12/28/15: Sonoran Light at the Desert Botanical Garden

After spending a good part of the afternoon at the Desert Botanical Garden (1 | 2 | 3), I went back in the evening to see Bruce Munro’s Sonoran Light installations in all their multi-color glory.

When I got there at 5:30 p.m. it wasn’t completely dark yet so the Water-Towers didn’t seem lit (although they were). The illumination is quite dim and requires almost complete darkness to see well.



Still, even like that these 69 cylinders are intriguing against the desert backdrop.


Water Towers

Walking around, I came upon various other Bruce Munro pieces that showed up better at dusk. The glowing spheres in the next set of photos are called Eden Blooms. They are installed in the Sybil B. Harrington Cactus and Succulent Galleries.





The dome in the plaza between the two sections of the Sybil B. Harrington Cactus and Succulent Galleries was pulsating with color, attracting a lot of attention. Called Beacon, this piece is based on a superstructure originally designed for greenhouses. Thousands of plastic bottles are threaded with lengths of color-changing fiber optics.


Beacon is the perfect name for this piece because it does beckon from afar, promising warmth, shelter, and hope.







Suspended from the curved roofs of the Sybil B. Harrington Cactus and Succulent Galleries, Chindi consists of prismatic acrylic rods, 21 ft. high and 5 ft. wide. The design was inspired by dust devils Munro saw when he lived in Australia.



Fireflies meander their way through plantings of cacti and agaves. They were the smallest of Munro’s pieces and would work quite well in a residential setting.




I was so focused on Bruce Munro’s pieces that I occasionally forgot to pay attention to the 8,000 luminaria bags that decorated the garden for the holidays. They are a major attraction in and of themselves. The candles are hand-lit (!) every night by what must be a veritable army of volunteers.


But back to Bruce Munro. Garden Butte, the hill behind the DBG, is covered with 30,000 spheres connected by miles of fiber optic cable. These Fields of Light cascade down the hillside onto the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail.


The original inspiration came from a visit to Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) in the Australian outback:

I wanted to create an illuminated field of stems that, like the dormant seed in a dry desert, would burst into bloom at dusk with gentle rhythms of light under a blazing blanket of stars. (1)




This was a difficult feature to photograph. Because of the long exposure required, the changing colors merged into a yellowish hue. The following video, while not great, at least gives you an idea of how organically the color shift occurs.

Here is a series of photos I took from the top of the Sonoran Desert Loop Trail. From this spot you have a fantastic view of the Garden Butte, and you can see how extensive these Fields of Light really are. Again, please bear in mind that the colors are shifting continuously. In these static photos (long exposure of up to 30 seconds), the colors ended up mostly as yellow or orange hues.







A few more luminaria shots taken on my way to the Water-Towers installation:



The Water-Towers installation was my personal highlight. Now that it was completely dark, the constantly shifting colors of these 69 glowing cylinders, each about 6 ft. tall and consisting of over 200 water bottles threaded with fiber optics, produced a multisensory experience of pure magic. According to Bruce Monro’s website:

At the age of  21 Munro read a book called The Gifts of Unknown Things by Lyall Watson, a radical thinker operating on the margins of accepted science. In it Watson describes Tia, a young girl living on an island in the Indonesian archipelago who possesses the magical gift of seeing sounds in colour, a phenomenon known as Colour Synesthesia. Watson also claimed  the Earth has a natural pulse in the upper atmosphere, resonating at a rate of 69 beats per day. The pulse forms a deep note well below human powers of hearing. As a tribute to Watson, Water-Towers consists of 69 towers that change colour in response to the music emanating from within them. Each tower is about two meters tall and made from over 200 stacked water bottles illuminated by optic fibres. In their original formation the towers resembled enormous liquid batteries of light arranged in a maze formation. Music emanates from the towers; the soundtrack reflects the musical diversity of many nations.


