Aritst Michael Parekowhai has broken his silence ahead of tonight's unveiling of his controversial The Lighthouse sculpture.

It is the first time Parekowhai, regarded as one of New Zealand's leading contemporary artists, has spoken to a newspaper about the art work which was commissioned by real estate firm Barfoot & Thompson in 2013 to celebrate 90 years of successful business in Auckland.

The firm gave $1 million toward it, the largest monetary gift for a single artwork in New Zealand, and anonymous donors made up a $500,000 funding shortfall. Parekowhai also pared back some of the costs. (Barfoot & Thompson also gave $1 million to the Starship Foundation as part of its 90th anniversary commemorations).

While The Lighthouse was privately funded, concerns were raised by Auckland councillors and members of the public about its location, the process for granting consent and whether the council should underwrite the funding shortfall.

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The council backed down on a decision to put public money toward it and, in 2015, decided it should be notified so the public could have its say on consent issues. The notification process focused on the location of the artwork and whether it fitted with Queen's Wharf as a public space. Some 80 per cent of public submissions were in favour of the artwork.

On Thursday evening, as an official opening function was held at the neighbouring Cloud, a small group of protesters stood alongside The Lighthouse to draw attention to Auckland's housing crisis.

Veteran Glen Innes state house tenant Niki Rauti, who faces a second eviction hearing this month, said she was there to look at "this trophy".

"It feels terrible. They are making fun of us."

Sue Henry of the Tamaki Housing Group, which organised the group of about 10 protesters, said the $1.5m sculpture was "a trophy to Barfoot & Thompson".

The day before, after leading a visit to the Queen's Wharf state-house replica, Parekowhai answered questions about how he created the work, his biggest NZ commission to date, but was reluctant to speak about the project's more political aspects.

Questioned about whether The Lighthouse offers any sort of commentary about Auckland's housing crisis or housing in general, he simply replied it was an art work and up to those who view and experience it to interpret.

He said dealing with negative coverage and commentary about the sculpture was difficult and, as an artist, all he could do was to keep working and let the art do the talking.

Negotiating with the various project stakeholders and establishing working relationships was probably the trickiest part of the process, but other than saying it became quite complicated, Parekowhai won't elaborate.

However, he acknowledged that makes creating public art exciting.

"For all the controversy public art attracts and the hard work associated with it, it's exciting for me and, I think, any artist," he said.

"Public art has the potential to add to our experience of the city and the way we look, feel and think about it."

The Lighthouse sculpture lit up for the first time. Photo / Simon Collins
The Lighthouse sculpture lit up for the first time. Photo / Simon Collins

When he first got the commission, he visited the waterfront site and spent some time thinking about what would best suit it and meet the objectives laid out for the work:
•it had to be eye-catching and with the scale and power to draw people to Queens Wharf,
•be accessible, dynamic and interactive
•have wide appeal and draw repeat visits to the Auckland waterfront
•be the best of its kind, complement Queens Wharf's visual and exposed natural environment
•welcome people to Auckland and the waterfront, including those disembarking from cruise vessels
•be integral to defining the identity of "the people's wharf".

No small ask, then, but Parekowhai has worked with large-scale sculpture before and used houses (and neon lighting) in previous work.

Looking across to the North Shore, where Parekowhai grew up, and east toward Bastion Point, he immediately thought of a house - "a simple modest house that everyone would recognise and that had a huge amount of social, political and cultural history."

Thinking about surrounding office and apartment towers, he decided he didn't want to create another tall structure which would compete with existing city buildings. He wanted something on a human scale, which suggested human activity and humanity.

More research followed.

"Our place, our history and our culture always play an important role in developing my work. For The Lighthouse, we did research on southern hemisphere star constellations by reading books, looking at star maps, visiting the Auckland Stardome and Planetarium, utilising websites and apps, and looking at our night skies.

"When deciding on constellations to realise in neon and locating them within the house, we were influenced by the position of the stars during Matariki. We read about state houses and undertook practical research, driving around Auckland, photographing details.

"The external house colours reference the site and environment on Queens Wharf, the colours in the space between the sea and the sky. The colours appear to shift as the light changes, at different times of day and weather. Inside, the tongue and groove floor was milled from black maire, a native timber used by Maori and early settlers. We chose this highly figured wood to allude to mini universes and the water."

