Curator, Contemporary Art Natasha Conland and artist Yona Lee lead us through Lee’s sculptural practice and discuss her most ambitious project yet, An Arrangement for 5 Rooms. Republished from Art Toi Magazine, March 2022.
Natasha Conland: Your series of sculpture projects In Transit has been ongoing since 2016. It’s most recognisable for the striking use of bent stainless steel tube and attached sundry household furniture executed on an architectural scale. In this new work, An Arrangement for 5 Rooms, you draw upon a musical structure for the title. Is this a new direction for the work, or have the conditions of musicality been there through your period of making?
Yona Lee: The musical element has always been there on a subconscious level – I don’t necessarily think literally about music when I am making but I believe that my sense of how line sits within the space comes from my understanding of sound. I’ve borrowed a musical structure for a title before but my thoughts around it have become more organised recently. I’ve become more aware of how the steel structures function quite similarly to instruments – how they carry different intonations and depths of sound, with the four walls operating like the bars in a musical score with the spacing of each work setting up a tempo. The play with rhythm, variation and repetition has become more apparent in this work. The sense of progression and the linearity of gallery spaces has allowed me to extend this idea with scale. The space has two entry points, a large room, a small room and three repeated rooms that face Albert Park through a glass façade. I thought a lot about how the relationship between the work and the audience progress throughout each room and tried to work out the dynamic of each space to find the right gestures that maximise each room’s characteristics. In this process, I’ve reflected a lot on a simple song structure, like how there is an intro, verse, chorus, etc and the ternary form/sonata form in classical music where a theme is developed and repeated with variations.
NC: We have spoken about the acoustic resonance of the steel tube you use, which of course is not discernible just by looking. Steel tube has a different set of associations to the industrial materials used historically in sculptural minimalism. Seamless stainless tube is a material that already exists in a variety of forms, finishes and functions. When you first used tube for your show at Loop Gallery, Seoul in 2016 was there a specific way in which this material was used in that high-density urban environment that differed from its application as a handrail in the Gallery?
YL: I’m certainly interested in how universal this stainless-steel tube is. For example, when I took a bunch of research photos at the time in Seoul, I realised how widely this material was used – for handrails, fences, poles for lantern posts, shower rails and the safety poles in subways and buses, etc. I’ve found it has similar uses back in Auckland and in other cities like in Sydney, Paris and New York. The surface and how the tubes are fabricated are all different in subtle ways and the standard size is different in Europe, but the general usage of this material resonates across different cities.
I think of how strong the stainless steel is and its resistance to corrosion; and of how the metal is 100% recyclable, and bacteria resistant, allowing for such common usage in residential, commercial and industrial areas. These qualities have allowed my work to be anywhere – outdoor/indoor, industrial/ gallery space – to be flexible with scale – be it building size or as small as an object.
The existing steel tube handrails in the Gallery were a special feature I wanted to utilise to activate the whole building. The building was new and I developed a new fixing system and changed the fabrication method to meet its aesthetic standard.
NC: Can you tell us a little more about that change in fixing system and fabrication method – I know you’ve been exploring ideas of modularity in the work, creating a concept of ‘kit set’ components?
YL: The idea of modularity emerged in 2018 after my show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I had been working primarily on one-off site-specific works, so it was a new challenge to work on a proposal for a flexible piece that could be presented across different spaces, with a system that could be easily installed and deinstalled without welding.
At the Gallery, the handrail features are unique – they are everywhere in the building, snaking around every floor and every corner with their satin finish and seamless joints; they are gorgeous and elegant alongside the high-quality wood finish. The same aesthetic is repeated in the door handles and a special fitting system hides how these are fixed to the doors. I wanted to replicate this level of fabrication method to blend into the architecture. I’ve worked with a tube-bending company to do all the 90-degree bends and I’ve further developed an internal joining system to hide the joints. The new joining system not only looks cleaner, but also reduces a huge amount of welding and polishing required onsite.
