Yona Lee, Kit-set In-transit, 2020, stainless steel, objects. Installation view.

Yona Lee, Kit-set In-transit, 2020, stainless steel, objects. Installation view.

Yona Lee

Since 2016, South Korean–born, Auckland-based artist Yona Lee has become known for her installations with titles that include the phrase “In Transit.” They are constructed of polished stainless-steel tubing—cut and welded to form running lines, bends, and knots—that is screwed to walls, floors, and ceilings. The quotidian references of these mazelike environments range from public-transport transit maps and industrial plumbing to those ubiquitous handrails, bollards, and barriers that everywhere assist or impede our movement in public spaces. Just as ardently ordinary are the everyday consumer objects with which Lee punctuates her steel matrices. Mass-produced household goods in the IKEA mold, they have included lampshades, umbrellas, shower curtains, chairs, tables, beds, coat hangers, and mopheads, but also things less redolent of the domestic sphere, such as transport grab handles and stop buttons. These items sparsely populate the steel sculptures as though sprouting from their metastatic impetus.

Past “In Transit” works have responded directly to specific spaces, with Lee using computer-generated drawings to plot the architecture and her intervention within it. For instance, her contribution to the Fifteeenth Biennale de Lyon, In Transit (Highway), 2019, exploited the dizzying height of the exhibition venue, a former washing-machine factory. Assisted by local manufacturers, Lee constructed one of her tubular environments and a walkway perched on an existing overhead gantry. A spiral staircase enabled visitors to access the overhead structure and view other works from some twenty-six feet above the ground. For those inclined to linger in this lofty space—or perhaps to recover from the experience—the artist incorporated bunk beds, generic café furniture, and a couple of potted plants. 

Lee’s latest installation was not so overtly site-specific. As the title Kit-set In-transit, 2020, implies, it can be transported in pieces with instructions (like DIY furniture) to be fabricated anywhere. Assembled in the white-cube space at Fine Arts, Sydney, the sculpture included a centrally placed, cage-like scaffold of pipes enclosing bunk beds with pristine-white sheeting. A red umbrella arced above this arrangement, while one vertical tendril of pipe topped with a faux-Victorian lamp read as a full stop to the sense of mobility imparted by the steel labyrinth. Extending from the central matrix were more sparing lines of pipe traveling over four walls and across high windows, supporting a shower curtain, and zipping to ground level to secure a café setting for two. Continuing Lee’s normcore aesthetic and its push and pull between egress and blockage, the work staged a tensile dichotomy where the abstract order of the arrangement conflicted with the implicit invitation to interact. Additionally, fixtures hinting at participation or utility were rendered dysfunctional or inaccessible: A transport grab handle hung from a pipe way out of reach, and a generic empire lampshade glowed upside down at the long end of a knotted pipe.

Viewing Lee’s show when it had reopened this past October after the nearly four-month Covid lockdown that interrupted it, I couldn’t help but discern a metaphor of our current situation. While her sculptures speak to the modern, technologically enabled obsession with free movement across time and space, she also inscribes points of resistance that undermine fantasies of infinite transit.