Introduction: Light and Space Art and the Changing Conditions of Medium Specificity.
Three great events have happened recently in the history of light and its relationship to space. The first is that scientists have managed to freeze light, the second is that they have found a way to slow down light and the third is that NASA has purportedly invented an EM drive that goes faster than the speed of light. But what does all of this have to do with Bruce Munro's exhibition at Lisa Sette gallery? Of course, this kind of question depends on thinking about Munro's work in relation to the history of art as well as new developments in our understanding of light and space in the early twenty-first century.
While the breakthroughs listed above represent the later, we have to place Munro's work within the trajectory of the former before beginning to draw a larger set of conclusions about the contemporary purchase of his debut show here in Phoenix. And in order to do that, we first have to understand that the Light and Space movement was an outgrowth of Op-Art, and Op-Art was the final outcome of Abstract Expressionism inasmuch as it moved the locus of expressivity from the artist's intention in a plastic medium to the relativity of atmospheric impressions given over to the viewer at the site of reception. In other words, the conclusions reached by Hans Hoffman in his Search for the Real and Joseph Albers lectures at the Bauhaus demonstrated how color was a relative property, providing an insight of sorts that mirrored Einstein’s claims about space and time.1 The complementary nature of these theories ultimately lead the next generation of artists to abandon the space of painting in favor of a rather novel idea, that of painting with space.
But of course, the Light and Space movement wasn't just that. It also served as a framing device for how optical experience functions at the level of affect and as a means of getting the viewer to engage with the world around them in a more authentic manner, or at least, in a modality that felt more meditative than say, the angst ridden aesthetic of Abstract Expressionism or the psychedelic effects of Op-Art. And while Munro's work certainly encapsulates all of these concerns, he also wants much more from the genre of Light and Space than the program it offered in the twentieth century, be it poetic allusions, the embrace of religious themes or even an occasional nod to the classic problems of philosophy.
This isn't to say that none of these themes made an appearance in the work of Munro's forerunners, only that the emphasis was on just that, the appearing of what appears. And in this way, we can say that many of the motifs at play in Munro's work help to broaden the scope of concerns that are regularly associated with formalist traditions in art. Not only does Munro achieve this by inventing a kind of electronic naturalism that is both visually alluring and conceptually challenging, but his work makes its entre into the elegant space of Lisa Sette gallery after a long period of doing public installations and site-specific pieces. Thus, even though it is Munro's first gallery exhibition, the works on display in downtown Phoenix are really the result of a lengthy period of maturation. As such, we can say that Munro's exhibit at Lisa Sette is in dialogue with the greatly enlarged field of concerns that circumscribe Light and Space art today, and in many ways, they point to how the movement is finally coming of age.
Of course, this is because we are not only beginning to understand the radical implications of thinking about light and space as a workable medium, but also how these properties can serve as a means to question what were previously thought to be reciprocal relations that adhered to a minimum of internal consistency. Or to be a bit more precise, we are learning that the relative relations of light and space are much more relative than we could have ever imagined! And of course, this changing outlook on the physics of light and space has implications for how we think about metaphysics as well, which is a subtext that informs almost all of Munro's works in one way or another.
In this regard, his self-titled debut show is an exquisite example of commitment in art that engages with a greater set of concerns, concerns that reach far beyond what the genre of Light and Space art has so far permitted. And it is this idea, of moving from the analysis of affect to addressing the greater implications of physics, metaphysics and the physical landscape that sets Munro's work at the forefront of a whole new generation of artists that are providing us with a different viewpoint not only on the present, but on the history of light in art as an open space of negotiation, interpretation and future promise. But how exactly is this the case?
Part One: Dancing with the Dervishes and the Devils of Modernism.
And while Munro's bed of light nails obviously refers to this practice, his reinterpretation of this particular religious object combines the sacred geometries of the glowing triangle, encased in so many conic points of light, with a sense of symmetry that echoes the syncopated rhythm of minimalist strategies. The reserved beauty of this work issues not just from having transformed a ritual object into a new platform for thinking about religious practices in the electronic age, but also from the dynamic contrast between sleek synthetic materials and raw wood, both of which are suspended in the air by black steely legs.
Thus, we can say that these rather precariously spaced points of light serve to underscore the difference between ancient forms of manufacture and modern modes of production not just because of the contrast of the materials employed, but also because of certain deviations Munro has introduced in how the bed has been constructed. It is important to notice that the spacing of the nails that kept the Fakir from being impaled have been set further apart in Munro's bed. Thus, the real point to be stressed here, or the distress that is communicated by these dissonant geometries, is implicated in the title of the work as well as his use of superimposition in the cultural imaginary.
In other words, it is this change in ratio, or really in aesthetic rational, that allows form to act as a carrier for content, and in this sense, for the real content of the piece, which is how the loss of knowledge associated with ascetic traditions is what would really keep a Fakir up all night. Furthermore, this deviation in design also represents something of an implicit critique of the minimalist program as well as modernism writ large because Munro has removed a sacred geometry, or a kind of safety geometry, that was a necessary element of the Fakir's bed and replaced it with an abstract form of repetition, however evenly spaced. Such a reconfiguration of means, and by proxy, of themes, hints at the larger problematic of belief in the modern age as this bed could only support a digital or holographic avatar and not a living Sufi mystic.
