It’s as if a minimalist artist got a job at a futuristic transportation department. Yona Lee’s In Transit sculptures transform the utilitarian materials and objects of urban spaces and public transport systems—including hand rails, barriers, seats and fences—into elaborate linear structures that rearticulate gallery spaces and the experiences that take place there. Her project is always in transit—evolving through iterations—as well as commenting on that condition. Lee talks with curator Aaron Lister, following a new iteration of In Transit at City Gallery Wellington in 2018.

Aaron Lister: In the lead up to your projects you spend a lot of time in the space apparently measuring and looking, but it’s more than that. What kind of understanding of space are you trying to reach?

Yona Lee: When I get a new exhibition opportunity, I bring baggage—the language I’ve developed, and my experience, knowledge and expectations. If I focus too much on that baggage—on what I bring, the space becomes an obstacle. So, I try to put it aside and spend time reading the space. As I start to understand the space— its materiality, logic, and flow, the focus slowly shifts from me to it. I’m reminded of pianist Yuja Wang’s claim that practicing is far less important that understanding the intention of the composer. In a similar way, I try to weigh my attention to understanding the space. I see my role as activating the space.

You’re less interested in dropping premade sculptures into the white cube space than putting your language to work on specific spaces, in all their specificity?

I first trained as a musician. I am used to performing, where you respond to the occasion, the audience, and the emotions you’re feeling. These elements constantly change, even when you play the same music. It’s a practice of iteration. When I started making and exhibiting art, I initially struggled with the idea of showing premade objects into a gallery space—it felt lifeless and did not allow for the type of engagement with the space and audience I desire.

Your use of drawing and 3-D modeling is key to this process. What’s their role in your work?

First, I measure the space, then I recreate it digitally on SketchUp. This helps me understand its logic. I need to reach a stage where I feel like I own the space, and having the digital form is like planting a seed and waiting it to grow over time. Plus it’s practical. I can’t visit the space as often as I’d like in the lead up to a show. Drawings become my entry point in visualizing the work, in remaking it on my terms. They also help in communicating my ideas to collaborators—allowing the engineering and physics to be worked out.

It sounds like the preparatory stage is where all the fun is. If that’s the case, what do you get out of the making and the installing?

Most of the thinking and decision making is done in the drawing phase. That’s where the excitement takes place. When it comes to making exhibitions, it is about 95% labor. However, I do enjoy it—it’s meditative. I’ve developed my welding skills—and treat it as another form of drawing. I’m also challenged to match the consistency of my assistant who is a skilled welder.

What’s the 5% ?

There are obvious limits to the digital drawings—aspects of light and materiality are lost. Due to the differences between the drawings and the actual space, there are always aspects of the work that change during installation. The actual space always throws up surprise elements, it is not as easy to control as the virtual one. So I allow the process to be a bit improvisational, almost performative. However, there’s always an anxiety that any miscalculations may derail the entire work.

After the installation, are you done with the drawings? Are they just a means to an end?

Alongside the digital drawings, I do hand drawn ones, primarily for calculation purposes with numbers indicating dimensions. This mode too is starting to form its own logic and have its own space. Initially, I thought of drawing as a preparatory tool, however, I’m starting to see other potentials. For the AGNSW and City Gallery In Transit works, I’ve repurposed the digital drawings as children’s activities and as a takeaway artwork. I’d like to further explore the potential of digital drawings.

City Gallery’s show is the fifth iteration of In Transit. What’s changed over the five iterations, and what sparked those changes?

In Transit started on a residency in Korea. The first iteration was a small, freestanding work. I was figuring out how to bring together different spaces (or ideas of different spaces) within a singular space as a kind of collage. I wanted to figure out the engineering aspects, to test my ideas in physical form.

For the second iteration, at Alternative Space LOOP, in Seoul, I upscaled. I took over the whole building and incorporated new forms and new objects. The work was site-specific. It connected two levels of the gallery and considered how people entered and moved through the space. The use of barriers and handrails to block and direct the movement of the viewer came into focus.

Another big shift happened. Due to limited installation time, I had to sleep in the gallery, and I ended up using the bed that was part of the work. The experience was surprisingly enjoyable, despite the industrial, subterranean, window-less nature of the space. I realised then that I was making a livable structure. Before then, I wasn’t totally cognisant of the functional aspects of the work. Previously, I was making arbitrary decisions around which objects would be functional and which would operate as props.

The third iteration, at Te Tuhi, in Pakuranga, pushed the functionality. I worked across different spaces, including a community gallery and non-gallery spaces, including the foyer, kitchen, and toilets.

You blur the functional and the non-functional. The Te Tuhi work included a working shower!  But I’m uncertain as to whether your work is genuinely interactive or a comment on the call for art to be ever more interactive and friendly.

The Te Tuhi work brought a new level of ‘interaction’. I was horrified to see how aggressively some visitors engaged. I had to make a few unscheduled maintenance trips. Even without the overtly interactive elements like the shower, the work was still interactive. It necessarily forced a certain bodily encounter. The shower and bunks required commitment to interact, but the viewer searching for brochures on a display rack at the entrance may not have even realised they were engaging with the work. Ultimately, the viewer activates the work just by walking alongside it to get to the classroom or the bathroom. We are used to seeing particular kinds of seats in buses and cafes, and with seeing people sitting on them. So, when they interact with a bus or a café seat in a gallery, they become—or perform the role—those people we see in buses and cafes. They ‘participate’, whether they want to or not.