NC: The necessity of penetrating the glass wall and pushing out into Albert Park was central to your proposal very early on. Can you tell us about what it means for the work to be situated in the park, where the steel shifts to an LED-embedded railing?
YL: It was quite clear that the three central galleries that look out to the park through glass façade were the pinnacles of the space. It is absolutely beautiful to be inside these rooms and look out to the park and consider its relationship with the indoor area.
Often when you’re inside the Gallery, it’s easy to lose a sense of where you are in relation to the outside world, as you are constantly carried by the myriad rooms and corridors. When you’re that perspective again; however, this connection is often lost by the blinds and walls used to protect and present artworks. So, it was critical for me to open up all the blinds and have the work penetrate the glass façade to touch the ground to strengthen that relationship.
There are two entrance points to the work: You can either enter from the first gallery space or from the corridor at the south end. Wherever you enter the work you will experience it in a similar way, as each end of the work mirrors itself – both openings begin and end with a knot. Furthermore, it was important for me to make the work mirror itself from inside to outside as well. I wanted parts of work to be ‘open’ 24/7 and to be available for the public in particular, who will encounter the work without any pre-existing notion of it as an artwork.
The barriers and relationships between inside and outside are very interesting and slippery at this time when we are seeing endless acrylic walls in front of shop counters, masks over faces, and the distance we keep from each other. So, to reverse that experience by penetrating that glass façade feels important.
NC: Regarding the furniture you integrate into the tubular system, there are certainly connotations of the domestic offset by the language of public furnishing, but more often you have described your interest in creating spaces for respite in public settings. Is this a conceptual interest of yours as well as, if you like, an architectural or formal device?
YL: There is a bit of mixing of both domestic and public furnishing in the work, but more often domestic furnishing is emphasised because of the contrast it creates with the steel and the architecture it is presented in – inside a public gallery. The furnishing also adds colour to the work, and on a very formal level it punctuates and creates rhythm, setting a mood and evoking emotion. These formal motifs sit alongside their conceptual meaning.
There is definitely satisfaction in bringing in a bunk bed for visitors to take a nap. We are all accustomed to these unspoken rules and guided by signs for appropriate behaviour of what to do and not do in a gallery. The restrictions make us uncomfortable as we are warned for stepping too close to a work and that barriers and frames create visual distraction when looking at paintings and sculptures. So, it’s kind of liberating to do the opposite – let people nap as much as they like, to touch, lean and to rest with the work.
As a society we are almost too organised in our categorisation of what to do where and when to do things. For example, we define and categorise spaces like a bedroom, a toilet, an office and a cafe. And what’s been interesting to see over the past three years when these spatial categories have collapsed and boundaries blurred is that there has been a flattening sensation in our experience of space and time. To extend this idea further, we also like to categorise disciplines, jobs, gender and race and it’s sometimes nice to be disorganised and to think more about what they all share in common and how everything is connected.
NC: A lot has been written about the title In Transit from its first exhibition in Seoul – the concept of mapping transitory living – but not much of your personal story of migration in transition. Do you feel like these forms are in some ways indicators of the particulars of migratory experience, especially the unique experience of a more open period of immigration to Aotearoa New Zealand in the 1990s, in which many families came for study or work without consideration of a lifetime’s transition or ‘expatriation’?
YL: Perhaps the temporal nature of the structure indicates the migratory experience in some way. When I presented my work in Lyon, French people called it a kiwi nest! There is definitely something about a nest, a temporary home, a transitional home that can relate back to the lives of a migrant. As a migrant, you lose the meaning of home as a permanent place and you’re always ready to move, so what you carry with you further simplifies into the very essence of needs. However, I’m not so interested in weaving narrative into my work – I wouldn’t want the work to be forced through my own narrative for example. But I do believe these kinds of personal experiences emerge in the work.
An Arrangement for 5 Rooms was made possible with the support of our project partners, The Asia New Zealand Foundation and Chow:Hill Architects, and by the Contemporary Benefactors, who directly support the Gallery’s contemporary programme.