To experience Yona Lee’s work is to embark on a journey both foreign and familiar. Since her acclaimed solo exhibition In Transit at Auckland’s Te Tuhi in 2017, Lee has continued to experiment with her recognisable tubular steel structures that engorge gallery spaces with barriers, utilities and oddities found in bustling metropolitan spaces. Across commissions at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, City Gallery Wellington and Dunedin Public Art Gallery, audiences have woven through her entangled steel webs, catching glimpses of functional showers, unmade beds and abandoned brooms.
These place markers point to the forgotten walkways, abandoned edges and derelict non-places where we may find these objects: disposed of in a trash can, hanging off a balcony, or waiting between the gaps of two buildings. As one meanders through the work’s path, relationships begin to form between the objects, bundling together loose ends and allowing us to make sense of them.
Lee’s work has been curated into prestigious biennales including the 15th Lyon Biennale of Contemporary Art, where she created a tubular environment eight meters high on a supporting beam of a former washing machine factory. Her most recent presentation saw her return to her native Korea, where she presented En Route Home (2020) at the Busan Biennale. Conceived and made during covid-19, Lee pivoted these functional tubular steel hubs to consider the changing experiences of public space during the pandemic. Square steel pipes separate and restrict audiences instead of bringing them together as in previous iterations. To reflect indoor confinement, the structure was punctuated with domestic items, rather than objects found in public spaces.
With 2021 plans involving (pandemic pending) a solo presentation at Art Basel Hong Kong Discoveries with her representing gallery Fine Arts, Sydney, and a residency at the Cité Internationale de arts in Paris, Lee is a formidable mind, fused with an indefatigable work ethic. She has used this moment of pause to regenerate her practice by exploring the virtual, using digital programs to intervene in virtual spaces as she does in physical space. It is this tenacity, along with her interest in the universally important topics of transit, physicality, architecture, and space in our networked age, that makes her the ultimate cool hunter.
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 95, JAN – MAR 2021.