By combining several industrial design materials, Yona Lee’s work creates rhythmic compositions that respond to architectural spaces. Steel rods, metal pipes, hooks, prongs and slatwalls in her award-winning installations play with interior design languages and items used in convenience stores, shopping malls and subway stations.
Lee’s ability to create melodic spatial relations is not surprising because besides being a visual artist, she is also a cellist. Practicing cello since she was seven, she won a young musician award hosted by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in 2001, and played as a soloist at the Bruce Mason Centre and at Auckland Town Hall.
In spite of her promising musical career, Lee decided to study art: I got accepted to the School of Music at the University of Auckland. However, I was starting to feel tired of the limited repertoire for cello, my two most inspirational tutors left New Zealand, and I had some problems with my wrist. I enjoyed drawing, and in the last minute I gathered my drawings and applied to Elam School of Fine Arts.
But her interest in music didn’t end up locked in a closet: over the past few years Lee has incorporated her musical taste into site-specific artistic works. In 2011, at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, she played cello in front of her installation Constrained Organism (2011), an intricate structure, created with metal sheets, forcefully confined inside the gallery window. “The idea of playing came up spontaneously during the installation. When the curator knew that I was a cellist she invited me to play, and that’s when I realised both activities could somehow be combined,” Lee says.
For her 2012 parallel exhibitions, Composition at Te Tuhi and Line Works at Artspace in Auckland, she deliberately connected her passion for music and art. Line Works consisted of straight and zigzagging lines extended along the mezzanine of the gallery. “The work was inspired by the nature of chordophones. The cello, like other string instruments, creates sound as a continuous line in space,” Lee says. “I’ve borrowed the language of how strings behave—if you pull them they create tension, and when they are loose they create waves.” Thus the installation was in itself an instrument, which the artist played in company of the musician James McCarthy, as part of the public programme of the show. Together they draw lines across the gallery, adding another layer of rhythm in the space: experimental music.
Composition at Te Tuhi also consisted of straight and diagonal lines of steel rods, responding to the architectural features (brick grouting, tiles, and window frames) and the transitory nature of the site. The piece was inspired by the endpin of the cello, a thin metal piece that, when making contact with the floor, supports the weight of the instrument. At the centre of the installation, the artist occasionally placed her cello, its spike connected to the rods of the composition, making evident that the instrument gave birth to the piece. The show’s curator Bruce Phillips considers that Lee realised there is another approach to sound-making bound by a different type of logic, an intuitive one that is felt through a sonic, haptic and social improvisation of soundwaves resonating through material, space and bodies.
The French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, who was also an amateur musician, studied the relation of rhythm and the quotidian. He noted, “Everywhere where there is interaction between a place, a time and an expenditure of energy, there is rhythm.” Indeed, rhythm can be found in all repetitions, differences, gestures and actions. It s part of our life, more visibly so perhaps in urban centres.
Lee became fascinated with the multi-rhythmic nature of densely populated life in Seoul, where during the past year she had an arts residency and a series of exhibitions. Her installation In Transit (2016), at Alternative Space LOOP, Seoul, was a direct result of her observations of Seoul’s urban spatial dynamics. “Spending much of my time on the streets, especially in an unknown city, walking, busing and taking the metro, inspired the idea of a transition, whether it be physical, mental or spiritual,” Lee says.
In Transit looked at the lines and abstracted spaces of subway stations and traffic flow. On this occasion Lee used steel pipes—a ubiquitous material that is abundant in trains, buses, stores, bathrooms, and parks. Protruding from walls, outlining space, traversing stairwells, creating walkways, these modular structures spread across all areas of the industrial-like gallery. A variety of found objects mixed with the pipes such as lamps, umbrellas, mailboxes, train handles, coat hangers, and mannequins. The combination of items created an ambiguous atmosphere, an intermediate space between indoors and outdoors. The installation required hard work: “I had only five days for the install, so I ended up sleeping some nights on the mattress in the space. But it was pleasant, it sparked the idea of making the next work interactive,” Lee says.