And yet, the contribution that Munro's piece makes to the discourse that surrounds religious symbolism in contemporary art actually depends on how it is suggestive of an unobtainable use-value, not as a comment on the reification of value associated with the art market, but as a symbol for the systematic incompatibility of the electronic age with certain religious observations. And it is this dynamic contrast, between the age of perpetual communication, self-documentation and social media, and the attending loss of religious observations, inner reflection and self-discipline, that forms the epistemological schism upon which "Restless Fakir" stakes its claim. Afterall, Munro's recasting of this particular object is also implicated in redressing the function of objecthood and theatricality associated with aesthetic absolutism by Michael Fried.2 We could even go so far as to say that Munro's arche-bed is begging the question, of pointing to a first kind of 'performance art', or a performative object of sorts, even though he would not perhaps admit as much.
And while the title "Restless Fakir" cannot be separated from the idea of a split perspective between original and reproduction, use-value and aesthetic distance, or systems thinking and inner revelation, we could also list any number of ways that this first contribution to the show is tied to what Nietzsche referred to as the re-valuation of all values, or really, the split with traditional values that attended the birth of modernity. This is because the metaphysical quandary presented by Munro, or rather re-presented by Munro's conceptual bedlam, has only gained sharper relief as the conflict between religious fundamentalism and modern secularism has intensified. In fact, it seems that this period of transvaluation was not nearly as much in evidence in the modern period or the postmodern era as it is today.
Furthermore, one could say that Nietzsche's rather prophetic claims about the 'death of God', which is actually an allegory about the existential condition of modern 'man', has only just begun to show us the full measure of its intended meaning in the wake of a century where scientism reigned triumphant as the ideology of progress. And while Nietzsche's philosophic insights about the uneven ground between modern secular values and religious fundamentalism has become fodder for the television news and the 'War on Terror', Munro has given us a work that intimates a much more nuanced form of philosophical violence, a type of violence meant to activate the subtler bodies of perception by way of an uneasy support.
In fact, Munro gives us the eternal return of the same as a means of critical reflection, indeed even the kind of reflection Nietzsche called the practice of 'critical history'. Perhaps this is because it is the last mode of reflection left to contemporary art after the 'antiquarian' claims of postmodernism or the 'grand style' of modernity.3 But if we keep coming back to these epistemological differences in thinking about the split between the old and the new, or the modern and the postmodern even, it may be because many people see modern capitalism as the defacto reason behind the War on Terror. And this conflict provides us with another iteration of the Christian crusades against the Middle East, or the eternal reoccurrence of the politics of the worst, making the use of a critical model for thinking about history an absolute necessity in our troubled times. And Munro's objectification of these different systems of value, offered as an object that incorporates the perspectives of both Eastern asceticism and Western aestheticism is not absent of a rather pronounced internal conflict all its own. If anything, it offers us a place of silent repose for thinking about the tensions that occupy religious and political life today.
Viewed from this perspective we can say that the modern ideal of breaking with the past is actually realized in our times as a period of genuine crisis about first causes and recalcitrant conclusions. Not only that, but Munro gives us a picture perfect image of our twenty-first century relationship to religious observances by returning to the image of the Fakir, a figure who adopted the most inward of all possible perspectives in seeing the divine in everyday existence rather than the will-to-transcendence, or the will-to-power for that matter. Sufism is a religion that gives primacy to the experience of inner knowing, and as such, is uniquely fitted to act as a stand-in for the problematic place of 'the spiritual' in an increasingly secular age. And as for Munro, he knows how to put into play a whirling set of references that make the dance of interpreting his works something to be envied by other artists, or even by the standards of the Dervishes.
Thus, as we pass by this first work in the exhibition it is hard not to think of the many ways in which the disciplining of the body is a common theme not only in Sufism, Christianity, Islam and a whole host of other religious practices from around the world, but that Munro has placed this iconic bed before us as on object of ideation and contemplation about the destiny of asceticism in an era of electronic pleasures. While few would deny that the digital age is a hedonist playground when compared with the era of mechanical reproduction or the history of the written word, Munro leaves us with the feeling of a kind of temporal fracture, or a manipulation of the space-time continuum, by pointing to this collision of values.
Or better yet, as we step back from this first piece we cannot help but think about how it is not just the times we live in that determine our cultural and religious positions, but rather, the spaces in which these observances are developed as 'modern' practices. This is, afterall, what it means to think about Light and Space in the expanded field, something Munro has been actively engaged with out in the world as well as in what we all fondly refer to as 'the art world'. Perhaps even, Munro is asking us to take a second look at the relativity of our own moral presuppositions about the differences between these two spaces in much the same way that is his work operates at a kind of second remove from the practices of Light and Space art in the twentieth century, not to mention, their attending systems of valuation.
But of course, we are not left with the feeling that Munro is a moralist. The strict design and insistence on viewing this particular object as a work of disinterested pleasure, at least in Kantian terms, is given over to us as a work of art that trades on an interest in imagined displeasure. As such, "Restless Fakir" is a kind of heretical statement that is ascetic in its means and apoplexic in its themes. And perhaps, that is really the secret import of Munro's own brand of spiritual insight, that by bringing so many contradictory impulses together in a single work he asks us to partake in the experience of a kind of religious observation that is absent the dictates of dogma or doctrine. As such, his making and unmaking of the bed of the Fakir is a complex censure of ready-made reflections and an act of contagion in the re-appropriation of forms, be they modern or ancient, minimalist or mystic.