The new Lighthouse sculpture by Michael Parekowhai on Auckland's Queens Wharf. Photo / David St George / Auckland Council
The new Lighthouse sculpture by Michael Parekowhai on Auckland's Queens Wharf. Photo / David St George / Auckland Council

The house is a 1:1 scale 1950s family home with a wooden exterior and a hollow, cavernous fibreglass interior peppered with neon light installations. It is surrounded by timber decking which brings to mind both a jetty and old world sailing ships.

Viewers walk around the house and look into its windows, positioned lower than in a conventional home, or climb stairs to one side of the structure. Up there is a bigger window into the house as well as good views of the city and Waitemata Harbour.

The idea was always to incorporate light. This became one of the most talked-about aspects of the project when it was revealed Parekowhai travelled to Venice to investigate using Venetian glass chandeliers.

However, he said this information was leaked at an early stage in the project and, as with creating all art, it's a process where decisions about what to include and omit and how to craft a piece change as work progresses.

Instead of a chandelier, the house interior now features constellations made from neon. As he'd written previously, the stars in these constellations were "guiding lights for early Maori and European navigators as they voyaged the Pacific Ocean".

He's put the lights which represent Matariki stars on the floor because they reflect on the luminous ceiling and that is now the work's "chandelier". If that's a surprising change from the early plans, the big reveal - if you like - is a one ton giant stainless steel of sculpture of Captain Cook.

The house was built around Cook - there'd be no way to get him through the front door or any of the windows - and the weather was responsible for delays in getting the sculpture onto the site. It had to be taken by barge from a studio on Hamer Street, in the Wynyard Quarters, to Queen's Wharf and a king tide was needed for that. A rainy spring made it difficult to complete painting.

Cook's pose is not the heroic one we've come to associate with him. For starters, his feet don't quite touch the floor giving him an almost childlike quality. He's not looking triumphantly out to sea but slightly down, more contemplative and possibly brooding than anything.

What's he thinking about?

Parekowhai shrugs and says that's up to me to decide, but suggests maybe he's trying to figure out what to do next. About what? I don't ask; I already know the answer.

The Lighthouse is unveiled tonight at 7pm. The opening celebration coincides with dusk and sunset to offer people the opportunity to see it against the changing night sky. The public can explore the work by looking in windows, doors and climbing the staircase. They'll be guided around the outside of the artwork and hosts will be available to answer questions, but there'll be no speeches or unveiling formalities. Instead, a plaque will be installed alongside the artwork to acknowledge this significant gift by Barfoot & Thompson.

Artist Michael Parekowhai. Photo / Derek Henderson
Artist Michael Parekowhai. Photo / Derek Henderson

Who is Michael Parekowhai?

Born in Porirua in 1968 but raised on Auckland's North Shore, Parekowhai (Ngati Whakarongo, Nga Ariki) is one of the country's top contemporary artists. He exhibits work around the world while his art is held in significant public and private collections in New Zealand, Australia and the wider Asia-Pacific region and in Europe. His work includes sculpture, installation and photography. Parekowhai is also a professor of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland and will be teaching first year students at Elam School of Fine Arts this year. In 2001, he was awarded an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate and, in 2011, was the sole artist to represent New Zealand at the 54th Venice Biennale. The same year he was named Nga Toa Whakaihuwaka, Maori of the Year for Arts and awarded the prestigious Premier of Queensland Sculpture Commission. The exhibition Michael Parekowhai: The Promised Land at the Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art (QAGoMA) was his biggest show.

Of The Lighthouse, Parekowhai has previously written: "The Lighthouse (working title) will mark an entrance to Auckland City from the Waitemata, referencing our diverse history of journeys across water, navigation and return. Welcoming those who come by water and by land, the sculpture signals not a hazardous coastline but a safe harbour...."

"The artwork combines the familiar with the unexpected, the simple with the decorative, the literal with the poetic, inviting us to value our place in the world. The Lighthouse (working title) resonates with the Māori concept of ahi ka, telling us that our home fires have long been burning and the lights are still on."