Driving along California Highway 41 toward Paso Robles, you can’t help but be struck by the waves of golden foothills that surround the two-lane blacktop. But continue on and you’ll be rewarded with an even more astonishing sight at Sensorio: Bruce Munro: Field of Light, 15 acres of land filled with more than 58,000 colorful fiber-optic “flowers.” The work was consciously created to be an immersive experience—which is to say, it’s prime Instagram fodder. And that makes it the most modern kind of art.
As Instagram continues its meteoric rise in popularity—the photo-sharing app had one billion active monthly users as of 2018—there has been a similar uptick in pop-up museums and exhibitions across the West (and all over the world) that have been built strictly for the social media set (the Museum of Ice Cream, 29 Rooms, the Color Factory, and the Museum of Illusions come to mind). Even works that were made long before the advent of Instagram, like James Turrell’s neon light installations or Yayoi Kusama’s dazzling mirror rooms, are attracting record numbers of smartphone-wielding visitors (Kusama’s The Souls of a Million Light Years Away, a permanent installation at the Broad museum in Los Angeles, has brought in more than 300,000 visitors since the institution opened its doors in 2015). Many artists are embracing the effect that Instagram is having on their popularity—Jeff Koons places stickers of footprints near his candy-colored sculptures to indicate where you’ll get the best shot—and museums are starting to hire social media managers who specialize in adding fuel to the photographic fires their exhibitions might create.
Sixty-year-old Munro didn’t design Field of Light specifically for the selfie phenomenon, but the fact that it’s so photo-friendly is certainly a draw: since opening last May, the shimmering display has lured nearly 65,000 people to Paso Robles, with an additional 15,000 expected to attend by the time it closes on January 5. On the clear and cool October evening that I was there, huge crowds showed up to see the gently pulsing river of colors and patterns, each of them as eager to drink in the mesmerizing spectacle as they were the region’s famed wines. I wasn’t even 25 feet down one of the illuminated walkways before a few people crowded into the frame of a phone’s camera in an attempt to capture the art and the sunset at their backs. (There is a strict no-flash-photography policy—sparks of light disrupt the meditative rhythm Munro has meticulously curated.)
Field of Light is one of a handful of culturally relevant happenings cropping up in wine countries around the world—a trend known as the Vine Art Movement. At the Donum Estate in Sonoma, visitors can sip among sculptures by the likes of Kusama and Ai Weiwei; at the Castello di Ama winery in Siena, Italy, masterpieces by artists such as Michelangelo Pistoletto and Cristina Iglesias abound. After Field of Light disappears, Sensorio will continue to be part of the Vine Art Movement by hosting a series of themed interactive exhibitions.
Naysayers will argue that Instagram is diluting the integrity of fine art. But even if people are drawn to Sensorio (or elsewhere) for a selfie, the hope is that they’ll be making and sharing a little art of their own.
Marcus Crowder is an arts writer based in Northern California. He’s taken a selfie in front of Jeff Koons’s Puppy—a 40-foot-high sculpture made of steel and flowers—at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain.
• Various upcoming exhibits
• 4380 Hwy. 46 E., Paso Robles