Part Two: The Ferryman as a Figure Caught Between Two Worlds.
And yet, for all these differences both pieces still rely on a coded set of references to the compression of information, communication and affective delights, making the serial nature of these works a bit more relatable beyond the associations provided for by their respective titles. Surely, the strongest conceptual link between "Ferryman's Crossing I" at SMoCA and its redux at Lisa Sette is that both use Morse code as the basis of their aesthetic program, or 'programming' as the case may be. Only the way these dots and dashes are displayed at Lisa Sette consists of a stream of digitation that passes before our eyes in wave-like undulations while the tapping rhythm of the dit-dit, dot-dot is set to the timing of the lights in the larger museum piece. Along with this conceptual bridge between the two works, the most obvious formal connection has to be in the way they both operate like water, producing a luminous reflectivity on the surrounding walls of both SMoCA's largest exhibition hall and Lisa Sette's project room. Of course, it isn't lost on even the casual viewer of contemporary art that Munro has given us two pieces about being awash in information as well as how technology has become a device that provides us with so much 'streaming' data.
But beyond the play of these temporal and aesthetic elements, Munro has produced another flowing arrangement of references to religious enlightenment by playing so many conflicting signs off of one another, the most obvious being our growing obsession with the speed of data transfer and the slow pace of personal reflection engendered by natural forms and/or spiritual contemplation. There is also his serial use of a type of symbolism in "Ferryman's Crossing II" that issues from a place that many cultures still believe to be the origin of our modern religions, namely, ancient Egypt. And yet, even the diminutive scale here suggests that perhaps this metaphor for the Nile in miniature is representative of our collective forgetting of the matrix of religious meanings that have emerged from this part of the world, and that continue to play a major role in the belief systems of both the East and the West today. Following on "Restless Fakir" it is hard not think about how Munro's use of religious symbolism, plated over in mirrored surfaces, alludes to how the influence of Egypt was mirrored in the philosophies of Pythagoras and Plotinus, or even in the modern age by Freud and Jung who both used Egyptian culture as the inspiration for describing the complexes of the modern mind, be they Oedipal or archetypal.
Of course, none of this is lost on Munro, who is obviously an adept of sorts with regard to colliding the myths of modernism and the mythos of the past. We could even go so far as to say that in choosing water themes Munro has not only given us an opportunity to reflect on the rewriting of certain codes and cultural references, but that he is indulging in a circuitous rewriting of the tale of Narcissus and Echo given over to us as an aesthetic experience about the depthless condition of loving our digital selves, or at least, the affects of technology that we have become an intimate part of documenting 'the theater of the self'.
From such a perspective, it doesn't appear to be an accident that "Ferryman's crossing I" and its sequel are absent any anthropomorphic reflections. In fact, they operate as an inversion of the relationship between Echo and Narcissus. This is because Echo, who used the sound of Narcissus's own voice as a means of trying to interrupt the circuit of self-adoration is replaced here by the silent use of code, just as the water has been re-imagined as an active theater of light and color that is anything but a still pond of reflection. Or, one could go a step further and claim that this is a picture of technology reflecting on itself through real-time effects, only here Munro has made sure his projections operate as an active call-and-response system between two forms of code and a systems approach to aesthetic experience, where we as viewers are left to stand aside, occupying the place of Echo rather than Narcissus. Nonetheless, both experiences of Ferryman's Crossing are eschatological deep and visually enchanting, especially since Munro is able to skip a critique of technocratic culture and consumer waste across the unwavering surfaces of simulationist strategies without disturbing the pleasures attributed to spectatorship.
But beyond the hypnotic synchronization of Light and Space effects with allegoric themes, it is Munro's use of different forms of technological communication that stand-in for our collective obsession with the hidden power of instantaneous transmission. Afterall, face-to-face communication has been replaced by using interfaces, interactions by transactions, writing letters by instant messaging and so on and so forth, in less than a hundred years. And because of these changes Munro's work asks us to seek out the subtext that lies beneath his still waters in searching for a greater world of associations beyond what is provided for by the apparatus of display, or what one might refer to as a network of effects.
