All over the world, wherever we go, generic stainless-steel handrails and barriers are there to aid us, impede us, and control us. They’re so ubiquitous, they’re invisible. We don’t give them a second thought. But sculptor Yona Lee insistently draws our attention to them. The 34-year-old is unofficial artist in residence at Special Wire & Tube, in Onehunga, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. She makes her works in one corner of this cavernous metalwork factory, alongside gruff workers in grimy overalls, who knock out fixtures and fittings, trolleys and display stands. Lee has made their quotidian grammar of bent and welded metal her own, elevating it from the ordinary.
Lee is known for her ambitious In Transit installations. In these works, she cuts and welds hundreds of metres of stainless-steel pipe to form rectilinear maze-like installations, secured to floors, ceilings, and walls. These cagey structures incorporate a diversity of familiar off-the-shelf fixtures: bus seats and ‘stop’ buzzers, coat hangers, umbrellas, lamps, mop heads, one-way swing gates, beds, chairs and tables, letterboxes, shower curtains, phone chargers, bathtubs, signs, cymbals – and, recently, even a kitchen sink. Some fixtures invite interaction, others deny it by being installed out of reach or upside down. It’s hard to tell if they provide the alibi for the steel structure or vice versa.
Lee plays with a design language that’s international, but is especially prevalent in her homeland of Korea. The In Transit idea came into focus while she was on residencies in Seoul in 2016, during which she spent time on the metro, one of the world’s most efficient subway systems. Lee became enamoured with its turnstiles, barriers, handrails and poles. During the residencies, she created her first In Transit installations. For the one at Alternative Space Loop, she couldn’t spare time to commute and had to work around the clock. So she slept onsite in a bed that became part of the work.
I saw Lee’s work in the flesh for the first time the following year at Te Tuhi in Pakuranga, a community centre that aspires to be all things to all people. “It’s like a small version of the world,” says Lee. “Art-gallery people turn left, community people turn right. Down the corridor, there’s a pastor preaching, ballet lessons, an orchestra practising, and an art class. I wanted to mix up all these communities.”
Lee didn’t put her work – In Transit (Arrival) – into the gallery, but into the foyer and common areas. Visitors didn’t know whether to read it as art or not, but seemed happy to be shepherded by it. “I brought bus handles into the kitchen, cleaning mops into the office, and put a public shower into the courtyard,” she says. Her intervention interrupted the space physically and socially. The structure seemed to absurdly elaborate on itself, metastasising, like there had been a glitch in the code, with fixtures popping up in random places, laughing in the face of function. The work prompted activities, both real (press the buzzer) and imaginary (a table was suspended from the ceiling).
The show at Te Tuhi was a step up. The budget meant everything could be fully functioning. When I visited on a Saturday morning, little girls in tutus had co-opted a railing as a ballet barre, cafe goers were sitting at Lee’s tables sipping flat whites, and phones were being charged, but no one was game to strip off and take a shower in the courtyard. Meanwhile, the knowing art crowd hung back, observing punters engage with the structure, unwittingly absorbed into the spectacle, becoming part of the art. It worked like a dream. The work was a hit, but it took a beating. “My welding wasn’t prepared for that amount of public interaction. I had to keep returning to repair the structure,” she says. I was surprised the project wasn’t nominated for the Walters Prize. What does an artist have to do?
With In Transit, Lee had developed an Instagram-friendly idea she could elaborate anywhere, endlessly. And invitations rolled in, enabling her to play out the idea in conversation with different architecture: Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (2018), City Gallery Wellington (2018), Lyon Biennale (2019), and Busan Biennale (2020). In Lyon, Lee was offered space in an old factory. She exploited its vast height, building a suspended walkway from which you could look down on the work of other artists, her competition. The handrails needed to be secure, to protect visitors from falling.
In Transit’s neutral, normcore aesthetic is the antithesis of kitschy sentimentality, decorative embellishment, and historical patina. Lee makes nonsense from this no-nonsense language, imbuing it with a wayward slapstick humour, using it to create crazy obstacle courses or adventure playgrounds. She transforms its impersonal look into her signature style.
Lee knows what it means to be in transit. She came to New Zealand in 1997, aged 11, during Korea’s emigration boom. “Mom heard stories of how great things are here, the environment, the education. She thought it would be better for us kids.”
