Final Boarding Call: Yona Lee: In Transit

The Spinoff, March 21, 2019

On a Sunday afternoon I opened my laptop and sat in In Transit, the most ambitious and nimble exhibition on in the country right now. If the Doozers from Fraggle Rock got unlimited access to stainless steel pipes and a really good welder they might have made the current installation at City Gallery Wellington. Two men and one woman walked the wrong way through the turnstile –huh?– turned single file, and made it to the other side of the gallery. Taken aback, they looked up at the maze of stainless steel pipes surrounding the four central pillars of the space, and re-examined their paper fold out as though it was a tube map (it isn’t).

In Transit is built out of pipe dreams. Auckland-based New Zealand-Korean artist Yona Lee has created a scaffolding of pipes and fittings that zig-zag around the pillars of the gallery and out into its liminal spaces, as though responding to an algorithm that might – if you had all the data – make sense.

An upside-down letterbox protrudes from the ceiling – you’ve not got mail. A lantern sits atop the neck of the far left wall, illuminating nothing. Nearby one red bus button is on a pipe that runs vertically up-up-up, while at the far end of the gallery a stranded bus seat faces the window. And back at the start of the sculpture, a line of six handrails hang on high, way out of reach.

The instructions on the wall read:

  • Walk through the sculpture
  • Press the bus stop button
  • Use the tables and chairs
  • Do not climb the structure
  • Children who wish to use the top bunk must be supervised by an adult.

There’s a bunk bed? Yes, but hold that thought.

In Transit started in 2016 on a residency in Korea when Lee asked herself: what’s the difference between living in Auckland and Seoul? The Metro: the turnstile into the subway station, the barriers, the pole on the train, the handrails, just hold on… so far In Transit has travelled to SeMA Nanji and Alternative Space Loop (both in Seoul, 2016), Auckland’s Te Tuhi Gallery (2017), and Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (2018). It’s a project designed to shape-shift.

At each venue Lee recalibrates her sculpture to respond to the new architecture, warping its logic. City Gallery Wellington is the fifth version of this project and Lee, who originally trained as a cellist, refers to it as a ‘sonata.’

However, the three parts of this exhibition at City Gallery Wellington aren’t always easy to ‘play’. Sometimes Lee’s sculpture is too subtle, sometimes too revealing. For instance, Lee’s pipes follow the exposed tubes in the ceiling out into the foyer, where four circular tables, and chairs, are connected to more minimalist piping.

Lee has amplified the innate loneliness of this foyer empty as a food court after hours. It’s spare and elegant but without bums on those seats, is there audience interaction? If not, is that a problem?

In Transit is at its best when trading in everyday surrealism. Look up: in the middle of the ceiling cavity, attached to a beam, is a dark blue umbrella, extended as though waiting for rain – a lovely moment of Mary Poppins serendipity. A coat hanger hangs off another ceiling pipe like a clue waiting to be found. Another pipe ends in an industrial blue mop: visually it pops. Across venues, the mop is one of Lee’s recurring motifs.

According to Art News New Zealand, “Yona Lee’s work is an invitation to look further into the objects and spaces surrounding us…two of the most common activities of our time – transit and consumption.”

Hence the mop? An ode to the emotional labour of the cleaner, out of sight and mind? Or is the mop just delightfully catchy like the Muppets song riff: mah na mah na. You can go light or deep with In Transit. That’s the point. In Transit plays on expectations of public space and how we perform in it.

Lee, like so many contemporary artists (and cattle-class flyers), burns the fossil fuels at both ends, travelling between one residency and the next, one country and the next. At an airport, we’re controlled not only by customs but by the barriers and even the furnishings. We know where to get up and go, where to sit down and eat. Or just wait.

But what about at a gallery? Is art just a stop to arrive at? Maybe. Yet Lee separates cause and effect. Apparently, the question most visitors ask in galleries is: do you have a phone charger? But no one used the two phone chargers Lee had added to her installation on the afternoon I visited the exhibition. But visitor engagement – that buzzword that won’t buzz out of the public gallery sector– was high on the agenda.

At 1.27pm a little girl skipped in and un-velcroed her sneakers followed by her mum pushing a baby in a buggy. The girl climbed the bunk. “Mum, look how high I am!” Above the bunk, a pale turquoise shower curtain hung in space, as though also saying, “Look how high I am!”

The girl then rushed over to try and push the bus button.

“Reach, reach, reach!” her mother called. “Honk!” Next, the child took the bus seat, but couldn’t sit still, so back to the bunk.

A woman in her 20s, bum bag slung over shoulder, ambled in and pressed the bus button too. She and her friend shrugged, then sat in the bus seat. Lee has exposed the gallery windows that are usually covered, light floods the space.

Another beautiful young woman twisted the circular makeup mirror in the sculpture and repositioned her hair. Two boys climbed through the structure as though on a jungle gym, then sat on their bums and span circles on the floor. The wide-open space made the boys giddy. Kids love In Transit; they are still learning the rules of engagement.

“Honk!” the bus button. Again.

The baby in the buggy woke up and made a preverbal sound cute as fuck.

A guy with a canon camera was stumped by the turnstile, while another gentleman strolled along, swinging his bright red umbrella. He posed for his partner so that the raggedy mop in the installation crowned his bald head for a moment; she took a photograph. Snap.

We’re all here In Transit. What are you going to make of it? This is your final boarding call.

Image credits: Shaun Waugh, installation at City Gallery Wellington, 2019.