Indeed, Munro hints at this not just in his titles, but also in the many ways in which he asks his viewers to look and think about what lies beyond the immediate impact of phenomenal experience, whether visceral or technological. In Ferryman's Crossing I and II, this requires connecting the notion that these two pieces are derived from the use of a wartime technology where the increasing speed of communication allowed the Western world to became so enamored with the exercise of its own technological power, that the twentieth century became a period of unending wars that still shows no signs of slowing today. From Morse code to harnessing the power of the sun for the atom bomb, these were light and space conflicts about coded messages and decoding nature's secret information, a fact that isn't lost on Munro's poetics of digitization.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that Munro wants us to take a second look at these larger themes in the age of cyber warfare in much the same way that Herman Hesse asked something similar of his audience after the first World War. Both periods are circumscribed by the drive to use speed as a means to conquer space, where the potential eventuation of MAD, and the ongoing debates about which countries will be permitted to develop WMD's are based on promoting a similar kind of socio-political paranoia. This is perhaps, even the reason that Munro makes an allusion to Hesse in his titles about a double-crossing of sorts, or why he felt compelled to produce a second iteration on a theme that points to a much large problematic. Just as Hesse wrote Siddhartha as a prophetic plea to the German people not to succumb to a spirit of resentment in the wake of the sanctions levied on Germans by the international community after WWI, Munro's aesthetic program asks us to resist the same kind of kneejerk reactions today. While Hesse lived to see two World Wars and Munro two Iraq Wars, we find that the viewers of Ferryman's Crossing are caught between the intimations of a Cold War technology and the unending War on Terror, both of which were promoted through ever widening channels of mediated communication. And in many ways, Munro seems to be suggesting that there are more productive possibilities for the use of new media because it doesn't seem as if we are even a single step closer to being ferried to the land enlightenment by technological progress alone.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that a text that revived the debate about religious reflection in the twentieth century is the very same book that Munro used as a type of codex for his artistic interventions based on Morse code and compact discs. But Munro's own crossed codices refer not just to the serial nature of the titles he has chosen, or the need to cross town to see both pieces, but on Munro's own position as a ferryman of sorts who shows us that even in the midst of the clash of civilizations we should not simply cross out the quest to walk a different road, or seek a higher path.
In this way Munro has used the intersection of so many literary, artistic and mechanistic signs, and even formal allusions to Egypt and the far East, to create a symbolic world that leaves us standing mesmerized in wonder. And much like the hybrid aesthetics of the past, we find that the dazzling nature of the synthetic worlds Munro has created for us are a kind of Sphinx-effect in Phoenix, where Munro has not only resurrected reclaimed materials, but provided us with a riddle about the conflicted nature of techno-scientific enlightenment. The mix of inscriptions he uses, from the mechanically calibrated to the laser-etched, point to the progress we have achieved in the means of transmitting information at the very same time that they demonstrate how technological 'civilization' has slowed, or even retarded, its inward development.
And yet, Munro's works also seem to use the technological to ask us about the tension created by the hyperbolic inversion of digital reality and real life; or the normative distinction between life and our digital 'second life'; or the cultural re-appropriation of the word avatar from being a spiritual guide to a figure of our digital desires run amok. Munro isn't interested in providing us with any sense of easy resolve either. Restlessness is not just an entre into his first work in the show at Lisa Sette, but is something that Munro is after in every work he produces. Munro wants us to wrestle with the cultural cocooning-effect that technology engenders, and specifically, how simulated worlds keep us from asking deeper questions about the destiny of technocratic life. Neither optimistic nor pessimistic, Munro's Fakir's and Ferryman allow us to confront the idea of whether a culture of ever increasing illuminated screens is also absent of the glow of an inner soul.
And it is for all of these reasons, as well as the solace provided for by Hesse's book, that Munro choose a reference from Siddhartha to use as the title of a work given two separate, but equally impressive interpretations. The story of Siddhartha is itself, based on seeking more than one interpretation of enlightenment, and 'Walking the Siddhartha Road' has come to mean embracing each and every kind of experience in life as your true teacher, no matter how great the suffering involved. Both "Restless Fakir" and "Ferryman's Crossing" are named after figures of inner resolve, and both provide us with examples wherein Munro is giving us the end product of achieving what he has been searching for as an inner desire. Namely, an embodiment of the contradictions and complexities of our age, complexities that seem to take on greater permutations with the passing of time, and which ultimately demand our concerted attention and deep soul searching. Toward this end, Munro has already achieved much by way of cultivating an art practice of political and spiritual import, not to mention a kind of technological beauty that is both about artifice and chasing after spiritual bliss.
This is because both of Munro's first two works in his solo exhibition at Lisa Sette could be said to deliver us a shock of sorts by making the seductive glow of technology into a means for thinking about the divine, or at least, they would be considered to be a departure from traditional religious views associated with the Fakir's or even Hesse's works for that matter. Indeed, in seeking the transvaluational of all values there is an aspect of Munro's artistic practice that is closer to enacting what that other great spiritual teacher of the 20th century, G.I. Gurdjieff, thought we all needed for our conscious evolution, which is to say, consciously applied shocks that allow us a new perspective in 'self-observation.'4 In both "Restless Fakir" and "Ferryman's Crossing II", we are granted such a gift in the form of colliding the new with the old, or rather, 'the shock of the new' associated with modernity, with the most ancient of forms.
The shock, of course, is that the digital motifs that circulate in Munro's works in the form of coded communication are what keeps us sitting sedentary in the computational world, whereas what the Fakir, Hesse and Gurdjieff taught was the absolute necessity for discipline over the body and spiritual development through conscious action. As such, the timeliness of these first two pieces is in having shown us the contrast between these different philosophies of spiritual evolution, as well as the threat of becoming spiritually bereft in the infomatic era.
Ours is a time when we are flooded with data, so much so in fact that we speak of becoming inundated, or unable to process the voluminous amount of information that is at our fingertips. In this way, the luminous glow of our telematic devices is just as entrancing as it imprisoning; just as full of options as it is ridden with anxiety; and just as much a daily form of communion as it is a burdensome obligation. And as for the question of conscious action, the spiritual teachings that Munro alludes to are not ascetic practices of 'clicktivism', or of consciousness raising through so many 'likes', 'shares', and crowd-sourcing efforts, but hard won battles of individuation fought over the course of a 'dark night' that has nothing to do with sitting in front of the computer screen long after the sun has gone down.
