For centuries, sunlight has inspired creatives in Aotearoa. From Māui slowing the sun, to New Zealand’s “marvellous light” and its influence on the early regionalism of Rita Angus, Toss Woollaston, and Colin McCahon, to Ralph Hotere’s masterful balance of dark and light - sunlight has a long history in art here.

Tāmaki Makaurau-based Sara Hughes continues this tradition. Her largest public art work to date, at SkyCity’s Convention Centre, explored the way sunlight interacts with native bush, and her newest public work, Midnight Sun in Tauranga’s Willow St, continues this solar theme.

Public art adds to our collective spaces and influences how people feel while there, and Midnight Sun will be no different. As Lana Lopesi writes, of both poetry and visual arts, in Bloody Woman - “The quality of the light that we use to scrutinise our lives directly impacts the changes we can bring to them.” High quality art is high quality light - it revitalises and re-energises. In the same way a setting sun offers the certainty of a new day and a fresh start, Midnight Sun offers hope to its community.

You see, Tauranga’s central city is in a state of flux. Over the next decade or so, its great swathes of concrete will undergo a significant rebirth - a reimagining of its public spaces to embrace and connect with its natural environment, as well as its cultural and historic significance. But that’s all on the horizon, still. In the meantime, even the library has temporarily relocated from Willow St, so the demolition ahead of the rebirth can begin.

Just down the road, behind the Tauranga Art Gallery, sits a lowly bus stop, a seemingly nondescript site which drew Hughes back time and again. Bus stops are simple structures which form social spaces - places with a natural ebb and flow, where people come and go and gather. In time, this space will become a vital connection point between the new public facilities and the waterfront below. People will continue to ebb and flow through it, like water from a spring headed for the sea. But in the meantime, Midnight Sun and its golden glow will mark the end of an era and signal the coming of a new day for this city.

So how does one take a glass and steel structure, on a grey street surrounded by building work and make it feel warm, welcoming and safe? With light. After four years on her Convention Centre work, Hughes inherently understands how light, glass and colour can interact to create an experience. So she set out to recreate a universally restorative human experience - a sunset.

This work’s seemingly simple execution belies its technical complexity. First, Hughes commissioned Tauranga photographer Anne Shirley to capture every sunset for a month over the winter solstice/Matariki. Hughes’ painted response to those photographs was overlaid onto the original images and printed on vinyl, in multiple carefully mapped out layers, to create depth and varying opacity. The vinyl is complemented by a corridor of physical light, designed by illumination specialist Richard Bracebridge, which mimics dusk sunlight and contrasts the cold street lights. This glowing corridor of warm light draws the viewer from the bus stop down towards the Gallery entrance and the city’s nightlife.

The work is primarily installed overhead, creating a fully immersive experience. Inspired by Colin McCahon’s “walk-by paintings”, here Hughes has created her own version - a walk-under painting, if you will. It’s dynamic and responsive, changing throughout the day, and year, to create unique moments of encounter for city centre regulars. And yet, it’s also consistent - its glow will remain steady and constant, regardless of the activity around it, much like its namesake the midnight sun, which remains on the Arctic and Antarctic horizon through the long summer nights.

And while this work isn’t permanent, as no sunset is, it creates a collective moment for its audience. It’s an invitation to commune in the renewal of the natural world, and the hope it offers for the built world you stand in, as you experience the wonder of this work, together, in this inherently social space.

Words: Rosie Dawson-Hewes

Commissioned by Supercut Projects in partnership with Tauranga City Council, with support from Creative New Zealand and Tauranga Art Gallery

Viewing Hours

  • Viewable 24/7


  • Willow and Wharf Streets
  • Tauranga