind a run-down 16th-century farmhouse. He went 50,000 pounds in debt, but the installation began attracting visitors. "That's when I began to notice that the gentle movement of the lights, not shimmering but almost breathing, created a response."
The pace accelerated. In 2010 Munro created a second "Field of Light" in a museum garden in Bath, England. Iterations followed in Edinburgh, Scotland; Mexico City; and Houston, along with other chromatic assignments from Scottsdale, Ariz., to Doha, Qatar.
In 2011, executives from Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, operators of the Ayers Rock Resort, interviewed Munro about an Uluru-centered installation. The first "Field of Light" had been financed "on the back of a mortgage"; this one has seven-figure funding from Ayers Rock, Investec Australia and
Qantas, which transported 15 tons of stems and fiber optics 11,800 miles from Munro's studio in England. (They also flew me over.) The components, including 10,000 backup bulbs, involved 32 flights to reach Uluru.
The on-site team began its work in mid-February. "The landscape tells you what to do," Munro said. "It sets the scale." His explanation used phrases like "once we plant the crop, we have to readjust the fibers," suggesting a desired synthesis between man and nature. Solar power energized "a palette of colors that's trying to be sympathetic to the area." Uluru was taking him full circle.
Dinner under the stars at “Field of Light” was a three-course meal. Photo Credit: Mark Pickthall/Field of Light, Uluru
'We know this country'
Near sunset on March 21, "Field of Light" became Munro's personal field of dreams. Guests at the launch event gathered above the installation, sipping sparkling wine and munching on hors d'oeuvres.
For me, it was the climax of an overland trip that Australia's Tourism NT and Myriad Travel Marketing of New York had ably constructed, from the Kangaroo Sanctuary and geodesic Earth Sanctuary near Alice Springs to rides with Outback Ballooning and Uluru Camel Tours.
At first the native presence at this coming-out party was limited to warrior dancers and chanters. But the Anangu role was more than folkloric. In 1985, after a long history of white supremacy, belated justice had led to the Handback, in which control of Uluru was transferred from the Commonwealth government to its traditional Aborigine owners under a 99-year lease administered by an Anangu majority. At "Field of Light," 60% of local volunteers would be indigenous and construction would respect Tjukurpa, the Creation Time law said to connect all life.
"We're very grateful to the community for sharing its culture," Voyages CEO Andrew Williams said. Munro had been equally respectful. "We're all very privileged to be allowed to share this place. It's a humbling feeling. … I'm just very happy that they endorsed it."
Still, what did the Anangu think about a non-natural tribute close by their sacred space?
Sammy Wilson was something of a best man at this reception. Looking dapper with a red-checked shirt and Kangol-like cap, Wilson toasted the assembly, "Welcome to country," he declared.
"We know this country; this is our life," Wilson, a Mutitjulu community elder and current chairman of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Board of Management, told me. "We can make it a better place by working together." Social and governance issues existed internally and with the central government, but park and resort fees are funding community initiatives now. And Munro's project's name in the Pitjantjatjara dialect is an upgraded benediction: Field of Beautiful Lights.
'Field of Light' deals
Voyages Ayers Rock Resort/Sails in the Desert, our lodging host in Uluru, offers Field of Light packages at various price points. Read More
'A sense of joy'
At sunset, even as the mountain darkened, a few bulbs began to glow. Then waves of purple, teal, orange and gentle white lights carpeted the valley, resembling a nighttime cityscape as seen from a plane. The fiber-optic wires added what Munro called "a Moorish touch" to a phantasmagoria roughly 800 feet in diameter; a barely visible guest dismissed the bright moonlight as "pollution."
The farther we went into the field, the more embracing the stems and bulbs became. After some spiritual reflection, we emerged on the far side to enjoy a three-course dinner featuring "bush tucker" (native foods) and a bevy of beverages, literally under the stars.
The next morning, Munro remained reverent about the source of a personal obsession turned cross-cultural art. "This was inspired by the strange energy and power of their land. I had an experience that gave me an extraordinary feeling, a sense of joy. Being at one with the world is not a common experience."