And this incontrovertible tension is expressed in Munro's works because they rely on being meditatively engaged in a kind of mindful appreciation of our place in both the cosmos and the white cube, as well as cultural production in the largest possible sense. That is undoubtedly one of the defining features of Munro's aesthetic, he doesn't want us to lie on the bed, or place a toe in the waters of the moving image, rather, he asks us to participate in conscious observation, and to become more conscious of how the illusory view of the world as a kind of Maya is intimately tied to how we think about the spread of virtual worlds today.5 In this way, he uses the threat of de-realization to bring us into contact with a greater sense of reality, and maybe even what the sages have referred to as real-life, unity consciousness, or simply, a life without illusions. His artistic program could even by described as digitization by way spiritual intimations.
Part Three: Romanticism isn't just a Metaphor for Having Your Head in the Clouds.
Only here, Munro has animated the petals of the Daffodil to take on the trappings of so many geometric designs, which slide between being flowers and the symbolic geometry known as the "flower of life". And these contrasts are set cycling in a recursive loop, that is both literal and conceptual, and which is overlaid by a cycle of illumination from above that makes the image pass from light into shadow at intervals that are paced just long enough to keep the composition active but not frenetic. And we can rest assured that Munro has left space between the image and its obfuscation to hint at the passage of time and the illusory nature of form, once again, without ever being heavy handed about it. This is, afterall, a gesture by an artist who thinks as much about working in the round as he does in the space of the digital, both of which are integrated here as an immaterial projection cast over the circumference of a curved substrate.
Even Munro's love of the landscape shows itself in this third piece that makes use of the rich colors of the natural world, setting it somewhat apart from the other works in the show at Lisa Sette. And this deviation is a welcome departure from the restricted pallet of "Restless Fakir" and "Ferryman's Crossing II" because Munro has created a dynamic composition composed of a wide range of golden hues, bright cerulean blues and shadowy purples, all of which are traditionally associated with royalty and which hold the symbolic weight bestowed on the earthly incarnation of God in traditions that stretch from monarchical to dynastic rule. To miss this implicit subtext in the single work that actively embraces color in the show is to miss something of the absolute specificity of Munro's decisions, which turn not only on a consideration of both greater and lesser games of signification, but on an entire knowledge of art history from around the world. Bruce Munro has not just an encyclopedic knowledge of color and design, but he knows how he wants us to navigate the space of meaning of production, even in a causal stroll through the gallery space. That is why he moves us from tradition to tradition, and from one age to the next, in playing with the scale, or rather, with the octaves of timing and tempo in thinking about art history as a workable medium.
Part Four: Moonwatcher, Moonraker, and the Digital Moon-Maker (as allegories about Art Production After the End of History).
And yet, because "Moonwatcher" is based on the words from a forward to an Arthur C. Clark book, it marks something of a departure from the other pieces in the show, or rather, it confronts us with a 'contemporary moment' in Munro's solo exhibition in a way that the other pieces do not. And this is not just because NASA just released a bunch of high definition, never before scene pictures of the moon landing; and it is not because reaching the moon was the penultimate achievement of modernity next to harvesting the power of the atom; or even because "Moonwatcher" sounds so much like the James Bond film Moonraker, which had every bad trope of phallocentric symbolism mixed with patriarchal power fantasies in a series that is still the longest running franchise in Hollywood history despite the most recent contribution being an absolute flop at the box office. But, we can say that a certain nod by Munro to cinema is heading the right direction here because this is the first of his pieces selected for this exhibition that pays homage not to a religious tradition, book or poem, but to Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, the movie 2001, a Space Odyssey.
With such a gesture, Munro seems to be taking us on his own odyssey in the space of the gallery, in a journey that extends from one of the most ancient religions in Central Asia, to a classic tale of Eastern enlightenment, to the romantic leanings of Wordsworth, and finally, to a central figure in the cannon of Hollywood cinema. To understand that Munro's work is both a history lesson of sorts and a time machine that gathers different points of reference together from the past in order to challenge how we think about the present is to grasp an essential part of his aesthetic program. But how does this journey figure into Munro's embrace of the moon as an iconic symbol, because, when juxtaposed with the figure of a new born child floating at about moon's distance away from the earth in Kubrick's opening sequence, we find that we still lack a stable orientation with regard to the meanings that Munro is floating in front of us beyond this formal connection.
While it would be obvious to point out that 2001 is a movie about the struggle between a man caught in a conflict with the technological inventions of mankind as well as finding meaning in the universe, not just through technological innovation but through a direct conflict with the absolute in the form of a floating black monolith, it is perhaps more interesting to turn our attention to why Munro might have switched from referencing religious practices, writing and poetry to cinema. In this regard, there is the obvious fact that movies are the mass religion of the modern world, and of course, Hollywood took its namesake from the Holly branch, which, while associated with meanings as diverse as love, a peace offering, and telling the truth, the word itself shares a close affinity with the etymological root word 'holy'. Even today, Hollywood is the contemporary equivalent of our holy places of worship, beaconing as many 'holly' pilgrims from around the world each year as the Wailing Wall or the Vatican. Only the key difference is that our culture wants to make this journey under the cover of night in order to see the glowing Hollywood strip in all of its illuminated splendor.
