States of Entanglement in the Artwork of Yona Lee
Yona Lee: In Transit (Arrival)
Published by Te Tuhi, Auckland
Over the last five years, Auckland-based artist Yona Lee has become recognised for creating elaborate, linear steel structures that are meticulously folded, bent or welded to respond to different spaces. These site-specific installations have increasingly incorporated everyday objects within them, as if the flotsam and jetsam of discarded consumer products have become tangled in a metallic fishnet. Lee’s solo exhibition In Transit at Alternative Space LOOP in Seoul and the similar exhibition In Transit (Arrival) at Te Tuhi art gallery in Auckland will be her largest and most ambitious installations to date.
As I am writing this text, Lee is in the middle of planning both works and she has shared with me a selection of 3D computer-generated drawings that depict steel pipes jutting out from walls, ceilings and traversing stairwells. The plans also illustrate coat hangers, train handles, street signs, umbrellas, lamps and many other objects which are draped, hung or fastened to the pipes within this intricate steel matrix. These two multifarious installations reflect an intriguing aspect of Lee’s practice in which she seeks out states of entanglement that constitute the freedom and control of materials, objects, networks and the movement of bodies within modernity.
In quantum physics, the term ‘entanglement’ is used to describe how particles share a connection with each other. According to the theory of entangled states, if you take two particles derived from the same source and change the state of one particle, the other will mirror that change by communicating at a rate many times faster than the speed of light. This phenomenon apparently occurs despite the fact the particles may be located at opposite ends of the universe. It is no surprise that experimental physicists and computer engineers have been attempting to harness this instantaneous speed to build quantum computers. The most futuristic possibility of this quantum technology would be teleportation – a potential that for now resides in the fantasy of science fiction.
The desire to gain mastery over space and time has been at the heart of modernity since the industrial revolution and is the reason that our civilisation is now reliant upon vast global infrastructures. Lee’s complex entangled structures allude to this human desire to overcome our body’s space-time limitations through technology. In particular, she directly references the technological innovation of rapid transit systems and how urban and international transportation is an integral part of how we are all connected and interdependent on each other. For instance, the trails of steel tube that Lee plans to traverse the interiors of LOOP and Te Tuhi are not unlike the trajectories of railway lines that were built to span the great continents of America, Africa, Asia and Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
These vast train networks were greatly influential in collapsing distance through speed, so much so that it was this innovation that led Albert Einstein to ponder the properties of space-time which in turn led him to his theory of relativity in 1905. But this technological innovation also has a dark side. In the British colonies, the railway and road networks were used as a tool for invasion and colonisation. In the United States, the hands of African slaves built many of the train lines. For the Thai–Burma train line it was the Allied prisoners of war, who were forced to work or be tortured by their Japanese captors during the Second World War. And it was by train that the Nazis transported Jews en masse to concentration camps. In this sense, the linear tracks of steel tube that Lee weaves and threads through space are not only a reference to a human desire to overcome the limitations of space and time, but are also indicative of the control of bodies, their mobility and labour.
The particular stainless-steel tubes that Lee uses are a universal system found in trains, buses, airports and all sorts of other public spaces around the world. This is the railing that fences off sections of Seoul Metro stations, the tubing that rotates in the turnstiles as you enter the New York subway, the pole that you grasp as the Tube hurtles beneath London, or the bars that hold your bag in place on the Shinkansen as you depart Tokyo. The ingenious, simple design of this system makes it easy to install and easily adapted for purpose, and is the means through which bodies can be corralled in efficient uniformity.
As I imagine walking through Lee’s LOOP and Te Tuhi installations, it occurs to me that these structures are as much scaffolds which enable living as they are cages that control life. In this sense, the development of such universal systems, no matter how pedestrian, is a key aspect behind the efficiencies of global capitalism that allow us all to be connected and also behind the same efficiencies that enable such economic structures to dictate how we relate to each other. For instance, it is this logic of standardisation that lets South Korean mass-produced products populate every household in New Zealand and likewise New Zealand dairy products be stocked on the shelves of South Korean supermarkets. Through this framework that orders our movement, our economies and our daily lives, we have become materially and socially enmeshed even though cities like Auckland and Seoul are separated by a distance of over 9,000 kilometres.
This logic also enables us to communicate globally through tangled virtual social networks made possible with international arteries of fibre-optic cables and satellite connections. Lee’s labyrinthine constructions, littered with everyday consumables, echo this physical and virtual digital infrastructure. By suspending these objects in space, Lee liberates them from the everyday. Like clear-cut images of online catalogues or tiled snapshots posted on Instagram, they become cut and pasted representations of objects that we depend on and items that we probably do not need but fill our lives with regardless.
