Foraging through recycling bins is not an activity you'd expect from one of New Zealand's most senior artists. But for Bill Culbert, who has lived mainly in Europe since 1957, it was an ideal way to gather the materials for his Auckland exhibition.

"I was running around the streets of Orakei trying to get around before the rubbish truck," he says. "Six o clock in the morning, everyone's out jogging and walking the dog and here's this joker going from bucket to bucket."

There is an ecological sensitivity that underlies Culbert's work and he shudders at the thought of buying bulk cleaning products for an exhibition and emptying them down the drain. "You put it into another container and write on it, 'Not to be taken'."

Culbert's work is primarily made from found objects, including used bottles and containers, old wheels, and lamps, most from the village dump near his southern France home in Croagnes. "The whole idea of dumps and people dumping and the exchange idea of usefulness - it's recycling in its pure state. I used to think of them as meeting places, as places where people went to get something they needed. If it was wood or metal or things, there was a natural recycling. But there wasn't the waste that we have now through production."

Although Culbert's main interest is light - and the vessels he finds provide a visual metaphor for containing or pouring light - they also demonstrate the process of consumer marketing, which complicates his gathering process.

"The use of plastics is extraordinary and is about selling, getting the right colours for them to sell the product, and the design of the bottle. I can't believe how often they change. One product will change its range of colours to appeal.

"My works are about pieces of time. It's stopping them, in a way."

To avert the obsolescence of potential materials, Culbert has amassed at home a wall completely covered with shelves of plastic bottles. "It's not that I collect, it's a matter of accumulating, really. Because when you want them, it is useful to be able to pull them out - like having a wine cellar, I suppose."

Presumably, Culbert's wine cellar rivals his collection of used containers. The substance frequently appears in his work - particularly in the light wine things exhibition now touring New Zealand - and adds a sociable sensibility to his familiar, found objects. Seresin Wines' owner Michael Seresin commissioned light wine things for an exhibition in Blenheim in 2003 to showcase Culbert's photographic studies.

Although featuring images of wine glasses, a variety of old wine vessels and wheels, the exhibition still focuses on Culbert's main interest - light.

"My primary exploration is about light - light-marks in space or light-in-light, light in darkness, night-light, daylight, those kind of things just intrigue me."

Culbert studied painting when he began at the Royal College of Art in London in 1957 but by the end of the 1960s he had moved into more ephemeral explorations. An example of one of his first light-pieces features in the Art & the 60s exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery. "With painting, I kind of felt limited by the edges," he says. "The idea of composition was within these boundaries and the sculptural aspects of working with light seemed much more exciting, but without having the weight of the material necessary in sculpture."

Culbert has started working with neon tubing, the most recent example being SkyBlues, a large public work of 21 lengths of blue neon spiralling into the sky around 11m-high poles in Wellington's Post Office Square.

Culbert says SkyBlues is part of a trilogy of public neon works, including Blue in Christchurch and SkyLines in London, which play with lines of light moving through space.

Culbert, in New Zealand only briefly, has an exhibition to open in May at Sydney gallery Roslyn Oxley9, and another large neon installation to attend to in London's Canary Wharf. "It's a bit of an intervention because it goes right through the building. One of the neon lines spirals through and out the other side. And four other lines inside the building. It's a bit scary, actually. It will be very fragile. If it is permanent - we'll see."


* Who: Bill Culbert
* Where and when: New work, Sue Crockford Gallery, 2 Queen St, to April 29; SkyBlues, Post Office Square, Wellington