In much the same way, Munro's "Moonwatcher" reminds us of our artificial love of the aura attributed to the electronic landscape by giving us a picture of the moon absent any sense of realism. Munro's "Moonwatcher" is a kind of virtual object that is faceless, craterless, and encoded with information but without indenture. Even the cyclical division of its waxing and waning phases is represented by little more than a screen swipe that is not unlike the real-time transition of images projected on a computer in conservation mode.
Consequently, it is in this fourth piece that Munro truly begins to challenge his audience by tying together the deaths-bed of the Fakir, the life's journey of Siddhartha, and the symbolism of an eternally blossoming world, with the lunar impulses of a simulacrum moon. This is because the embryonic child floating above the earth is Kubrick's sublime moment of the superimposition of two ages of 'man', prefigures how Munro uses iconic forms in his own work. Even the reversibility of perspectives between two epochs is gestured at in such a reference. Just as we look up at the Moon at night from the limited perspective of terrestrial existence, Kubrick has given us an image on the cover of every box of 2001 that stands in for the possibility of humanity looking back on its own development from above, occupying the place of a kind of "Moonwatcher" that gazes down on our evolutionary cycle here on earth. This is, of course, the theme of Kubrick's masterpiece and it is also the hermeneutic operation that Munro enacts between Cloud and Moon in casting his projections directly opposite one another.
And yet, if there is another famous moon one thinks of as a technological construct that stands in for the tension between life and death, is would have to be that other waxing and waning cinematic symbol of despotic insanity, the Death-Star. Now, if this analogy seems stretched, it is first because both Kubrick and Lucas's masterpieces deal with the largest possible stretch of time. And yet, the Star Wars trilogy is the first 'trilogy of trilogies' in our society of spectacle that can be rightly called, a religious phenomenon. This stands in sharp contrast to Kubrick's work which was really dedicated to understanding the madness of modern existence and the machinations of history, posited as a question about the development of consciousness and technology. And yet, Star Wars deals with the very same themes, only using much more popular motifs and rhetorical devices. Thus, when we think about the symbolic import of the moon-like Death Star, and the struggle of two figures of 'natural men' against the cyborg consciousness of their counterparts --- or even the 'borg' consciousness of that other great space travel franchise --- we find that we are really attempting to understand how the conflicts internal to Kubrick's works are externalized as a kind of mass hysteria in the audiences of fans seeking an escape from techno-bureaucratic life.
And for those who have studied the sociological implications of the attending conflicts between 'Trekkeies' and those who follow 'The Force', we know that the little skirmishes and mock 'wars' that seem to take place in the long lines on the opening day of either franchise are representative of same spiritual divide that Munro's work speaks to as well. That is because the symbolic dispute between these two camps of dedicated fans is actually representative of the split between the modern and pre-modern notions of enlightenment, played out between the allegorical journey of spiritual development that takes place in the life of Luke Skywalker, which stands in sharp opposition to the desires of an audience that prefers the much more modernist enterprise of the Starship Enterprise, with it's mission 'to boldly go where no man has gone before'. This is, in a sense, the modernist dictum par excellence, an instance of 'the shock of the new' extended to being something of an intergalactic imperative.
And of course, it is this same divide, philosophically speaking, that is re-enacted in each of Munro's pieces, and toward which he attempts to provide us with a synthesis of sorts. One might even go so far as to say that his works are as much a creation of special effects and theatrical devices as they are of modern invention and/or the possibility of rupture brought about by spiritual dissention. In this way, Munro has developed an aesthetics of computation and contemplation that goes by the numbers, plays with code, generates imagistic referents and gives us a new context for thinking about received 'wisdom' in a multitude of forms.
This however, is not to say that there is anything rote about Munro's use of number as a means of creating representational imagery in his art practice. Numbers have long served as the principle object for obtaining knowledge about our natural universe. From the Egyptians, to the Pythagoreans, to Plato who famously had inscribed over the Academy, "let no one enter here who is not a geometer", we find that the very same dictum holds true for those who write code for a living today. Munro's work fits into this genealogy because he has used numerical sequences to provide us with the image of a celestial body, knowing full well that the universe has long been considered to be an object not of "intelligent design", as our current and largely polemic debates intimate, but rather, an object that is only knowable through numerical design.
In fact, Munro understands that manifestation and mathematics go hand in hand, both when we attempt to describe the physical universe and whenever we endeavor to confront the process of creation as an aesthetic event too. Perhaps that is why Munro choose to adopt, or rather adapt, a passage from an Arthur C. Clark book to make manifest the moon, because like Clark, he knows that "any advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", and that the manifestation of our known universe is this magic that can only be known by number. By addressing these enduring questions about creation and our place in it, Munro's work shows how contemporary art can bring the past into the present, and that such grandiose themes can also be played with as so many permeable memes.
Part Five: First Causes, Primordial Polarities and the Trinitarian Concept of Creation.