Lee’s inclusion of assorted quotidian objects in her steel structures first started with Tangential Structures (2013) at Enjoy Gallery in Wellington and then with a similar installation, Specific Objects (2014), at Blue Oyster Art Project Space in Dunedin. In these installations coils of steel rod – as opposed to the straight lengths of tube planned for LOOP and Te Tuhi – were rolled and unravelled throughout the gallery spaces. Within these curvilinear forms, Lee arranged a mad hoard of objects that were either displayed with intention or strewn with abandon.
In an accompanying essay for Tangential Structures, Julia Lomas deciphers this chaos as meddling with a sense of ‘deep communication’ – a term used to describe ‘the way a space can implicitly communicate a set of agendas, goals, feelings or states . . . and affirming ideologies’. In this sense, Lee’s latest works at LOOP and Te Tuhi riff off these previous works by exploring how complex abstractions of human making come to shape our lives without us always being cognisant of their influence.
This aspect of Lee’s practice also draws on a legacy of contemporary art that melds complex abstraction or elaborate installations using readymade objects as an opportunity to explore the dominance of economic, political or technological orders. For example, Lee’s work shares a likeness to that of artists such as sculptor Sarah Sze who is well known for sprawling installations made entirely out of mass-produced objects. Similarities could also be found to the laboriously layered paintings of Julie Mehretu whose work collapses many references, from architecture to diagrammatic mappings of networks.
Closer to home, Lee’s work can be connected with the work of New Zealand artists like the abstract painters Simon Morris and Jeena Shin, whose process-based geometric drawings journey adaptively across gallery walls to interrogate time, space and architecture. Of a more sculptural vein is the work of Peter Robinson, who throughout his practice has used formalist and site-responsive strategies as an abstract vehicle for linking conceptual threads of colonial politics, Māori philosophy, binary code, quantum physics and existentialism. One could also point out the resemblance of Lee’s work to that of Simon Denny, who has made comparable scaffold-like structures, adorned with content referencing our digital age and the politics of controlling that interconnectivity.
While Lee’s individual works are certainly in conversation with the work of such artists, her practice is also significantly different. One aspect that sets her practice apart is her experimentation with forms of classical music and improvised sound. For as well as being an artist, Lee is also a classical cellist and over the past few years has investigated combining her artistic practice with her knowledge and skills in classical composition.
She started testing this connection in Constrained Organism (2011) at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth by playing the cello in performance in front of her work. With Composition (2012) at Te Tuhi, she developed this interest further by considering the formal properties of her sculptural forms as interpretations of music unfolding spatially. In this instance, music was translated within steel fixtures and bent rod that were organised as if notes and scales had expanded to occupy space.
After this work, Lee realised there is also another approach to sound making that is bound by a different type of logic – an intuitive one that is felt through a sonic, haptic and social improvisation of sound waves resonating through material, space and bodies. This aspect was explored in Line Works (2012), installed in the attic at Artspace in Auckland. In this work, Lee collaborated with experimental musician and sound artist James McCarthy to play her sprung, rolled and zigzagged COR-TEN steel structure as if it were an instrument. During the performance, Lee and McCarthy drew their cello bows against the steel, making it drone and purr. By the time the horsehair of their bows was rendered ravelled and limp, it felt as though low-frequency sound waves were humming not just from the steel forms but permeating the bodies of the audience and making the entire attic resonate. It was as if the material properties of the building were made organic again – no longer belonging to the human world but iron, wood and concrete returning to the entropic and emergent universe from which they came.
Indeed, the materials of our built environment contain a threshold of resonance. It is humans that create dissonance. It is humans who take formal properties of the world and then weaponise them to cause trauma or, conversely, harness them to create ease of movement. While those who now regret the conditions of our urban habitat have good cause to do so, Lee reminds us that we have become bound to it. She reminds us that we have become entangled in the forms of transportation that mobilise us, in the networks we communicate through and in the materiality of things we surround ourselves with.
Sitting at my laptop I meditate on this thought a moment and then I study Lee’s plans again with new eyes. I imagine walking along, over and under the network of pipes, which guide my body and eyes to various points – perhaps up and down the stairs at LOOP or through the lobby and corridors of Te Tuhi. The objects I encounter along the way trigger thoughts associated with different spaces: a metro station sign in Seoul, a street market tarp in Taipei, a public toilet in Heathrow Airport, a futon bed in a Sapporo hotel and a luggage rack in an Auckland bus – all collided into one great space-time entanglement making up the complex resonance and dissonance of human civilisation.
 Julia Lomas, ‘Reading Sordid Space: Modern Convenience Stores and Tangential Structures’, Tangential Structures (Exhibition Essay): http://enjoy.org.nz/publishing/exhibition-essays/steel-life/reading-sordid-space-modern-convenience-stores-and (accessed 18 September 2016).