Here is an animated GIF that shows how the colors change (I really should have taken a video so you could have heard the otherworldly music as well):




And another animation:


The final Bruce Monro piece I photographed, Saguaro, is a large steel and acrylic structure near the entrance. It represents the elements that caught Munro’s imagination when he first visited the DBG in December 2013.


As I was leaving the garden, I couldn’t help but take a picture of Dale Chihuly’s Desert Towers at the entrance:


Even the parking lot lighting made me feel all warm and fuzzy:



What an unforgettable evening that was!


About Bruce Munro

British artist Bruce Munro is best known for immersive large-scale light-based installations inspired largely by his interest in shared human experience. Recording ideas and images in sketchbooks has been his practice for over 30 years. By this means he has captured his responses to stimuli such as music, literature, science, and the world around him for reference, reflection, and subject matter. This tendency has been combined with a liking for components and an inventive urge for reuse, coupled with career training in manufacture of light. As a result Munro produces both monumental temporary experiential artworks as well as intimate story-pieces. (2)

To see more of Munro’s installations, visit his website: http://www.brucemunro.co.uk/.

Sonoran Light will continue at the Desert Botanical Garden until May 8, 2016. Visiting the garden at night requires a separate ticket. For more information, visit https://www.dbg.org/events/bruce-munro-sonoran-light.




  1. The animated gif, wow! Looks spectacular, adds an amazing dimension to an already amazing place!

    1. I wish I'd taken more photo. I always forget that it's as easy as flipping a switch on the camera.

  2. Wow that is so cool! I'm tempted to make the effort to visit, it's that cool. Thanks for the great photos--it could not have been easy to photograph.

    1. If you can make it, I highly recommend it.

      I did bring my tripod specifically for that evening.

  3. Your pictures are always so good, Gerhard!

  4. Magnificent! The Fields of Light brought to mind lava flowing down the hills.

    1. Yes!!! I hadn't thought of that before, but I can definitely see it now.

  5. Replies
    1. I went to Phoenix specifically to see this installation, and I'm very happy it was even better than I had hoped for.

  6. Wow, that's gorgeous! The fields of lights look fantastic. Thanks for sharing your wonderful pictures of this.

  7. Wow,wow,wow! I have seen this botanical garden from several bloggers and I need to put in on my must visit lists. I used to drive out to California several times a year but the my children moved here. Need a road trip! Excellent photographs...amazing light display!

    1. Road trips are good for the soul, that's my mantra!

      The DBG is seriously one of the coolest botanical gardens you could ever expect to visit (well, hottest in the summer).

  8. I'm usually not a fan of gardens bedecked with holiday lights (like MBG's "Garden Glow"), but this takes it to a new level. Looks fantastic!

    1. I agree. This was something else entirely. I would love to see a behind-the-scenes documentary on a large-scale outdoor exhibition like this one.

  9. Nice that it coincided with your visit. I love those water towers, lit or unlit.

    1. I was debating whether to go back to Arizona on this trip or stay in Southern California, but the Bruce Munro exhibit tipped me over the edge.

  10. Thank you for your inspiration, expertise, and eye. I enjoy your posts (almost!) every single time. Your winter trips to the Southwest make me ache to be down there. I live in the hills outside of Rio Vista, we're neighbors, so I experience the same gloom that you do.

    This year I made a list of your visits and just drove on down there! Got back last week. The installation at the Desert Botanic Garden was amazing of course. I went back two days in a row. Didn't realize that he had several more pieces in Scottsdale so I'm determined to go back before they're gone. Mainly I love stopping along dirt roads and looking around. Stopped for a walk at Joshua Trees on the way back and realized that I was in the middle of complete quiet. I'll hold that memory close until l can go back.

    Thank you again

    1. Kathleen, I'm so happy to hear you make the trip AND that you like the Bruce Munro exhibit at the DBG. I did see his piece on the Scottsdale Canal but it was in the daytime.

      Like you, I love stopping on small roads. It's still possible (easy actually) to be all by yourself in the desert. That's something I treasure.


Post a Comment