Is it hard to prompt participation?

Yes. On the opening night of Tangential Structures at Enjoy, Wellington, in 2013, people stood around the periphery of the work. Only a small number walked into it. I was disappointed. I thought I had choreographed it to guide people. I wanted them to step on the steel and make a sound, to be in place to hear a ticking clock, to smell the perfume and soap, and to find sweets in a corner. I incorporated a live plant, which required constant watering from gallery staff. Every other hour, staff had to wet a towel and fuse the perfume. But, the work failed as an interactive gesture. The steel structures that hung from ceiling to imitate string were too fragile visually to invite interaction.

Using stainless-steel tubes in the In Transit works solved this problem. The handrails and barriers guide visitors through the space. People abide by its rules and are happy to be shepherded. This language also opens up a relationship to the gallery messaging and those devices used to prevent and protect artworks: the ‘don’t touch’ sign, barriers and warning sounds. I’ve started incorporating this institutional language into my own.

The In Transit language shifted again in the work made for the Art Gallery of New South Wales?

The Te Tuhi iteration represented my maximalist approach. New forms and languages emerged—such as the relationship between a single line weaving through space and a central density in form. I’ve elaborated on this at the AGNSW. The four columns in the space allowed me to create a dense central form and the thirty-metre-long wall allowed me to trace a simple line around the periphery. I pared things back and amplified the sculptural gesture.

Working in iterations is challenging but essential to me. The work has to constantly grow, otherwise the life drains out of it. It’s easy to convince yourself—and others— that your work is developing by simply presenting very different looking projects. But working iteratively and with a similar language across multiple projects forces you to subtlety navigate changes and find new possibilities without repeating yourself.

Your work is at once site specific (taking on the social and spatial dynamics of a particular site) and self-contained (with its own recurring forms, languages, tropes). Where do you see the line here? Is it more important to you that the work shifts the terms of the space or your own language?

Both. These two dimensions co-exist and are interconnected. My language allows me to interpret the space; the space forces my language to adapt. The viewer will see my work but they’re also seeing my perspective of the space.

Are you seeking to clarify or confuse the understanding or experience of a given space?

I seek to clarify it for myself. But, I don’t think that necessarily clarifies it for the viewer, because I’m bringing all of these different spaces into the gallery. This changes the visitors’ understanding of the space, and how they move through it.

You trained as a cellist. Do you see your sculpture in musical terms?

Some people read my work in compositional terms, seeing rhythm, structure etc. Some literally see music notation, with linear forms as staves, and the objects as notes. I agree, to a certain extent, but my interest in music is more closely linked to how string instruments are played physically, and the relationship between performer and composer. These ideas are central in terms of how I relate to form, space and audience.

I have played Cello since I was seven. I often return to the advice of one of my tutors who distinguished between two types of strength that determine how an instrument can be played, what sounds it will make. There is a forced, physical strength which creates a shallow, rigid sound. But playing in a relaxed state creates a richer sound. It’s an arbitrary logic where physical strength doesn’t translate to the strength of the sound. When the strength is forced, the body reacts immediately—the playing becomes extremely laborious, stressful and you can even get sick. However, when you discover how to use this real strength, performance becomes easy and delightful. You don’t really feel tired after hours of playing.

But just being relaxed doesn’t necessary provide that real strength. It’s about the sensibility of articulating and activating the instrument. There is a difference between creating a sound, and activating the instrument. It’s easy to assume that you’re creating the sound, but actually it’s the instrument that creates the sound, and the performer activates the instrument. With that understanding, you’re able to let go of those forced strengths.

This logic also applies to the relationship between composer and performer. The music and the emotion is already present in the score, the performer activates it. It’s tempting for the performer to break that boundary and step into the role of the creator. But there is a great sense of freedom that can come with working within set boundaries and relationships.

My linear forms may look like a visualisation of musical notes, but the core drive comes from the willingness to articulate the space, like a performer would a piece of music. But what’s liberating being a sculptor rather than a cellist is the ability to step outside of the abstract and work with the real world.

You’ve ‘played’ your own work—musician meets sculpture.

Twice. The first was at New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in 2011, when I had a project in the Open Window series. I composed a short piece of music in response to my work, and played it on the cello on the street outside, as part of a closing event. During the performance, the Clock Tower rang unexpectedly and I responded. I went from a planned solo to an unexpected trio with the Clock Tower and the traffic sounds. The performance wasn’t resolved, but it was a significant moment for me in terms of gaining confidence in embracing my musical background as part of my sculptural practice.

The second time was a duet with Felix O’Connell, for a project I did at the Mezzanine space at Artspace, in Auckland, in 2012. We played installed steel rods with a cello bow, turning the rods into strings, and the enclosed space into the body of the cello. The vibration created a tremendous sound. The building trembled. It spoke back to me. That was the real site-specific work.