And yet, it is Munro who has given us an aesthetic symbol that recasts creation in a way that is much more in line with today's futurists. His fiber-optic Eden is not only a reference to the ancient past but also a harbinger of sorts that heralds a period of new birth, or the rise of the coming singularity and of trans-humanism. Just as in all of his other pieces, Munro plays the difference of these two tales off against one another with great candor, a deft hand and 'a turn' in meaning that even a magician would say ensures the kind of risk that promises gaining 'the prestige' from a given audience, or in this case, the adoration of art patrons.
And this outcome in only assured in any sense at all because Munro is highly aware of the conflicting perspectives that are attributed to the pre-modern, modern, and postmodern periods. His oeuvre is about the goal of modern scientism and technology searching for the possibility of achieving eternal consciousness in a digital form as well as the types of attainment that ring eternally true from religious practices around the world. And "Eden Blooms" is no different in this regard because Munro is fully aware of the divided opinions about modernity's achievements and even postmodernity for that matter, both of which are considered to be 'materialist' paradigms, for better or worse.
Munro knows that these kinds of concerns are now at the heart of conflicts around the world, conflicts that are often couched as being caught between 'tradition' and 'progress'. Despite which side of the debate one sees themselves on, growing ecological problems and endemic economic crises are pushing an ever greater number of the world's population toward viewing materialism as a period of spiritual death in the West, and a descent into the most base of occupations: sex, power, war and wealth. And while this may very well be the case, the hyper-modern world looks at tradition as holding back the true potential of humanity, where all pre-modern beliefs are thought of as a kind of last stopgap before reaching a utopic future that never seems to materialize. And so the conflict rages on without respite or resolve. Yet, artists like Munro know that as the world grows older, and resources become more scarce, the question of whether to strive for a revolution in consciousness or revolutionary consciousness becomes a much more pressing matter.
And while spiritual practices and technical innovation may always be at odds, Munro is willing to wager that even as Adam's garden has given way to the age of the Atom, we may still have a chance at achieving a divine synthesis of sorts by way of faithfully reflecting on the meanings attributed to both material and immaterial realities. And while we may have only just begun this process as a 'modern' civilization, or in Munro's case, as a member of the next generation of Light and Space artists, one thing is for certain. And that is whether we are touring Munro's works at SMoCA, the show at the Botanical gardens or this rather inspired contribution at Lisa Sette, we find that Munro has placed us on another turn of the evolutionary cycle in his own oeuvre by pointing out that we are once again becoming a civilization of light worshipers. Like Akhenaton in Egypt, the solar cults, the mystery schools, and the ancient philosophers of first causes and prime movers, we find that the collective power of our scientific civilization is geared toward harvesting the resources of light, in any or all of its manifestations. Light is the visual evidence of energy in much the same way that energy is associated with the accumulation of power, and power is now controlled by those who dominate space and light, making for a closed circuit of sorts. In this sense, we have come full circle in both a cycle of civilizations and in the show room at Lisa Sette, where "Eden Blooms" could just as rightly be implicated in a technological 'fall' of sorts, or perhaps, we can still find a 'saving power' in technological appropriation that is more in line with Munro's artistic gestures.6
And it is this inherent reversibility in how we think about the paradoxes of progress, and of shadow and illumination, that makes Munro's final piece an effort that is on par with the acumen of the best of the Light and Space artists of the past. "Eden Blooms" is an allegorical object that points back to the genesis of forces, forces which are said to have expanded from a still point of light, and which are quickly becoming a substance of creation which humanity can also use as a malleable medium. And this doubling of the biblical tale, as a second moment of access to forbidden knowledge, is not just a material achievement absent spiritual implications. It marks the first time that humanity can co-create with the prima materia, and thus, the story of Eden has become a true metaphysical problematic in the most concrete sense of the word.
And so we can finally see how working with light and space is a broader domain of inquiry than one might first imagine. And this is how Munro's artistic program reconnects with the recent leaps forward in accessing the powers of light. Not only that, but "Eden Blooms" is inarguably a twenty-first century representation of that original separation of light from darkness; of the putting into motion of matter and energy; of the genesis of being and becoming; cast in one and the same symbol. Only Munro has re-cast the event as the birth of triplicate universes, perhaps as a sign for thinking about theories of the multiverse; perhaps as a symbolic gesture implied in the perfected union of the number three; and perhaps, because the trinity is an allegory about the three etheric forces that are used to characterize the movement of all of creation as a play of positive, negative and neutral charges.
Conclusion: From Prophets of the Electronic Age to Sages of the Symphonic Universe.
And when we one day, we hand down the 'good book' of light worshippers in art, from Seurat to Signac, and from Monet to Manet, and from Turrell to Flavin, we should be happy to count Munro among them as the light and space movement moves into a new century. Or, absent the religious overtones, one could say that the scientific discoveries about light in the early twenty-first century have allowed us to view the Light and Space movement in art in an entirely new way, and that Bruce Munro's work, along with Yayoi Kusama and Chris Fraser who have also recently exhibited in the Valley, represent something of the leading edge in a new generation of artists who have significantly expanded the concerns of the Light and Space movement.7
That being the case, we still have to ask the question, why did Bruce Munro choose to make his debut here, at this time? As everyone knows, there is a long history of prophets emerging from the desert. And Bruce Munro's transformation of different spaces across the landscape of the Valley is an event that makes sure this line remains unbroken, even as Munro breaks with expectations about what Light and Space art can, or should be. And the recognition of his achievements by the coordinated efforts of not one or two venues, but by four of the very best purveyors of contemporary art in Arizona today is sure to secure his work a place in the hearts of art lovers across the desert who run into his pieces on open air hikes and in smaller venues like Lisa Sette gallery. But the lasting gesture that remains in the minds of art aficionados is already there on the first wall one encounters when taking a step across the threshold of the front door at Lisa Sette. Other than the artists name, the show has been left untitled, and that is because Bruce Munro let's his work speak for itself.