A similar project titled In Transit (Arrival) will be shown at Te Tuhi, from March to October, as part of the Auckland Arts Festival. In a publication accompanying the LOOP show, curator Bruce Phillips writes about the two stages of In Transit, first in Seoul and then in Auckland. They reflect an intriguing aspect of Lee’s practice in which she seeks out states of entanglement that constitute the freedom and control of materials, objects, networks and the movement of bodies within modernity.
Lee has shared with me some of her three-dimensional digital sketches. In Transit (Arrival) will be her largest and most ambitious project to date. Te Tuhi’s educational rooms, toilets, offices, corridors, and foyer will be invaded with numerous steel tubes and objects. But the most distinctive aspect of this work is that all incorporated items will be there for public use: visitors will be able to use showers, to turn on lamps, to sit at desks and plug in their laptops. In such a way, Lee will generate an additional layer of rhythm and new spatial relations within the already multi-faceted space of Te Tuhi. By using different materials and adopting varying forms and functions Lee will surely attract the attention of Te Tuhi’s diverse audiences.
Lee’s interest in mundane objects that make viewers conscious of their movements through space can be traced to past projects like Tangential Structures (2013) at Enjoy Gallery in Wellington. For this show, Lee created an orchestra of looping and wavy steel rods that occupied the whole gallery space, responding and interacting with floor, ceiling, beams and walls. Inspired by retail design but going against the logic of visual merchandising, the artist incorporated a series of items such as sunglasses, magazines, canned food, and dirty crockery displayed in an apparently careless manner across the space. Following no logical order, this thoughtful mess hindered free circulation and overwhelmed sight, making visitors conscious of the transit dynamics of a determinate space through its nullification.
But not all Lee’s works are filthy or crammed. A more sober work, Line on Display (2016), at West Space in Melbourne, was a simple but sophisticated installation that also responded to the architectural features of the gallery. For this show, Lee created two wall installations using slatwalls—an MDF material used in shopping malls for displaying merchandise—with which she incorporated multi-coloured and multi-shaped steel pieces. In the floor, an irregular spot-shaped metal piece highlighted the herringbone flooring of the gallery. Sticking out of a beam, a series of upwardly installed steel rods drew attention to the two different styles of ceiling of the gallery, while they also evoke music scales.” One can read its sculptural language with musical terms, such as legato for the beam pieces, and staccato for the shorter ones,” Lee says.
Lee’s work is strongly influenced by minimalist and constructivist aesthetics. Her use of line as an experimental developer of space can be traced to Fred Sandbank, and her slatwall drawings can be connected to Frank Stella’s striped paintings, sharing both linear forms and a three-dimensional materiality. Lee’s steel-rod sculptures, such as the ones shown in Specific Objects (2014) at Blue Oyster Art Project Space in Dunedin, can also be connected to Stella’s recent sculptural pieces. His series Circus (2009), for instance, consists of dynamic sculptures made of tangled steel rods and metal pipes, playing with weight and balance. Stella also embeds musical influences in his work. His series Scarlatti K (2006), pays homage to composer Domenico Scarlatti and musicologist Ralph Kirkpatrick, through a series of metal structures whose repetitive and curvy forms create complex visual rhythms in the gallery space.
But in Lee’s practice music is not a simple inspirer but an essential creative producer of the works. Lee’s approach to creating art is akin to composing and interpreting music: “Just like the way a classical instrumentalist would approach a masterpiece—their faithfulness in interpreting the context of the time and place it’s been written, but at the same time trying to convey their own feeling—my projects are developed to speculate and respond to particular features of a given space,” Lee says. “If music speaks within a time frame, I think art is more of frozen moments expanded and stretched in time.”
Yona Lee’s work is an invitation to look further into the objects and spaces surrounding us, especially within situations that are perhaps two of the most common activities of our time transit and consumption. It is no coincidence that music and rhythm feature prominently in both of them. Perhaps, like notes in a music sheet, steel rings and metallic rods in Lee’s installations carry the whimsical turns and rounds of an ongoing symphony; one that is to be performed by a solo interpreter as much as by its audience.
Yona Lee: In Transit (Arrival), Te Tuhi, Pakuranga, 11 March to 19 November 2017, is part of the Auckland Arts Festival
Published in Art News Autumn 2017