Lee wasn’t always going to be an artist. She started learning the cello aged seven and planned to go to music school. But, after an injury she started thinking about working in a different art form. She tried spatial design at AUT, then went to Elam. “Elam was my first personal decision. It was exciting because it was so selfish. I had Peter Robinson and P. Mule as teachers all the way through. Peter taught me about the formal language of sculpture. Mule took a more personal approach, drawing out my connection with music.” Her cohort included Shannon Te Ao and Luke Willis Thompson.
At Elam, Lee made metal sculptures and worked with found objects. Her metalworking was limited by the school’s workshops and technicians. Her project didn’t really click until after she completed her Master of Fine Arts in 2010. A friend’s uncle, who ran Drake & Wrigley, a company that makes architectural hardware, gave her the run of his factory – she learnt cutting, drilling, and TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding. “I entered the male-dominated culture of metal engineering, with nude calendars on the wall. It was interesting to work alongside the guys who make the real-world stuff. I watched over their shoulders and asked lots of questions. We got on. They missed me when I was away,” says Lee.
In 2012, Line Works, her show at Auckland’s Artspace, required specialist wire bending. Lee was referred to Special Wire & Tube. “Drake and Wrigley taught me how to make articulate, polished products, but Special Wire & Tube taught me how to incorporate objects into steel display structures.” She hadn’t just got access to commercial-level fabrication, she had discovered a ready-made language. Things opened up formally and conceptually.
Lee has always made analogies between the languages and mechanics of her sculpture and music. She played cello in front of Constrained Organism, her window project at New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in 2011. She incorporated a cello into Composition at Te Tuhi in 2012. And in 2012, she and James McCarthy used cello bows to play the steel-rods in Line Works at Artspace, turning the attic into a resonating chamber. Later, she described her City Gallery Wellington In Transit exhibition as ‘a sonata’.
Museums love Lee, but sculptors cannot live on museum shows alone. They need ‘catwalk shows’ in museums (to build their brand) but also ‘ready-to-wear’ for dealers (to sell). Lee made her name with large site-responsive gallery installations, but she’s also been developing a parallel ‘product line’ of portable works keyed to domestic settings. In these works, incongruous twists and knots of pipe support a range of lamps, a round table, a handle, a mop, a towel. Installed in chic collectors’ homes, they might not look like art at first glance, but don’t exactly fit in either. Their incongruous Bunnings aesthetic is usually a giveaway.
Lee doesn’t have a dealer in New Zealand, but her dealer is a New Zealander. For now, she’s exclusively represented by Ryan Moore of Fine Arts in Sydney. “I’d never worked with a dealer before. No-one tells you what it’s about. Artists don’t talk openly about their relationships with dealers,” says Lee. “It’s not just about selling. Ryan works with me on ideas and gives me feedback. These days it’s all phone and email. It doesn’t make sense to have dealers in every city.”
Lee is also diversifying into graphics and video. She used to design her pipe installations in SketchUp, but now uses Blender, which enables more photogenic outcomes. Her computer drawings are starting to take on a life of their own – she’s even been animating them. Her new videos, Propositions, are a nod to 3DPipes, the classic screensaver, with its endless variations on pipes snaking through space, turning at right angles. In her videos, her animated pipes are superimposed onto tourist snaps she took around the world – in museums, hotels, terminals, the street, the subway. They navigate their way through these scenes, riffing on their existing pipe fixtures. Lee sneaks more pipes into the Pompidou Centre’s façade; handrails proliferate in a subway carriage, leaving nowhere to stand; and an illuminated barber’s pole sprouts up next to a conventional streetlamp.
Like many success-story artists, Lee’s practice is premised on travelling from residency to residency, country to country, responding to new spaces, surprising new audiences, being ‘in transit’. She needs offshore opportunities to maintain momentum. Smart but popular, her installations seemed destined to become a biennale staple until Covid-19 cramped her style. Not only has the virus slowed travel, it has changed museums’ and audiences’ relation to her kind of work. In this new era of social distancing, participatory works that were once catnip for museums have become tedious sanitising chores. Things are getting tougher. She was able to install her work in Busan last year, even though it meant two weeks quarantine at either end. That’s commitment. And, she has residencies coming up at La Cité in Paris and Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht. Even if the world has come to it a halt, she’s still in transit.