I oscillate between thinking you work is friendly (welcoming) or aggressive (a human trap). You conflate the handrails use (designed to help) with fences and barriers (designed to halt and impede). How do you want people to relate to your works?

I’m interested in that duality. In Transit blurs the boundaries between different spaces and reflects our desire to overcome the limitation of our body, space, and time. Developments in transport and technology reflect our struggle to overcome these universal limitations. These developments have enhanced our lives, but there is a darker side to them. It’s really impossible to separate these two aspects. Also, as the viewer moves around the space, the work will constantly transform from referring to things in the world to being abstract. I want the viewer to experience this flux.

LOOP curator Jungah Lee relates the hybrid language of In Transit to your ‘ambiguous identity as an immigrant, one who is always departing but yearns to return, and returns to have to leave again’. Should we read your work on biographical terms?

I’ve lived in South Korea and New Zealand and the experience of such contrasting countries—one vastly overpopulated, the other equally under populated—has stimulated my interest in the body’s relationship with space. I began In Transit on a residency in Korea, determined to articulate my experience as an immigrant, but in the end the work felt more universal.

 My first drawings included Seoul subway-stations signs. The subway stations in Seoul all look the same, and, when you’re on the train, you don’t have a sense of moving. I was interested in that surreal experience of being transported across space and time. I constantly encounter my language in the outside world: in buses, in airports, in cafes, in public toilets, in elevators, on the streets. Stainless-steel tubes are universal and ubiquitous. I view these encounters as a confirmation.

How would you characterise the specific nature of City Gallery’s spaces, and what they offered or demanded of your process?

I immediately identified the columns that run through the central gallery as the dominant feature. They are dominant but also often hidden. Temporary walls are often built around them to assist exhibition making. Another distinctive characteristic is the partially revealed pipes and ducts, normally hidden behind walls and ceilings. There is a rawness and a complexity to the space, largely due to its historical function as a Library. It almost feels as if a white cube has been dropped into the space. At first glance, these complex features seemed like obstacles, and were tempting to avoid. But, as I kept contemplating their potential, they became central.

So what is at stake in the City Gallery iteration of In Transit?

The City Gallery and AGNSW projects were almost concurrent, and the spaces share architectural features. It made sense to consider them together or linked.

The AGNSW gallery has four columns in the middle of the space, with a thirty metre-long wall, and an open gridded ceiling which hides a cavity holding the ventilation system. In response, I had some objects popping up above the ceiling, and a dense form colonising the columns, which created a hub which visitors can access and interact with certain elements. In contrast to this density, I had a singular line or two running behind the long wall, allowing the dense area to be registered against a blank background. 

This approach was elaborated at City Gallery, where I also played with the existing columns and the partly revealed piping and ventilation system. Unlike AGNSW’s columns, which are organised in a rectangular format (suggesting a room), the CGW columns are in a line. This allows my work to be more like a wall, albeit a see-through one—and one that can be passed through. My pipes articulate the flow of the columns and mimic the traces of piping. Some objects emerge from behind the walls, prompting curiosity as to what is behind them. Most importantly, I removed all the temporary walls, revealing all the windows to let the natural light into the space.

But, while this intervention within the space reads as a generous, liberating gesture, the work also seems to have a nasty side—more so than the cleaner AGNSW one. The structure feels like its monstrously replicating and spreading– like a virus or a cancer, perhaps more dysfunctional than functional. Does this come from a specific reading of the space?

The cancerous, viral quality has been present in all the iterations, but, I agree, it is more pronounced here. The colonising of both the space and the experience of the viewer is more overt. The work has to offer just enough familiarity to invite or lure the viewer closer, but—at the same time—it needs to be unfamiliar and dysfunctional enough to challenge expectations and make them think and act differently. This iteration plays more on the relationship between the functional and dysfunctional. People seem to respond to one element or the other.

This logic applies to the selection and use of objects (some invite interaction, others deny it by being hung out of reach or upside down). It also applies to the choice of materials. The pipes and fittings already exist in the space, allowing the work to potentially be seamlessly integrated into the architecture. But it needs to do more than just mimic what is there, so I let it spread and replicate, creating tumours or glitches that rebel against the existing order and the experience it sets up. I don’t want the work to completely resist the architecture or the viewer, but I don’t want to make it too comfortable for them either. This is the core tension the work needs to maintain.

You remove the walls and reveal the windows the let the light and the world flood into the gallery, but the work also makes it’s way to the exit, as if it’s desperate to escape back to the world. What’s the relationship between your work, the gallery and the outside world?

It’s important to leave breathing space around the work, the gallery and the outside world. This amplifies the work’s physical and the psychological aspects. I see it as being like a bridge or a tunnel that connects different spaces. Gallery architecture and protocols such as white walls, barriers, and signage can get in the way of this understanding—so I need them to disappear—or be integrated into the larger whole. The work is born of the outside world, so when a viewer walks into the gallery, they shouldn’t feel isolated or disconnected. The same goes for when they step back into that world. I want the work to extend with them and embed itself within the ways they navigate that world and the perspectives they bring to it.