1 This argument is made throughout Hoffman's Search for the Real and Alber's Interaction of Color. Hoffman, Hans. Search for the Real and Other Essays (Massachusetts: M.I.T. Press, 1967), and Albers, Joseph. Interaction of Color (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963).
2 Michael Fried made the argument that Minimalism had to continue to resist mass culture by insisting on the absolute specificity of the object in relation to its audience and embodied experience. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe would put a twist on this thesis decades later by pointing out that painting was always already a five sided object addressed to the viewer in the round, and that Fried's polemic had more to do with absolutism and the rhetoric of purity than Abstract Expression, and furthermore, that Minimalism became the most easily commodified aesthetic of the post-war movements. See Fried, Michael. Art and Objecthood (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998).
3 The three 'styles' of doing history which Nietzsche refers to as 'critical', 'grand' and 'antiquarian' actually fit the ages of pluralism, postmodernism and modernism quite well if they are taken as subjective outlooks on life. Modernism, in its claims of rupture and perpetual self-revolution, was a 'manifesto culture' given over to us in the classical 'grand style' of grand-standing claims. Postmodernism was very 'antiquarian' by comparison, often reflecting back on the achievements of modernism in one way or another, even if only to subvert them. By contrast, pluralism is the critical style, or even the 'post-historical' outlook, that is caught-up in a perpetual renegotiation and re-interpretation of the achievements of the past. See Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1980).
4 Of course, here I am referring to G. I. Gurdjieff's masterwork, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: All and Everything, (first series), which offers an "objectively impartial criticism of the life of man" inasmuch as it is a tale of how the devil visits earth, providing corrections to the happenings on earth, which are then turned into so much doctrine and dogma which the devil never intended, and which humanity continues to war over even up until the present day. Like Munro's work, it is considered to be a superb synthesis of Eastern and Western thought. Gurdjieff. G. I. Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: All and Everything, (first series), (New York: Penguin Compass: 1950).
5 In this instance I am simply referring to the difference between the idea of Maya as the illusion of worldly values and the computer program that is used to build virtual worlds that happens to go by the same name.
6 I have put 'saving power' in parenthesis here in reference to Martin Heidegger's use of the two terms in relation to the ambiguous destiny of technology in the West. For Heidegger, the real threat of technology was how it acted as a framing device for thinking about the world, and in particular, for what he called the enframing of the world by machinational thinking. By contrast, Munro provides us with the opposite gesture by making works that turn the appropriative power of technology toward a different kind of opening, an opening that is intimately connected to aesthetic experience and even what Heidegger would have called aletheia as the coming into unconcealment of the truth, where truth is also considered to be beauty. It is worth noting that Heidegger became more and more pessimistic about the question concerning technology with the passing of time, which only seems to give Munro's works a greater sense of purchase in the contemporary moment. See Heidegger, Martin. "The Question Concerning Technology", Basic Writings ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1993).
7 It is hard not to notice that Munro's works have a certain resonance with Fraser's, who recently installed a Light and Space piece at SMoCA that had two overlapping circles, which is the classical symbol of the Vesica Pisces and which refers to the union of the female and male through the intersection of the ovum. It is also worth nothing that the same symbol refers to Christ as the representation of the Piscean age, connecting both Frazer's works and Munro's to the idea of primordial symbolism. Furthermore, Frazer put twelve red and twelve blue neon tubes inside the ovum, which could easily be thought of cycling on the hours of day, the split between good and evil, and the genesis of conflict on both a temporal, material and cosmological scale. In this way, Frazer made an allegory of sorts about the separation of light from darkness, warm from cold, the male from the female, etc., but as a kind of meditation absent the moral overtones of religious dogma. Frazer also installed a site-specific work which plays with the effect of halation by creating a halo behind the shadow of whoever is viewing the piece, with one caveat, that only the person who is viewing the work will appear to be 'haloed' as it were, pointing to the spark of divinity in each of us rather than the fathers of the church, saints and other messianic figures. By contrast, Kusama's installations always make us feel as though we are placed among the stars, returning us to a feeling of awe and wonder at our place in the universe. But like Frazer and Munro, she also points to our primordial origins as stardust. In this way, all of their respective oeuvre's are informed by a secular model of religious experience that makes them more like sages of the Sonoran landscape, than say, prophets of a new age. And this is where the difference in generational outlook really comes into high relief: while the Futurists wanted to be prophets of the age of speed and the first generation of Light and Space artists really wanted to be purveyors of experience, this generation of twenty-first century Light and Space artists really aim at a synthesis of concerns that use space, time and light to think about a much broader spectrum of topics, be they historical, scientific, ethical, affective, etc.