The Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga is a romantic place when the sun goes down. A warm South Bay wind blows through the towering trees. The warm burble of laughter and conversation from party goers in the villa floats in the air. Crickets chirping in tandem drown out thoughts of the outside world.
The British artist Bruce Munro picked up on that magic when he was invited to visit this 1912 Mediterranean-style villa and its expansive grounds, once the country home of San Francisco’s mayor at the turn of the last century, James Phelan.
On the side of the house, Munro spotted a stained-glass window featuring Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo’s galleon, the San Salvador, plying a boisterous Pacific Ocean. To Munro, the window evoked his early memories of the C.S. Lewis children’s book: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, fifth in the seven-novel series, The Chronicles of Narnia.
"I think you should see the world as a child," Munro says. "In fact, the less I try to overthink things, the more I think they seem to work."
Two years later, Munro has overlaid a collection of 10 Narnian dreamscapes onto Montalvo’s grounds, though you don’t have to have read the books to appreciate the pretty lights. Munro's trademark is the immersive light-scape, and Stories in Light delivers on that promise in profusion.
There’s “Silver Sea,” featuring huge clusters of long-stemmed, pulsing light bulbs; illuminated “lilies” on the grass lawn in front of the villa. It's a concept Munro has made use of before in UK installations, but the electric sea of white and yellow seems perfectly suited to Montalvo. His dream becomes your dream.
In Dawn Treader, a clutch of characters venture in a small boat through a sea of lilies. Then they reach a wall of water that crests endlessly, blending into the sky. That's “Reepicheep’s Wave.” In Munro's imagination, the wave is evoked with 18,000 plastic mussel shells, shimmering along translucent fiber-optic cables as a musical soundtrack endlessly rises.
"I see gardens and spaces as a series of sort of outdoor rooms," Munro says. "Part of the reason I do what I do is because I love the real experience of the world. I want to encourage people to get back out there and experience life and interact with people and landscape. We're starting to rely too much on sitting in front of our screens and doing virtual something or other."
Indeed, you could focus on taking the perfect Instagram shot at Montalvo, and each installation provides opportunities to do that. But as we so often lament, the smart phone doesn't capture the breeze rustling against your skin, or the tingle of your childhood memories overlaying themselves against Munro's.
Montalvo regularly plays host to artists from around the world in coveted residencies, and many of them come up with artistic installations that temporarily nestle within the gardens here. But Stories in Light is the most ambitious installation yet, something the non-profit's officials reached out for by inviting Munro here and offering him the opportunity to deliver something on a bigger scale than he usually gets to work with.
Munro says each piece is designed to work on its own, but the collective experience of wandering through ten of them adds up to delight.
This is Munro's ninth large scale solo exhibition in the US, but it's his first on the West Coast, comprised of the largest number of his works ever displayed together.
A recent press preview was as much a celebration of the work Montalvo's staff engaged in to bring this together. All of the materials were made by Munro and his team at his studio in England. Then, the elements were shipped to California, where hundreds of volunteers joined those team members to put everything together in recent weeks. The charmingly self-effacing artist is quick to credit his team whenever fans gush in front of him, and it's fair to say Montalvo's staff and volunteers are fans.
If you plan to go, be aware you have to park at West Valley College and take a shuttle, because there’s no driving on the grounds. Right? That would ruin the magical effect of the lights at night.
Stories in Light runs October 28, 2018 - March 17, 2019 at the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga. For more information, click here.